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West Side Story at the Cobb Energy Center

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The front-of-house curtain at the Cobb Energy Center looks like an old, gray wall with graffiti scrawled across it: not the beautifully-done, colorful, artistic graffiti of today, but letters scratched in desperation in a part of New York City that is devoid of hope. The curtain rises, and 7 young men from the Jets gang are in our faces, dancing with barely-restrained power, hiding their anger and frustration with lives that stretch endlessly ahead of them in an unbroken vista of despair.

The Jets. West Side Story. Photograph courtesy of Troika Entertainment.

West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957. It was a modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the brainchild of some of the most stellar names in the arts: Leonard Berstein was the composer; Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics; Jerome Robbins choreographed and directed the production; Arthur Laurents wrote the book. The play addressed American issues that are still on the table today; it looked at immigration and prejudice in a time before the Civil Rights movement swept the country.
The presentation at the Cobb Energy Center updated the original show somewhat, while being true to the original conception, including Robbins’ choreography. There were some new costumes, new gestures,  more explicit language, and depictions of sex and violence, but all were kept within the boundaries of PG-13. There were young people in the row behind me who took it all in stride.
The dancing was filled with pyrotechnics. There were huge leaps, fabulous extensions, controlled balances, and intricate footwork performed at speed. There were style contrasts between the Puerto Rican youth and those who grew up in New York that reminded the audience of the differences between the two groups, but both were high-energy and meticulously reproduced from the original choreography by reconstruction choreographer, Joey McKneely.

Sharks. West Side Story. Photograph courtesy of Troika Entertainment.

The dance sometimes seemed a bit dated, especially the Rumble, which was a very formal, stylized dance/fight scene. The choreography was very well-done and well-danced, but no one watching in today’s era of realism on stage and screen would have believed the young men were really fighting. In my opinion, the most powerful dancer was Dan Higgins, as Diesel.
The contrast between the men’s and the women’s dancing was strong. The men gave the impression of power that was reined-in, taut, always under control. The women gathered their energy in their cores and exploded with it: hot-blooded and passionate, but also down-to-earth and empathetic. Michelle Alves stole the show for me, with the character that became the most developed as the musical progressed. She portrayed Anita as a woman of infinite layers, a woman caught in a changing world who was developing her sense of self, along with her sense of right and wrong. Her character was one I would like to meet and befriend. She somehow managed to infuse her dancing with the complexity of her character while still being technically precise in both solo and group dances.

Michelle Alves as Anita. West Side Story. Photograph courtesy of Troika Entertainment.

The stunning voice belonged to Mary Joanna Grisso, as Maria. She reminded me of a young Sarah Brightman in vocal qualities, and she was the one singer whose voice was never, ever lost in the powerful sound of the orchestra.
I interviewed co-dance captain Blue Cervini a couple of weeks ago. She commented several times on how honored she was to be able to bring this historically significant musical to the Atlanta audience. Seeing the play live, on-stage, again reminded me just how insightful her statements were. This piece of musical theatre has survived for over 50 years because it is still meaningful to audiences, but also because the music is wonderful and the dance makes the audience want to move with the characters on stage. It is ultimately engaging. The Romeo and Juliet story is overlaid with a more important commentary about people and their ability to be hurtful and hateful to others who are different. It is also about similarities, not just differences. West Side Story sent the audience home wanting to make the world a better place, and with a few ideas about how to do it. That makes this play a perfect one for the holiday season.

Mary Joanna Grisso as Maria. West Side Story. Photograph courtesy of Troika Entertainment.

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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