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Atlanta Ballet’s 2013 New Choreographic Voices Showcases Emerging Choreographers

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In 2011, there was Ignition. John McFall did what artistic directors everywhere would love to be able to do: He dedicated a segment of The Atlanta Ballet’s season to the works of the new generation of choreographers who are shaping what dance will become. This year’s event is roaring down the backstretch. The Atlanta Ballet’s 2013 New Choreographic Voices will open at Northwest Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center March 22, and there is a sweet treat for The Backstage Beat readers. Read on.

The annual mixed-repertoire offering debuted in 2011. As I write this, it has been 296 days since I reviewed the 2012 NCV concert, and I have been waiting for the next opportunity for every one of those days.

Gina Patterson’s “Quietly Walking,” courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The 2011 performance included “Quietly Walking,” by Gina Patterson, and she returns this year with the world premiere of “I Am.” “Quietly Walking” was a statement grounded in ballet but overlaid with contemporary movement, simple walking, canons and counterpoint, complex lifts, and spiraling descents. Back Stage has described the former Pittsburgh Ballet Theater dancer as having “startling originality,” which explains the numerous awards she has received for her choreography. She is a prolific choreographer with more than 70 original works to her credit in the past 15 years. Atlanta is fortunate to have the premiere of this one.

“Rush,” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

If you saw Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” last year and, as I do, wanted to see it again, here’s your chance. This contemporary pointe piece was created in 2008 and had its Atlanta premiere on the 2012 New Choreographic Voices concert. In Rush, Wheeldon’s greatest strength lies in his complex use of large groups and the way he pushes the dancers technically and athletically.

Last, but anything-but-least, is Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” a work set to music that spans the repertoire from Dean Martin to traditional Israeli songs. This piece required the Atlanta Ballet dancers to learn Naharin’s signature dance language, Gaga, which has found a growing, worldwide popularity with dancers and non-dancers alike. It is “about giving people keys to opening doors within themselves,” says assistant to the choreographer Rachael Osborne, who served as Répétiteur for the work at the Atlanta Ballet. She comments that there are “no mirrors in our studios—we relate to our bodies through sensing it instead of trying to imagine what we look like on the outside.” Dance Professor Sally Radell at Emory University found through her research that beginning dancers learn more quickly and produce better technique when they are deprived of mirrors, also perhaps because they are then forced to internalize the movement. The Atlanta Ballet dancers learned “Minus 16” with no mirrors, an experience that must have been both frightening and exhilarating for dancers who habitually use them to check body alignment, spacing, and a host of other qualities.

“Minus 16,” choreographed by Ohad Naharin. Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Naharin says that Gaga has “a venue for dancers and a venue for people…who have no desire to be on stage.” It has had a dedicated following in Israel for years, and is now developing one in major cities in the U.S. When working with dancers, Naharin uses “words that describe places in our body and also different activities.” Gaga requires total understanding of the body and the way it moves, and total concentration by the dancer. The movement can appear deceptively simple, sometimes beautiful, sometimes not. (Find out more about Gaga from Naharin’s presentation at the Guggenheim Museum at http://www.ohadnaharin.blogspot.com.)

I have seen Gaga performances in the past, but set on dancers whose primary training was in modern dance, not ballet. I am most interested to see whether the end result is the same. Is Gaga filtered through the experiences and training of the individual, or is the individual molded by the language of Gaga? In either case, I expect to see the dancers’ abilities expanded—not a small feat for a company that has been consistently enlarging its boundaries since New Choreographic Voices became an Atlanta staple two years ago.

New Choreographic Voices runs March 22-24, with four performances, including two matinees. Parental discretion is advised, as the program contains nudity. For more information or tickets, visit http://www.atlantaballet.com/tickets-performances/new-choreographic-voices/. The sweet treats? 25% off your ticket order for The Backstage Beat readers, using the promo code GAGA. Or a Single in the City $30 offer that includes a complimentary cocktail at Cinco before the show and a discounted ticket to New Choreographic Voices, using the promo code SINGLE.

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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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