Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi. Nicole Jones in Thru. Photograph by Jonah Hooper

Wabi Sabi returned to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens Thursday, September 20, 2012, with a performance that sparkled choreographically and technically. Although four of the six pieces had been performed in their June or September, 2011, concerts, casting and location changes made it a completely new concert, even for those of us who attended previous performances.
I am a big fan of this 2-year-old wing of the Atlanta Ballet, which was created by Atlanta Ballet company dancer John Welker. Supported primarily by donations, Wabi Sabi has, nevertheless, managed to commission 14 new works by emerging choreographers plus a world premiere musical score, and present them in casual public venues that make the audience a part of the total arts experience.
The first piece on the program, Thru, was choreographed and performed in the Cascades Garden by Nicole Jones to a wonderfully evocative score by Arvo Pärt. If you are familiar with the Botanical Gardens, you know the Cascades Garden is dominated by a waterfall that splashes into a huge three-tiered basin. The piece began as Ms. Jones launched herself into the lowest basin and introduced her thematic movement underwater.

Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi. Nicole Jones in Thru. Photograph by Jonah Hooper.

This piece utilized all three tiers, the waterfall, and the basins. The choreography was angular and abstract, with sharp movement juxtaposed with flowing moments that mirrored the water itself. She accomplished lengthy balances with the water spilling beneath her. There were moments that evoked water creatures: long-legged water birds, playful otters, sleek seals and dolphins, and, whimsically, maybe a mermaid. The fountain was massive, but Ms. Jones was not intimidated and did not allow herself to become overwhelmed visually. She dominated the expanse completely. This was one of the most innovative, striking, and memorable pieces I have had the pleasure of seeing in a long time. The petite choreographer/performer is a Fellowship Dancer with the Atlanta Ballet Center for Dance Education. She is both a choreographer and performing artist to watch as she moves into her professional career.
Two pieces on the program were performed in the Day Hall. There was actually a dance floor laid, and seats, making this a more formal venue, but only just. The dancers were frequently inches away from the front row for an exhilarating, in-your-face dance experience. The reason for the floor was clear when Alessa Rogers and Pablo Sanchez took the stage in Holding Ground, with Ms. Rogers in pointe shoes. But the choreography, by Gretchen Alterowitz, was very contemporary, with lovely gestures that interpreted beautifully the musical score by Max Reger. Ms. Rogers’ developpés were particularly exquisitely presented, and she was capably partnered by company apprentice Pablo Sanchez, whose dancing was intense but executed with accuracy. The movement was never predictable; the turns were solid; the lifts were often unexpected. Both dancers performed with emotion as well as technique. This piece would have worked as well in the round as it did with the audience on one side.
The audience was treated to two outstanding pieces by company dancer Tara Lee. Akara, in the Day Hall, was first presented a year ago. It could have been called “6 Dancers and a Suitcase,” as the prop sometimes became a seventh performer. This piece was alternately intense and playful, and the dancers owned the choreography completely. Ms. Lee allowed each dancer’s personality to color the movement, giving the audience the sense that we were watching real lives through a window. The musicality of this piece and the carefully crafted lifts were noteworthy.

Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi. Christian Clark and Jesse Tyler in Akara, by Tara Lee. Photograph by Jonah Hooper.

Tara Lee’s second piece, Mind Myself, was presented on the Great Lawn. This was my favorite piece in June, in the Rose Garden, and it was a totally different piece in the larger space. It was easier to see the movement, the dancers were much less inhibited by their surroundings, and the mirror images between the dancers were highlighted. Heath Gill and Jesse Tyler seemed more comfortable this go-‘round and the humor in the piece was more apparent. Mr. Gill’s movement emphasized the shapes within the choreography, while Mr. Tyler flowed through them almost bonelessly. The two dancers often seemed poised on the brink of reality, and the audience waited for them to tumble in—or out!
Peng-Yu Chen’s Whispers was also reprised from June, this time on the Great Lawn. Jacob Bush has left the company, and his role was danced by John Welker. This change, coupled with the larger performing area, made the piece new again. Mr. Bush’s interpretation was powerful and stark, a contrast to the lyrical loveliness of Yoomi Kim’s execution. John Welker’s performance was more nuanced and gave Yoomi Kim subtle elements off of which to play, offering the audience more layers of the spatial and emotional relationships between the dancers. I enjoyed both versions, appreciating them for different reasons. An audience member asked me if I liked the piece, commenting that she didn’t know anything about dance. I told her I did, and her response is a perfect tribute to the work. She said, “I’m glad, because I thought it was beautiful.”

Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi. Lisa Barrieau and Brandon Nguyen in N. Griswold’s Two and a Half Songs. Photograph by Jonah Hooper.

The final presentation was Nathan Griswold’s Two and a Half Songs, to music by Andrew Bird. I was taken by the contrast of the formal waltz performed by two couples with two dancers waltzing alone, and by the real smiles on the faces of all the dancers. This beautifully-crafted piece was a fitting ending to the evening’s dance presentations: the dancers reveled in the movement, and the entire piece was an expression of joy.
If you haven’t seen a Wabi Sabi performance, watch for dates and put it on your calendar in bright ink so you won’t forget to attend. Performances are free and open to the public. And please remember that this little company may be attached to the Atlanta Ballet, but it survives on donations and it is making huge contributions to the North Georgia arts community. So donate if you can, or buy someone the gift of a Wabi Sabi t-shirt. But whatever you choose to do, make sure you see this company dance.