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Atlanta Ballet’s New Choreographic Voices Will Leave You Gaga

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The Atlanta Ballet opened this year’s New Choreographic Voices offering on Friday, March 22, with a program of three works that spanned the gamut of dance styles from contemporary ballet to modern dance to salsa.  This concert gave the audience members a chance to reflect on themselves and engage with the dancers.

Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall has repeatedly gifted Atlanta with stunning new repertoire that astonishes and intrigues audiences, but, more than that, it engages them. The 2013 NCV surpassed previous performances in every way. This year’s performance offered three works that drastically differed from one another, and that dared the audience members to remain aloof from the action on the stage and in their midst. At the opening performance March 22, they responded with four standing ovations, three of them within “Minus 16,” and numerous shouts of approval.

Claire Stallman and Jonah Hooper in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush. Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

A reprise of Christopher Wheeldon’s three-movement ballet, “Rush,” set to music by Bohuslav Martinu, opened the performance. “Rush” appeared on last year’s NCV concert. Since then, the former New York City Ballet dancer has been appointed Artistic Adviser to London’s Royal Ballet.  “Rush” is a contemporary take on classical ballet, with quick directional changes; invisible preparations; beautifully-designed shape sculptures; and angular lines, contrasted with curving, flowing movement.  Like  Balanchine, Wheeldon has a deep understanding of, and connection to, the music. The first movement was my favorite, with choreography that began moving from a silhouetted pose as if it were shot out of a cannon. The pointe work appears effortless and the men’s elevation in leaps and jumps was astonishing, giving the nod to Wheeldon’s ability to create movement that works for the dancers as well as the audience.   “Rush” was the audience’s warm up, allowing us to bask in the excitement of acceleration in the first and third movements, and the consummate control of Abigail Tan-Gamino and Georgia’s own Jonah Hooper in the long, second-movement adagio. 

Jonah Hooper, Nadia Mara and Miguel Montoya in Gina Patterson’s “I Am.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

“I AM” was choreographed by Gina Patterson, whom Atlanta audiences will remember from “Quietly Walking,” one of the pieces included in Ignition, the first New Choreographic Voices performance in 2011.  “I AM,” in the words of the choreographer, “…will lead you on a journey, allowing you time to…discover your own stories unfolding.”  The piece is exquisitely crafted, with the dancers paring down the movement and the costumes to reveal the bare essences of thought and emotion.  Musical repeats are treated in unexpected ways. Miniature canons are presented with intervals so close as to be almost indiscernible without razor-sharp attention, suggesting shadows. Layers of gesture and meaning build the total construct as an artist would craft a sculpture from clay.  At the end, the dancers replace their outer costumes, ready to re-engage with their lives. The piece is set upon a rectangle scribed on the stage against a spare backdrop of sand and sky, all designed by collaborating designer Jorge Gallardo, which serves as a nearly blank page upon which the dancers carve their stories. Patterson’s choreography demands that the dancers immerse themselves in introspection, but they must also inspire the audience to witness the outcomes of their pilgrimage. The piece is equally delicate and powerful, fragile and intense, subtle and potent.  There are no “stars” in this work; every dancer is equally integral to the landscape.

Atlanta Ballet performing Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.” Photograph by C, McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Israeli choreographer and artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company Ohad Naharim’s highly-lauded “Minus 16” brings the audience into the dance, ripping aside the invisible curtain that usually separates observers and performers.  As the audience returns from intermission, a lone dancer dressed in a business suit squeezes through the curtain and stares them down for a few minutes before he begins to move. “Minus 16” is created through Naharim’s signature dance language, Gaga. Naharim gradually introduces people to Gaga, giving them a chance to experience it through a single dancer before being overwhelmed by the intensity of a large group moving in this unique style that incorporates  intense body isolations and unusual movement initiations.   Heath Gill is, most appropriately, the dancer of choice for the mission, as he can make himself larger-than-life.  “Minus 16” is high-speed and complex, sometimes humorous and always in-your-face, and Gill leads the Atlanta Ballet dancers in his ability to rise to the challenges given him with humor and aplomb. “Minus 16” contains some surprise moments, but also the most easily accessible choreography on the program, and it leaves the audience energized and craving one more taste. It is easy to see why this work has amassed so much critical acclaim.  Friday night, it had the audience on its collective feet more than once before the curtain descended for the last time. 

McFall wisely incorporated an intermission between each work on the program, which allowed dancers a few minutes to recharge and audience members time to digest what they had just seen and refresh their artistic palates before encountering the next, very different piece. There is an art to performance-planning, and this one was expertly orchestrated.

Rachel Van Buskirk and Jackie Nash in Gina Patterson’s “I AM.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Friday night the Ballet reached out to the community with a discount ticket special for Atlanta’s college students.  Any students who didn’t take advantage of the opportunity should be kicking themselves.  This performance was a remarkable chance for dance fans to see a variety of dance styles.  Even more, it was an opportunity for newcomers to live dance to discover the passion and joy it brings, with a talk-back after the concert that gave the audience a chance to question choreographer Gina Patterson and learn more about her choreographic process.

For more information about the Atlanta Ballet and upcoming performances, visit http://www.atlantaballet.com/.  More to the pointe (yes, pun intended), book your tickets.

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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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