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Atlanta Ballet Enchants the Audience With Sound, Color, and Commanding Dance Performances

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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.

David Bintley’s “Carmina Burana. Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

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.

Rachel Van Buskirk as Fortuna in in David Bintley’s “Carmina Burana. Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

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.

Tara Lee as Roast Swan in David Bintley’s “Carmina Burana. Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

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.

Nadia Mara in Helen Pickett’s “Petal.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

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.

Pedro Gamino, Jesse Tyler, Yoomi Kim in Helen Pickett’s “Petal.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

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.

Rachel Van Buskirk and Jonah Hooper in David Bintley’s “Carmina Burana. Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

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.

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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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