Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi Blooms in the Botanical Garden

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Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper in Tara Lee's "En Route." Photograph by Bonnie Moret, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper in Tara Lee’s “En Route.” Photograph by Bonnie Moret, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

It was chilly for August, and the lilies and crape myrtles dipped their colorful heads in the breeze that floated in ahead of the night air. It was August 15, and Atlanta Ballet’s dancer-driven contemporary dance ensemble, Wabi Sabi, was back at the Atlanta Botanical Garden for an evening of seven world premieres. Staged throughout the garden at twilight, the works presented were created by three Atlanta Ballet performing artists and four guest choreographers. There were a number of Wabi Sabi regulars (okay, “fans”) in the audience, but there were also new faces encountering the company for the first time. The dancers mingled with the audience, chatting animatedly, answering questions, and talking about the Wabi Sabi experience. Retired Atlanta Ballet dancer turned videographer Brian Wallenberg acted as the Pied Piper: the audience followed him from one area of the Garden to the next in its quest for more dance. Many of the pieces began and ended in silence; the audience sometimes arrived after the dance had begun, lending a sense of unending movement to the event.

The dancers seemed to draw power and inspiration from Mother Earth in an arena that combined intimate connection to the performing environment with  immediate proximity to the audience. Wabi Sabi performances always seem to make the dancers more lighthearted than they are in a theatre, and their delight is infectious.

The evening opened with Atlanta Ballet dancer and Wabi-Sabi founder John Welker’s “…a little moved.” The solo, danced by Welker’s wife, Christine Winkler, was staged on a long runway under a canopy of towering crape myrtles. Observers fortunate enough to position themselves at the end of the brick walkway facing the Great Lawn saw the piece against the backdrop of a rotating mosaiculture fish fountain. I first encountered this dance piece at the High Museum, but it was difficult to see from my back-row vantage point. This time I made sure I had a front-row position. While many classical solo works range from two to four minutes in length, this is a long piece—about ten minutes in length. It showcased Winkler’s endurance and the ability of the artist to maintain an audience connection. A series of exquisite sculptures are connected by fluid transitions. There are subtle gestures of fingers, wrists and feet, and a wonderful, flowing, rising spiral.

“Dark Embers” was choreographed by Rachelle Scott, a student at the Juilliard School. Danced by Kelsey Ebersold and Kelly Prather in the Rose Garden, the piece included some envelope-pushing lifts between the dancers that are beyond those usually performed by two women. There were some well-performed synchronous moments, but others were less clear. The wet grass could have contributed to the slight fuzziness in the timing. The softness of the blossoms was a sharp contrast with the fiery intensity of the dance.

“Talk Yourself Down” was set against the boundary separating the Garden from Piedmont Park. The opening of the work utilized stone gateposts and iron fencing. Some of the most interesting moments in Wabi Sabi performances arise from unplanned moments, and throughout this piece there were cyclists, runners, and a young man running the stairs behind the dancers. “Talk Yourself Down”, by Gregory Dolbashian, founder of The DASH Ensemble and winner of several choreographic competitions, displayed serious clarity of movement, astonishing control, and beautiful shading, as Alexandre Barros and John Welker explored intricate interactions, including a fascinating, rotating horizontal lift. The powerful action grew out of silence and dissolved gently into the gathering dusk as the dancers exited from the grassy performing space up a shadowed walkway. Frequent Atlanta Ballet attendees are very familiar with Welker’s versatility, but Barros’s performance evidenced technical precision we have not previously seen from him.

Another solo work, “Rumination,” choreographed by Atlanta Ballet dancer Heath Gill and danced by Atlanta Ballet Apprentice Kelsey Ebersold, expressed a moment of reflection through rapid level changes, turns, and falls. Gill chose to express meditation, not through stillness, but with a high-energy current of synaptic electricity, framed with occasional intervals of tranquility, that kept the audience entranced.  Gill translated his distinctive performing style into choreography, and then inspired Ebersold to express that style using her own, distinctive voice.

Kelsey Ebersold in "Rumination."  Wabi Sabi at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Photograph by Bonnie Moret, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Kelsey Ebersold in “Rumination.” Wabi Sabi at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Photograph by Bonnie Moret, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The audience moved to the Great Lawn for “Intra Lobus Temporalis,” choreographed by the Joffrey Ballet’s Michael Smith, who also developed the soundscape for the piece based on the music and the concept used by the original composers, Animal Collective. There was a wealth of movement to watch in this work, including fascinating rhythms reminiscent of savannah animals leaping and loping across the landscape. The dancers fashioned small groups that merged, separated, and reformed. In a brief conversation, the choreographer said the choreography was inspired by two elements: the music and the role of the temporal lobe in hearing, vision, language comprehension, memory, and emotion. Michael Smith used humor and innovative movement that ensnared the audience. Brandon Nguyen anchored the piece, swinging between serious and humorous moments and giving a powerful and scintillating performance that stood out without overshadowing the superbly articulated dancing of the other cast members.

“En Route,” an endearingly lovely contemporary ballet by Atlanta Ballet artist Tara Lee, showcased Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper. Unlike many of Tara Lee’s works, this one  evidenced little of her usual complexity. A brief encounter–a love story– the ballet seamlessly interwove floral elements of the garden through dance, music, and visual art. The joy of the characters in the piece was palpable and the audience could practically feel the endorphins emanating from the couple as they intertwined in whirling lifts and lighthearted embraces. Tara Lee is quickly becoming a multi-dimensional choreographer.

The final piece on the evening’s program was “Sweet Sorrow,” by Arch Dance founder and artistic director Jennifer Archibald. Moving the audience to the far end of the Great Lawn, and coming back full circle to a space that once again used the backdrop of the fish mosaiculture fountain—now lighted—the dancers used two benches and a large tree that are part of the space, climbing on and launching off them. Hip hop and ballet influences,with intricate lifts (including one that required impeccable timing as Rachel Van Buskirk ran beneath a moving structure made by Jackie Nash with Alexandre Barros and Miguel Angel Montoya) were highlights of this work.

Wabi Sabi pairs emerging choreographers with quality professional dancers to create new works. An emblem of Wabi Sabi performances is the intense, uninhibited physicality of the pieces they present, with the whole being of each dancer choreographed into them. While the dancers shine, both individually and collectively, in their regular season performances, Wabi Sabi often brings out a new multi-dimensionality from the company members. This performance revealed new artistic strengths and technical expertise from Brandon Nguyen and Alexandre Barros, as well as new choreographic talent in Heath Gill. It is always exciting to discover new elements of Atlanta’s artists.

Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi will reprise the performance during Cocktails in the Garden at the Atlanta Botanical Garden Thursday, August 22, beginning at 6:30 pm. Last chance this season!

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