Atlanta Ballet Season Finale – Love Stories

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Just in time for Mother’s Day, the Atlanta Ballet closed its 2012-2013 season with “Love Stories,” a mixed-repertory program of four works on the Cobb Energy Center stage that each addressed an aspect of love.  But be forewarned:  these were not all happily-ever-after romances.  Love can have tragic consequences.

Atlanta Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “requiem for a Rose.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Guest choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Requiem for a Rose” is set to what may be Schubert’s most romantic string adagio.  Ochoa has envisioned love as a flowing bouquet of twelve red roses. The movement of the bouquet was anchored by The Rose, portraying the beat of a heart, and beautifully danced by fellowship dancer and evening highlight Kelsey Ebersold.  While the dozen roses were traditional and elegant, The Rose was in-your-face and modern, with every body part (including her hair) choreographed with impeccable attention to detail—but without sacrificing one iota of the excitement and energy brought to the stage by this emerging young dancer.

Kelsey Ebersold in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Requiem for a Rose.” Photograph by Roy Howton.

The twelve roses –six men and six women clad in brilliant red skirts—were at their most stunning when they were shaping exquisitely carved sculptures using each dancer’s body as a part of the whole, defining both the negative and positive space in each configuration, or when they were whirling, giving the impression of unfurling rosebuds. A single, large set piece was flown in near the end, offering the most startling moment of the evening during the last movement of the ballet, symbolically ending the romance and separating the roses from the bouquet into individual, long-stemmed beauties.

Domenico Luciano and Dominic Walsh in Matthew Bourne’s White Swan Pas de Deux from “Swan Lake.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Domenico Luciano and Dominic Walsh in Matthew Bourne’s White Swan Pas de Deux from “Swan Lake.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Two guest artists from the Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre, Dominic Walsh and Domenico Luciano, performed the White Swan Pas de Deux from Matthew Bourne’s unconventional, Tony award-winning “Swan Lake.”  Hopefully, Atlanta is ready to accept a new and very unusual interpretation of the ballet, because the work is definitely a different exploration of the familiar story.  The Swan is the dominant figure in this pas de deux.  Luciano is not dancing the Swan; he has become the Swan, and his actions are eerily those of a forceful, predatory bird. Not only is he physically larger than the very human Prince, but he is also the driving force behind the action. Perhaps the Prince was tired of having to make decisions and wanted to be taken care of for a change, which could explain his attraction to the Swan, who is sometimes fiercely intimidating, and always in charge of the action.   See this work with an open mind and an adult perspective:  this is neither your nineteenth-century Petipa/Ivanov “Swan Lake,” nor is it your typical romance. The choreography is inventive and smart, the characters are compelling, and you may be contemplating myriad questions at the end.

Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper in Stanton Welch’s Wedding Night Pas de Deux from “Madame Butterfly.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Stanton Welch’s Wedding Night Pas de Deux from “Madame Butterfly” was the most traditional ballet of the night.  Based on the well-known story from Puccini’s opera and using an arrangement of the original music by John Lanchbery, the work opened unremarkably with some ballet pantomime and stage action. However, even this piece deviated from the classical genre into some unconventional lifts and mature gestures that helped the audience better understand the interactions between the shy, petite geisha, Cio Cio San, and her Lieutenant.  Jonah Hooper, as the Lieutenant, portrayed an indomitable military figure transfixed by the ethereal geisha, danced by the always-lovely Tara Lee.  There is an athletic element in this pas de deux that keeps the audience engaged even when the choreography turns predictable. Lee’s breathtaking extensions and the seemingly-effortless lifts by Hooper would have satisfied the most jaded member of the audience, but the dancers also created a sweet love story. Reminding us that this is, after all, Ballet, the two finished with a classical, before-the-curtain call.

Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper in Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper in Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The final work on the program was a reprise of Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch,” which the audience may remember from the 2012 season.  Pickett’s work is extremely complex; trying to describe it often requires a string of unrelated adjectives. Four couples and an extra man, danced by Jared Tan, comprised the cast of “Prayer of Touch”.  Helen Pickett likes to bring out the individual essences of her dancers, and she makes their personalities an integral part of the choreography.  In “Prayer of Touch” this sometimes develops into pleasing chaos, with the dancers pushing themselves so close to the dangerous edge of balances, as their relationships shift and reform, that the audience might be fearful for their safety–if it were not so clear that they are supremely comfortable, having mastered the challenging skills Pickett requires from them. “Prayer of Touch” is fun, sexy, humorous, and electrifying.  The shapes are unique and sometimes border on the unattractive, but they are so interesting they draw the watchers in, and the result is the kind of joy elicited by ride on a roller coaster or in a speeding race car.  The choreography is spectacularly swift and unexpected, but we are convinced these are completely natural movement sequences that we are just encountering for the first time. There is humor and there is romance, and, ultimately, there is the passion of Spring, youth, and first love.

Tara Lee, Nadia Mara, Jackie Nash, and Rachel Van Buskirk in Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch.” Photograph by Roy Howton.

The demands on ballet dancers and choreographers today are exponentially greater than they were even a dancer-generation ago.  It is exciting to watch the Atlanta Ballet artists embrace those challenges and emerge from the studio each year more confident and accomplished than they were the season before, evolving the capacity to undertake new and arduous roles by increasingly ingenious and exacting choreographers.   This may be the close of the current season, but the company’s 2013-2014 season has been announced. Mark your calendars!


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