Attending the opening night of Atlanta Ballet’s “Carmina Burana,” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Friday, April 12, was like standing next to a railroad track as a high-speed locomotive thunders through under a sky filled with meteor showers.
“Carmina Burana,” the headlined work by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director, David Bintley, has been described by the choreographer as an adult comic strip, but it has the larger impact of a full-blown graphic novel. Danced to the iconic Karl Orff score, performed by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra joined by nearly fifty voices of the Georgia State University Singers, the sound alone was overpowering. The dancing, anchored by glorious color and enormous movement, added the visual elements needed to complete the portrayal of overwhelming desire and sensual debauchery. There was total, heart-pounding bombardment of the senses.
The lyrics to the score are believed to have been written on monastery walls by medieval student monks reflecting on the world they are about to give up. In this modern interpretation, three contemporary seminarians explore the forbidden secrets of the outside world in a bacchanale of passion and gluttony. Bintley used multiple repetitions of nearly every movement phrase to ensure none of his choreography was missed by the audience as the dancers leaped, turned, and postured on a stage awash with energy.
A few moments stood out. To the pulsing chant of “O Fortuna,” the ballet opened with a lone, blindfolded woman (Rachel Van Buskirk), dressed in black and surrounded by smoke. Fortuna’s movement was angular, simple, and filled with tension–and much of it occurred above the waist as she stood, center-stage, in high heels. Later, the First Seminarian (Heath Gill) masterfully carved the space, rising and descending in a series of spectacular back falls. In the middle of the ballet, the delicate flutters of the Roast Swan (Tara Lee) contrasted with the ungainly parade of gluttons, who, although cuter and softer, were somehow reminiscent of a cross between Kurt Jooss’s negotiators in “The Green Table” and The Joker’s Henchmen in the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight.” Both Jesse Tyler and Jonah Hooper gave striking performances as the Second and Third Seminarians, with Tyler’s notable for his turns and Hooper’s for a complex maturity counterbalanced by the youthful choices made by his character. The sets were simple, but effective, especially the angled mirror that reflected parts of the dancers’ bodies from above, adding another dimension to the staging. At the end, Fortuna returned to the stage, this time without her blindfold, bringing the ballet full circle. While Bintley says the characters are learning an appropriate morality, it seems they are merely being harshly punished for understandable indiscretions.
In contrast to the “Carmina” locomotive, Artist-in-Residence Helen Pickett’s “Petal” provided the meteor shower. Where “Carmina Burana” was a fiery opal, “Petal” was a brilliantly faceted emerald. The ballet, which opened the evening, had its Atlanta premiere in March, 2011. The set defined the stage: a box lit in shades of pink, yellow, and purple. The costumes were attractive and memorable, but unobtrusive, allowing the audience to focus on the choreography and the dancing.
In “Petal,” the dancers transformed instantaneously from sharp, strong, darting bodies to liquid, boneless, slipping, sliding shapes and back again. They danced with elegant control in shimmering moments evocative of a Dali painting, their legs and arms appearing longer than the actual limbs, melting and re-forming. Rippling movement, bodies swinging like fluid pendulums, seemingly impossible lifts that came out of nowhere, off-vertical turns that were impossibly on balance, slippery connections between dancers, all became the vocabulary of this ballet. Intricate patterns were presented by multiple dancers and simultaneously viewed from different angles. The dancers moved silently, in defiance of the incredible physical demands of the work, no sound of breath or feet reaching the audience.
Pickett’s work has been described as inventive, but it is also astonishingly courageous. Ignoring the usual conventions of presenting the dancers making eye contact with the audience, Pickett offers their backs in unexpected, expressive gestures. Sequences contrast lithe women and powerful men performing identical combinations simultaneously, developed out of ballet, modern, or ballroom dance, in a seamless stream of motion, with flawless attention to detail. Most notably, where the majority of choreographers would highlight a solo or duet by having the dancers perform it alone on the stage, Pickett juxtaposes it with contrapuntal movement by other dancers — willing to risk some of the choreography being overlooked; making the audience choose what to watch; engaging the observers in the choreographic process.
New York Times critic Claudia LaRocco said, “Ms. Pickett looks to be finding a voice of her own.” After seeing two of her pieces, “Petal,” and the lovely, but very different, “Prayer of Touch” last season, it would be fair to say she has not only found her own voice, but she is fluent in several languages.
While all the dancers gave compelling performances, the night belonged to Rachel Van Buskirk. Her technical mastery has never been in question, but she offered multiple shadings and new depths of sophistication not previously seen in her roles. Without compromising her personality, she made subtle changes in her attack and presentation of the movement for each piece: Her artistry in “Petal” was more subtle, yet no less dazzling, than her portrayal of Fortuna.
At the end of the evening, the audience offered up the standing ovation that is becoming de rigeur at performances by this world-class ballet company. Surely it was meant to include “Petal” as well.