When I asked Seán Curran what excited him the most about his company’s upcoming performance at the Ferst Center for the Arts on March 23, he spoke without hesitating: It is the second part of the program, his piece Left Exit: Faith, Doubt and Reason. The work, like the choreographer, asks a lot of questions, and investigates the topic up to and including atheism. Inspired by Astra Taylor’s documentary, Examined Life, and using recorded texts which the filmmaker “generously gave me permission to use,” the piece was well-received by the New York Times, whose critic said, “Unbelievably, it actually works!” That short sentence gives you an idea of how difficult it is to integrate the many elements Curran uses in his work, and how successful he is at overcoming such obstacles. The piece explores the big questions about faith and will touch at the heart or mind of each audience member. I love art that inspires thought.
“I’m a short-piece guy,” he smiles, explaining how he can take the ideas in a full-length documentary and condense them into half a concert, using the vocabulary of movement juxtaposed with the spoken word. He is effusive about Left Exit, which was first commissioned by the University of Notre Dame (a surprise, given the subject of the piece). Jerome Begin contributes to the musical score, and Curran finds it appropriate that Begin’s musical group is called the Left Hand Pass Ensemble. The dancers are already in the stage space as the audience is returning from intermission. They personify a variety of faiths including a nun, a Buddhist monk, an Amish woman, a Muslim, and a Hasidic Jew; these religious figures are performing movement based on a T’ai Chi sequence. “It’s an adagio,” Curran says, using the term that describes slow, sustained, connected dance movement. He says the piece incorporates a post-modern approach with a formal, geometrical use of space reminiscent of Balanchine, and includes a device he describes as “10 beginnings, like a video reset… which were later strung together into a 40-second movement phrase.” Typical of Curran’s work, the dancers collaborate with him in creating the final choreography. In addition to the 10 beginnings in Left Exit, he also gave the dancers a movement phrase to craft, which he then incorporated into the dance. He likes having the dancers solve movement problems. He collaborates in other ways as well, pointing to the contributions of lighting designer Joe Doran, whom he describes as “painterly in the way he uses light.”
The concert will open with a piece called Social Discourse. Curran calls it “contemporary urban folk dance. We’re the folks doing it; you’re the folks watching it,” he laughs. He says his father enrolled him in everything Irish as a child: Irish music, Irish language, and Irish stepdance. He clarifies that the audience will never confuse the movement with Irish stepdancing, but he considers it to be “an abstract visual type of a language.” Imagine using movement to describe life in the heart of a major city—think center of Atlanta. The work is set to the music of Thom Yorke, lead vocalist for Radiohead. Curran’s work is definitely eclectic.
In addition, the performance will include Hard Bargain, a work commissioned by a Los Angeles-based company called Xenon. It was “a very specific challenge,” says Curran. He was asked to make a men’s piece, which was set on four “robust, athletic, virtuosic dancers.” Curran describes it as a “diplomatic dance” about agreeing to disagree. Remember that he said he asks a lot of questions? Curran has since explored what happens when he substitutes a woman for one of the men to investigate the ramifications of gender in the work.
Seán Curran has directed his company for 15 years. He describes the performers as a “highly skilled, fluid group of dancers,” and says he is proud of the level of dance they present. He says he wants the audience to be “dazzled by the dancers” so they find themselves leaning forward in their seats, adding that he creates “sweaty, athletic dance. I am a maximalist,” he states confidently.
Asked what he is most interested in as a choreographer, Curran had his six points ready: He wants to respond to music, invent movement, utilize a sense of play, “tickle the eye as music tickles the ear,” be a poet with movement, and be clever. He is as articulate with words as he is with movement. He hopes the audience will see not only the dance, but themselves, as if they are looking in a mirror. Seán Curran teaches full time at New York University. He tells his choreography students, “You don’t want the audience to get ahead of you.” No fear.\; the audience will be racing to keep up.
Seán Curran will wrap up a month in the ARTech Residency program with this concert at the Ferst Center for the Arts on the Georgia Tech University campus March 23 at 8:00 pm. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.ferstcenter.gatech.edu/plugins/shows/index.php?id=507 or call 404-894-9600.
“20/20:Visionary”: Looking Back, Looking Forward
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.
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.
“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!
Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Enchants
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.
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.
Kurtis Blow and the Hip Hop Nutcracker
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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