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Atlanta Ballet’s Dracula is a Valentine Season Standout

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The Atlanta Ballet’s Valentine’s Day offering, Dracula, plunged the audience into an old story given an updated presentation, and a world of evil surrounding people trying to do good. The ballet, by Milwaukee Ballet’s Artistic Director Michael Pink, is based on the 1897 classic Gothic novel by Bram Stoker, and the production did full justice to both the love story and the horror story in the original book.

John Welker as Dracula. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The entire company gave an excellent performance of the ballet, both technically and artistically. However, there were three elements that made this ballet a not-to-be-missed event: The special effects, including the exquisite, but also functional, set design and the intricate lighting; Phillip Feeney’s rich musical score, played with enthusiasm and beauty by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra musicians (who were clearly having a good time in spite of the fake blood that spattered their sheet music by the end of Act III); and the complex characters created through movement and acting by Jesse Tyler, as the insane Renfield, and by John Welker, dancing Count Dracula.

The inventive, and frequently pyrotechnical, movement found in the dark scenes of the ballet was made darker by the bright social scene depicted in Act II, where the dancers were able to show off their classical ballet technique in a lovely representation of the genteel society of the Nineteenth Century. The Act II choreography was predictable but delightful, and there were some witty moments, particularly by Jared Tan as the Bell Boy. Rachel Van Buskirk’s flirtatious characterization of Lucy and Nadia Mara as the more serious Mina were also strong elements of the ballet, although Mina sometimes seemed a bit overly-dramatic next to the subtlety of Dracula.

Tyler and Welker as Renfield and Dracula. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Mina and Dracula. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Throughout the ballet, Jesse Tyler, as Renfield, foreshadowed, and later personified, the world of madness created by the Count. From Renfield’s first appearance in Act I, he exhibited the results of association with Dracula. His mannerisms were consistently unnerving; it was amazing that he could remain in-character so well while incorporating so many different, isolated gestures at one time.

But it was the Count who made this production unforgettable. John Welker, as Count Dracula, was simultaneously powerful, subtle, passionate, compelling, and sensual, able to travel between the world of upper class Europe, the superstitious existence of his Transylvanian peasants, and the supernatural realm of the undead, all of which he dominated. It was clear why people found the Count to be irresistible. The duets by Dracula, often danced with one of the other men, were the most unorthodox, physical, and electrifying. The choreography between Harker (Brian Wallenberg) and Dracula was particularly extraordinary, both in its creativity and its performance. One of the most intriguing devices was the repeated, fleeting symbolism of the bat within the Count’s choreography and the lighting design, which culminated in Dracula descending the Act III set while hanging upside down.

Dracula. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The end of the ballet included the demise of Dracula, conquered, with a stake through his heart. But the Count disappears in smoke and fog, leaving the audience wondering if perhaps he has really escaped death once again, and has rejoined his undead minions in Transylvania.

In fact, it is commonplace for a ballet cast to take curtain calls as themselves, with the audience applauding the dancers rather than the characters they danced in the ballet. This, the dancers did—except for John Welker, who stayed in character as Dracula as though he had truly become the immortal Count.

Horror stories, even those with love stories within them, are not usually my favorite genre. Nevertheless, I was completely entranced by the Atlanta Ballet production from the moment the curtain rose on the Prologue until it fell on the final curtain call, with the audience members out of their seats and clamoring vocally for more. Somehow, I managed to miss previous Atlanta Ballet productions of Dracula. I won’t make that mistake again.

Harker (Brian Wallenberg) with the Vampires. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

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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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