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Momix’s Botanica is Spellbinding

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In 1981, Momix sprang, fully formed, from the exceptional mind of director/choreographer Moses Pendleton, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Momix, a spinoff of Pilobolus, which Pendelton co-founded while at Dartmouth, was an instant success with dance aficionados and casual audiences alike. 32 years later, the fans are still there. Momix filled Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts February 2, garnered two well-deserved standing ovations, and were coerced to give the audience an encore that was every bit as stunning as the rest of the evening-long work, Botanica.

The performance opened with the projection of a giant rose on the front-of-house curtain.  As the curtain lifted, the rose remained, projected on the cyclorama, appearing to recede into the distance as fabric on the stage began to ripple, the sound of a tide coming in filling the theatre. The tide rose, and out of it appeared women’s bodies, swaying with the illusory water, dancing with a gigantic puppet plant.  The company bills itself on its web page as “a company of dancer-illusionists,” and that is factually accurate, but it is the strength, agility, and overall technical prowess of the dancers that imprints itself on the minds of the audience. The illusion is merely a means to that end.

Botanica is all about nature, and it celebrates nature in all its forms—from plants, to insects, to animals, to humans. One of the most impressive vignettes begins with a woman riding a triceratops skeleton onto the stage. The life-sized skeleton is operated from within by a dancer so skilled he was completely missed by some of the audience.  This segment has much to say about conquering other species and about trust of the conquered—unfortunately misplaced in this instance.

The most memorable moment was a solo danced by Sarah Nachbauer on a huge, slanted mirror which reflected her body, often making it appear that there were two dancers onstage instead of one.  This has to be one of the most demanding pieces to tour, as mirror, lighting, and dancer placement are critical to its success.  Ms. Nachbauer’s fluid movement, physical control, and emotional abandon layered the piece with meaning beyond the physical, and had the audience holding its collective breath.

At several points, a live-feed using multiple projectors allowed a small number of dancers to be multiplied in the space. It was frequently difficult to differentiate the actual dancers from their projected images.

One section of the work was performed in front of the projection of an owl, featuring two dancers, each on a single quad skate.  The skaters appeared for too short a time, and didn’t explore all the possibilities; it was one of the few disappointments of the evening—not because it wasn’t interesting, but because it could have done much more.

Women in layers of coral-colored petticoats began as flowers (carnations? chrysanthemums?).  As the dance progressed, the petticoats were moved lower on their bodies, until the women became flamenco-style dancers, juxtaposing the innocence of flowers on the increasingly-mature movement.

The score featured world music, but there was also world dance.  A field of sunflowers was reminiscent of a Chinese fan dance.  At another point, three dancers employed the stylized movement of Chinese dragons.  Bees darted between Egyptian-stylization and hip-hop. A forest of golden trees, inhabited by the full cast of dancers was one of the more beautiful images, with an aboriginal feel.  A lovely dancer in a bead cage spun like a dervish–although her hair, designed to come down throughout the piece, was distracting from the interesting experiments with the beads.

The Botanica choreography took Momix nearly a year to complete.  In a style typical of ‘70s and ‘80s contemporary dance culture, Moses Pendleton arrives in the studio with an idea, and the dancers, listed as choreographer’s assistants, experiment with the idea and its possibilities until the director is satisfied.  Collaborative choreography, while not strictly democratic, gives the dancers ownership of the dance, and their total involvement was clear to the audience. The symbiotic relationship between the dancers and the costumes or props also lent depth to the creative aspects of the work. The sounds made by the props and costumes became part of the total impression of the work.

The most fascinating element of Botanica took place in the audience, not on the stage: Momix made the observers’ brains work throughout the almost-two-hour performance.  Aside from the visual experience of watching extraordinarily creative and gifted dancers perform, the audience was immersed in a world of the company’s creation, each spectator drawn into experiencing its simplicity and its complexity. Sadly, there was only one performance; while the theatre was near capacity, many Atlantans will have to wait for another opportunity to see Momix in action.

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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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