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Wabi Sabi: September Performance at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens

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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.

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“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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