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West Side Story in Atlanta: An Interview with the Dance Captain

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West Side Story will be coming to the Cobb Energy Centre December 13-16. Although it is a reconstructed version of the musical theatre production that opened almost exactly 50 years ago in 1957, it has been updated a bit to feel more realistic to today’s audiences. West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in mid-twentieth century New York City. The book is by Arthur Laurents, the music is by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, the conception and choreography are by Jerome Robbins…the celebrity list goes on and on. Dance historians often comment that this musical heralded the acceptance of jazz dance as a distinct art form. It is important from many perspectives.

I spoke with Blue Cervini, co-dance captain for the show that will be in Atlanta in just over two weeks. She is an energetic, well-spoken young woman who plays Velma in the production. She grew up in a local dance studio in New Orleans, and told me she never expected to pursue musical theatre. But in one of those fairy-tale experiences every young dancer dreams about, she auditioned in New York City following a run of Cats on Long Island—and was cast! She commented that both shows are very dance-heavy, which makes them exciting for the dancers.

Depending on your age and dance experience, Jerome Robbins may be familiar to you as a prolific choreographer of over 60 ballets, a contributor to movie and television dance, a choreographer of more than 11 musicals—or you may find yourself surprised to discover some of the things he has done. He has won multiple Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, Donaldson Awards, and New York Drama Critics Circle awards.

This is Blue Cervini’s first experience dancing a Robbins work. I asked her how similar it is to the 1957 musical. “Very similar,” she answered. “Joey McKneely [the reconstruction choreographer] is just a vessel of Jerome Robbins.” (McKneely had his introduction to Robbins’ work in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.) “Even though he has set this work many times and all around the world, you see no complacency. Everything feels fresh and inspiring. This show is inspiring.” Ms. Cervini commented that the choreography is very technically-based, so ballet training is “very beneficial. As a dance captain, I feel very responsible for that. We have a ballet warm up or class every day. We really have to stay on top of our technique.”

I asked her what she liked best about working on this show. “I don’t know where to start!’ she answered. “It is the classic of all classic shows. There is intense energy; there’s ultimate love and intense hate. It’s just electric; you’re always on edge. We are so aware of how special this show is, and so honored to be a part of it. We’re just so lucky to be working with this music and choreography and this very special show. It’s an incredible experience.”

Ms. Cervini characterizes the show as a timeless story. “It’s relevant in every day and time. It’s been slightly revamped. There’s more Spanish included,” in this reconstruction, to make it more real.

“This is such brilliant work, so knowing that I must justify the work [is my greatest challenge.] It makes us all want to push ourselves to represent [the show] as it was meant to be.” Part of that includes “maintaining our bodies,” which can be a difficult task on the road.
“I really like to mix things up,” Blue Cervini commented when asked about the challenges in her dance career as a whole. “I didn’t have as much exposure as someone in a major metropolitan dance center. I had no real vision—I was pursuing a dance career without having a clear picture of where I was headed. Finding where I want to go—which should I pursue first? I love going into a new class where I don’t know anything about it. I like everything; I’m interested in contortion, too.”

“We are really excited to be in the South!” She was speaking to me from a hotel room in Florida. I asked her if there was anything she would like Atlanta to know before they come to the show. “It’s the ultimate love story, but there’s also comedy and action. It’s filled with energy. Not only for me, but for the whole cast: we feel it’s great to share this show with someone outside. It’s a gift to be able to share this great American classic.”

If you want to find out more about the production or the cast, browse the company’s website. First, though, I recommend you order your tickets. The musical is recommended for everyone ages 13 and over. Like Blue Cervini, herself, Atlanta grew up without being a major metropolitan dance center. When there is a classic in our town, we should take advantage of it. I’ll be there for opening night, watching to see how this vibrant personality shines from the stage, and how this reconstruction compares with other productions I have seen. I know I’ll see you there.

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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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