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New Choreographic Voices

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Atlanta Ballet’s New Choreographic Voices brings three works by emerging choreographers to the Woodruff Arts Center’s Alliance Stage.  The final Atlanta Ballet concert of the season offers something for every dance lover. The technical aspects of the concert are beautifully executed, from the pre-performance curtain design, to the lighting, to the lovely and effective costumes.

Rush, by Christopher Wheeldon, is a 2008 piece that makes its Atlanta debut this weekend, and will be a favorite of traditionalists.  The piece begins with five couples silhouetted against the backdrop.  From there, it is 0 to 60 as the dancers explode into movement. Rush is grounded in classical ballet with contemporary overlays. Don’t expect radical new shapes or designs here.  What you will see are fast level changes that are unusual in the classical ballet repertoire, extremely elegant upper bodies with beautifully elongated arms, precision ensemble work, and a lovely adagio movement with unexpected lifts and interesting angles.  Excellent technique, in-depth understanding of the rhythms of Martinu’s music, and physical strength and endurance are required of every dancer cast in this piece; it has the largest cast of any on the program, including apprentices as well as full company members. There is a moment, during a roll on the floor, when Christine Winkler places her hand behind her with a gesture so exquisite that it tugs at your heart. The blackouts are so dark that dancers disappear into them, making the next glimpse of movement truly new. Wheeldon pushes the choreographic and technique envelopes, but does not require the dancers to step outside of them.  My impression is that it is a really fun piece for the dancers, and they convey their enthusiasm to the audience with their bodies as well as their faces.


Pavo, created by Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee, assisted by Jesse Tyler, is her third piece for the Atlanta Ballet, a world premiere, and ventures closest to modern dance.  Like Alwin Nikolais, she has orchestrated every aspect of the work to successfully interact, from her choice of the music of local composer Nickitas Demos, commissioned for this piece, to the costumes and special effects. In her Pointe of View talk, Lee discussed her inspiration for the ballet: an exploration of cycles, and ultimately breaking out of a cycle.  Her central image for the choreography is the peacock, which represents a link to the divine in Eastern cultures.  Lee does make the dancers step out of the envelope of dance as we have previously seen it, and they do so without struggling with the movement she has created for them.  John Welker and Heath Gill, in particular, revel in the challenge, Welker embracing the complex isolations Lee has designed, and Gill launching himself into turns with unusual endings.  Dancing entirely in flat shoes, the dancers fly across the floor smoothly and seemingly effortlessly.  Lighting in circles or square columns of gray, black, and white divide the stage and allow Lee to work in a more intimate space without limiting her ability to expand into the whole stage.  There is fog, and the dancers sometimes disappear into it. The costumes, spare and flesh-toned, expose the lines of the bodies and serve as a canvas. The women are painted in peacock-colored designs, which sometimes blur and transfer color onto the skin of the men as the piece progresses, symbolizing change.  After you see Pavo, please answer this multiple-choice question:

Pavo demonstrates the change and growth that happens:

1. To a choreographer making a dance
2. To the dancers performing the dance
3. To the audience that has seen the dance
4. When experimenting with new movement
5. When working as a performing team
6. All of the above

(Hint:  I believe that the answer is “all of the above.”  I think you will agree with me.)

The final piece on the program is Prayer of Touch, by Helen Pickett, who brought Petal to last year’s season.  Prayer of Touch is one of the most exciting new ballet works I have seen lately, and should appeal to anyone who likes to watch dance. Pickett’s choreography is expertly crafted, clever, smart, whimsical, witty, daring, and humorous.  A very traditional stage draped in fabric and adorned with some square white chairs and her choice of music by romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn belies the contemporary creativity of this work.  Jared Tan stood out for the sheer physicality of his performance, but Pickett designed movement that highlighted the strengths of every one of the nine dancers, and they all owned every bit of that movement. The piece begins with “the boys against the girls” in a spatial structure reminiscent of middle-school dances, but then the similarity ends as one girl crosses over into the boys’ territory.  The touch is expressed in multiple ways:  one body part touching another, one dancer touching another, a dancer contacting one of the chairs; there is reaction and there is resistance.  The dancers are technically precise and, more importantly, dance with the most confidence I have seen from them this season.  If you come to the Alliance to see anything this year, come for this piece.

I commend Atlanta Ballet Director John McFall on his choices for this performance, and for his decision to make it the final concert of the season.  I hope to see more performances with the appeal of this one. I love it when a concert leaves me wanting more.  I love it even more when it is a concert by our home team.

This concert is presented this weekend only.  You’re on your computer or mobile device now.  I suggest you reserve your tickets before word gets out and they are all gone.

 

Photos by Charlie McCullers

Dance

“20/20:Visionary”: Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Last weekend (March 18-20) the Atlanta Ballet gifted the city with “20/20: Visionary,” three pieces, including a world premiere, presented at the Cobb Energy Center.

The world premiere, “Playground,” by British choreographer Douglas Lee, belied its name by being a shadowy piece danced between upright, rolling chalkboard set pieces. Prepared for a lighthearted, joyful expression of childhood, I was surprised that the work instead exposed the darker side of childhood memories. There were some light moments, such as the towering billboard inscribed with multiple lines reading, “Jackie must remember the steps” – clearly a humorous aside about Jackie Nash, one of the most capable company members and perhaps the quickest study in rehearsal. There were some easily-seen choreographic devices–a lot of theme and variation, even more pushing around of set pieces–but there were a few exceptional moments as well, including intricate, slow-motion manipulation of a dancer’s body by another dancer.

Pen-Yu Chen & Tara Lee in “Boiling Point.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The opening work, “Boiling Point,” by Darrell Grand Moultrie, was playfully performed at breakneck speed. Dancers are often told to “make it look easy,” and the company took that concept to heart. Highlighted against the men in black costumes, the women wore bits of metallic fabric, providing splashes of intense color and exposing powerful bodies with long muscles. The piece began with the stage space open almost to its fullest, and the dancers running across like a rushing river. They rolled, twisted, turned, and slid like water itself. The choreography juxtaposed synchronicity with counterpoint, traditional with innovation. There was a gargouillade, rarely seen even in classical ballets. The lines of the bodies were critical to the piece, and often layers deep. The flow was almost nonstop, with only an occasional flick of a wrist or toss of a head to provide momentary stasis. The standout was Christian Clark, who sometimes nearly managed to integrate himself into the group but then something distinctive and powerful in his dancing drew the eye to him again.

“Red Clay” from “Home in 7.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

“Home in 7,” a work by Amy Siewert, closed the concert. A portrait of Atlanta, the ballet was a rich tapestry woven from music, spoken word, and movement. Performed in 7 segments to a libretto written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and an intriguing, haunting string score composed and performed by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the dance, too, was a poem, shimmering like summer moonlight on the Chattahoochee. John Welker opened the ballet with tiny explosions of movement “Secrets.” Perhaps the most enchanting segment was “Home of the Braves:” 5 men using baseball imagery, holding their formation as they slid precisely between pitches and catches. “Red Clay” evoked August nights, intolerance, and redemption—Atlanta history, a story familiar to many. I first saw this ballet in 2011, and it has grown in depth as the dancers have matured technically and emotionally. Atlanta loves its ballet company, and never more than when it showcases its home city.

John McFall is ending his tenure with the company at the end of this season. For newcomers to Atlanta Ballet offerings, this will have been a dynamic performance. For long-time supporters, it will have been an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. There are a couple more opportunities to see the company under his watch, and then he will pass the torch to Gennadi Nedvigin, the company’s fourth artistic director. Stay tuned!

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Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Enchants

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© Laura Christian

This year, the Atlanta Ballet marks the 20th anniversary of Artistic Director John McFall’s “The Nutcracker.” Attendance is a familiar holiday season tradition for many area families, who line up to see the changes and improvements that occur each year. While the story of the young girl who receives a Nutcracker-who-comes-to-life is familiar to thousands of ballet fans, there are many versions. The Atlanta Ballet’s production is richly designed and elegantly danced.

Originally a failure in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, “The Nutcracker” is now a holiday staple in the United States. Nobody dances it any better than the Atlanta Ballet, and nobody loves it more than a matinee house full of children! Whether they are watching their peers on-stage; hearing the Georgia Youth Choir singing in the Snow scene from the boxes; absorbing the live music from the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra in the pit; laughing with joy at Mother Matrushka’s children, emerging from under her skirts; screaming with glee at the capering Chinese Dragon; or reaching far above their heads to capture a snowflake, the children are enraptured for the two-plus hours the ballet is on the stage—and the adults are mesmerized right beside them.

Mother Matrushka in Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

There are some elements of this version of the ballet that are not my favorites, but the dancers didn’t make that list. Casting is impeccable, and, for me, part of the excitement of revisiting the old standby is seeing the dancers mature, improve, and demonstrate new abilities. The other part is watching the children captivated by the allure of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, the live music, the dancers, and the dancing—and being enthralled myself.

My list of this year’s positives goes like this:

John McFall has to contend with decreasing audience attention spans as we move further into the age of technology, and he tweaks Act I each year to make it more exciting. It is fast-paced. You may want to see the ballet more than once to catch everything! The foreshadowing during Act I was clear and well-conceived, and had the audience eagerly anticipating the return of the dancers to the stage after intermission.

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Kurtis Blow and the Hip Hop Nutcracker

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A holiday mash-up for the entire family, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a contemporary work set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless music, embarks on an international tour on the strength of last December’s sold-out performances of the world premiere at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA) in New York City. The Hip Hop Nutcracker will make a stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre Saturday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m.

 

The Hip Hop Nutcracker is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the all-female hip-hop crew Decadancetheatre in Brooklyn. It is adapted to today’s New York by Mike Fitelson, executive director of UPCA – the work’s original producer – and includes hip-hop interludes remixed and reimagined by DJ Boo and violinist Filip Pogády.

For its stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 28, The Hip Hop Nutcracker features special guest MC Kurtis Blow, one of the founders and creators of recorded rap music.

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