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Séan Curran Company Speaks

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Séan Curran’s choreography speaks to your eyes with a language that is composed of moving hieroglyphs rather than letters and individual words.  He collaborates with his dancers in creating pieces using this esoteric language, so the three-plus works presented by the Sean Curran Company at the Ferst Center March 23 are instantly recognizable as emerging from the same choreographic mind.

“Three plus?” you ask.  Well, yes, because there was a pre-concert showing in one of the art galleries of work Curran did with two Georgia Tech students during his ARTech residency this year.  Inspired by architectural terms Curran heard used by a Georgia Tech Professor of Architecture in a tour of a new campus building, the work in the showing presented a wonderful opportunity to study Curran’s language before it became expanded on the big stage with more dancers. While he describes himself as a “proscenium guy,” and commented that this was his first site-specific work, Curran proved he is also comfortable in a more casual environment; and the work captivated the small group of early-arrivals who crowded the gallery to watch the piece.

Sean Curran Company performing “Social Discourse.” Photograph courtesy of Sean Curran Company and Ferst Center.

Curran speaks of being “from the school of shape and movement,” and his works all seem to have a certain architectural structure that ties together the experimental side of his choreography.  He creates sequential releases from still tableaux and shifting balances that miraculously never show their origins or adjustments.  He is unconcerned with the gender of pairings; you are as likely to see two women or two men dancing together as you are a man and a woman.  Interactions between the dancers may be fully developed, or they may be momentary.  His pieces speak to the strengths of each individual dancer or group of dancers.  Upper bodies are eloquent; the dancers employ larger-than-life gestures and fully extended limbs.  Requisite for the choreography, these performing artists are gymnast-muscular and possess marathoner endurance.

Sean Curran Company in “Social Discourse. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Sean Curran Company and Ferst Center for the Arts.

“Social Discourse” opened the official program on the Ferst Center stage.  The music was spare, but the movement was not. The stage was occupied by six dancers in brightly colored turtle-necked shirts and black shorts.  The choreography required fluidity, balance,  and control.  It was also mandatory that the dancers have many terabytes of memory at their disposal.  Movement was rarely repeated, and, when it was, the two instances were separated by so much time the audience was hard-pressed to remember seeing one before.  Curran crafts every body part, and every body part is significant.  He has described this work as “urban folk dance,” and it is a good metaphor.  The movement is easily understood, but it demands intense concentration in order to avoid missing critical elements.

The second piece, “Hard Bargain,” was danced by four men.  It used vocal music by Handel and was underpinned by a bit of a story line. The men were dressed in sixteenth-century leather-look jerkins decorated with small amounts of fringe, allowing the audience to imagine them anywhere on a continuum between a Renaissance European farm and  a Post-World-War-II biker gang.  In this work, arms were more angular; there was more aerial movement; and the full stage was incorporated into the design, including the edges of the wings. Curran describes the work as “agreeing to disagree.”  Without abandoning his signature movement style, Curran incorporated tongue-in-cheek fight choreography that kept the audience laughing but did nothing to minimize the physicality of the movement.

The performance closed with “Left Exit: Faith, Doubt, and Reason.” This longer work was originally commissioned by Notre Dame University, and explores the topic at length, inspired by Astrid Taylor’s documentary “Examined Life.” It began with the dancers entering the stage space dressed in garments appropriate for practitioners of different World Faiths, who then dance a T’ai Chi sequence.  Portions of the piece were danced to contemporary music, but other sections were accompanied by spoken word.  I found the spoken word segments the most compelling, as the choreography seemed to interpret the meanings of the words, but move to the rhythms of the language.  Contrasts between stillness and rapid movement, freezing of shapes for long moments, and many exits and entrances held the attention of the audience. This piece offered a glimpse of Séan Curran at his day job.  Currently the Associate Chair of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Dance Department, the conception of “Left Exit” needed a scholar as well as an expert dancer.  Curran is both, as we saw when he danced a seven-minute slice set to the words of Cornel West.

Bring your thinking cap when you see Séan Curran’s work, as this choreographer does not allow you to carelessly absorb the images he designs. His work demands that you become a full participant in the conversation.  If you missed this opportunity for discourse, you will definitely want to sign up for the next one.

 

 

 

 

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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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