On one of the hottest, typically humid nights of our southern summer so far, the Atlanta Botanical Garden hosted Wabi Sabi during their Cocktails in the Garden event on Thursday, June 21, 2012. First off, let me say that this was a casual but sophisticated evening that presented the opportunity for a charming date night…or a delightful family outing. It is especially gratifying to attend an arts event that is hosted in a venue perfect for bringing the whole family and building our next generation of arts audiences.
For those of you unfamiliar with the company, Wabi Sabi is the brainchild of Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker. The name is taken from a Japanese worldview that seeks out simple natural beauty, accepting that it is transient. The performances are world premieres that allow new choreographers to set their work on professional dancers, expand the Ballet’s repertory, bring quality dance to new and existing audiences, and challenge the company dancers to move in new ways and perform in new spaces. Wabi Sabi offered visitors to the Botanical Garden six dances in different parts of the Garden, with the audience spaces becoming part of the inspiration and the choreographic plan for each piece.
One of the most exciting things about this casual performance atmosphere, aside from the opportunity to see new works, is the chance for the audience to get to know the dancers better. I found that my attention was drawn to dancers I might not have noticed as much in other venues, and I have some new favorites I will watch more closely in the future. In addition, the expertise of the dancers can be seen from new perspectives, not least of which is the ability to give an excellent performance on an uneven grassy surface without the “photoshopping” effect of stage lighting and distance: The audience was frequently only a few inches from the dancers.
The first piece, Jimmy Orrante’s Sing, Sing, Sing, was set to Benny Goodman’s classic jazz score by the same name. That made me nervous at first, because it is often difficult to overcome audience members’ preconceived ideas about familiar music, but I need not have worried. Orrante gave us a picture of the music by cleverly assigning different dancers to the melody and the harmony/bass lines. He also depicted the music by using the three men and three women dancers in different groupings, showing us the group as a whole, while also using the Big Band culture of contrasting the ensemble with solos and duets that felt like jazz improvisation. He did this without mirroring the musical composition, so the audience had to pay attention to both the music and the movement, separately and together. There were no surprises in this piece, and I felt the choreographer is still developing his voice, but it was a good start and I expect great things from him in the future. The work was well-rehearsed and beautifully performed, but the music and the space were large and the six dancers weren’t quite big enough to compete.
Phusis, by native Georgian and Atlanta Ballet dancer Jonah Hooper, offered some exceptionally nice moments in a piece that juxtaposed Latin dance rhythms, modern dance movement, and street dance. It was sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and very clever most of the time. In a traditional device, the piece began and ended with the dancers lying on the grass of the Great Lawn, although they began together and ended apart. You have to watch this piece closely, as the best moments only happen once and then they are gone; there are enough things happening that you can easily miss the most creative bits. The choreography utilized compelling, big arm movements supported from strong backs. I found my eye drawn to Heath Gill and Jared Tan in the May New Choreographic Voices concert, and they did not disappoint this time, either, giving dynamic and highly physical performances.
The audience moved to the Rose Garden for the next two pieces. It was rather crowded (large audience—good!), which made it difficult to see for those people not in front. I offer a thank-you to the generous, very tall gentleman who moved back to give me his spot in the second row.
Tara Lee’s Mind Myself was my favorite piece of the evening. Another Atlanta Ballet company member, Tara is fast becoming one of my favorite new choreographers. Her choice of music (The Pixies and Mendelssohn!) worked surprisingly well. Jesse Tyler and Heath Gill seemed to be having a great time, which almost made us forget to notice how technically demanding and cerebral this piece really was. The movement was often reminiscent of fight choreography, with some Keystone Cops thrown in, but the theme was serious and invited the audience to think and interpret personally what we saw. I was most intrigued by Tyler, dancing alone the movement he had previously performed with Gill, movement I had thought required a partner but was now presented without the partner’s presence. The only negative to the performance was sporadic malfunctioning of the sound system used to project the dancers’ voices, making the audience strain to hear them. This work required acting as well as dancing, and I felt it was the most successful of the six at using the non-traditional setting, with the audience surrounding the dancers to view the dance.
Whispers, by company member Peng-Yu Chen, used beautiful Rachmaninoff music in the most traditional and balletic of the evening’s presentations. Again, the audience encircled the dancers, presenting serious challenges to the two performers, who had to perform a pas de deux on grass while being viewed from all sides.
The piece was lovely, with a particularly exciting lift where Yoomi Kim was moving horizontally, parallel to the ground, and then suddenly Jacob Bush reversed her direction. I want to see that part again, please!
The last two pieces were presented back at the Great Lawn, but with the audience in a new configuration. Rachelle Scott’s Source was dark, intense, and athletic. The dancers wore earth tones, the light was fading, and the dancers seemed to blend into and emerge from the landscape. I liked the strength of the women’s movement, and there was a striking duet where Miguel Montoya did most of the partnering while kneeling with Yoomi Kim suspended or moving over his head. Scott is a new graduate of Juilliard, and I look forward to seeing much more of her work.
Two and a Half Songs, by Nathan Griswold, used a waltz rhythm, and we got glimpses of traditional, partnered ballroom dance from time to time. The piece was fluid and the choreography used the space extremely well, highlighting individuals within the ensemble. The most spectacular performance was by Jesse Tyler (who was clearly having a great night, with amazing aerial suspensions, especially considering the grass); I was also (again) impressed by Jared Tan, and by Rachel Van Buskirk.
While there was a lot of one dancer manipulating another, or using a hand to move another body part, across many of the pieces, I felt the choreographers were really trying to create something innovative to show us. I love seeing new work by emerging talent, but I love even more seeing good new work. While I had favorites out of the six pieces presented on this concert, they were all worthy of note. I hope Atlanta will watch for more Wabi Sabi performances, and will attend them in increasing numbers. It’s a win-win: the choreographers get better, the dancers get better, and the audiences get great dance. What’s more exciting than that?
All photos John E. Ramspott for Atlanta Ballet