It was chilly for August, and the lilies and crape myrtles dipped their colorful heads in the breeze that floated in ahead of the night air. It was August 15, and Atlanta Ballet’s dancer-driven contemporary dance ensemble, Wabi Sabi, was back at the Atlanta Botanical Garden for an evening of seven world premieres. Staged throughout the garden at twilight, the works presented were created by three Atlanta Ballet performing artists and four guest choreographers. There were a number of Wabi Sabi regulars (okay, “fans”) in the audience, but there were also new faces encountering the company for the first time. The dancers mingled with the audience, chatting animatedly, answering questions, and talking about the Wabi Sabi experience. Retired Atlanta Ballet dancer turned videographer Brian Wallenberg acted as the Pied Piper: the audience followed him from one area of the Garden to the next in its quest for more dance. Many of the pieces began and ended in silence; the audience sometimes arrived after the dance had begun, lending a sense of unending movement to the event.
The dancers seemed to draw power and inspiration from Mother Earth in an arena that combined intimate connection to the performing environment with immediate proximity to the audience. Wabi Sabi performances always seem to make the dancers more lighthearted than they are in a theatre, and their delight is infectious.
The evening opened with Atlanta Ballet dancer and Wabi-Sabi founder John Welker’s “…a little moved.” The solo, danced by Welker’s wife, Christine Winkler, was staged on a long runway under a canopy of towering crape myrtles. Observers fortunate enough to position themselves at the end of the brick walkway facing the Great Lawn saw the piece against the backdrop of a rotating mosaiculture fish fountain. I first encountered this dance piece at the High Museum, but it was difficult to see from my back-row vantage point. This time I made sure I had a front-row position. While many classical solo works range from two to four minutes in length, this is a long piece—about ten minutes in length. It showcased Winkler’s endurance and the ability of the artist to maintain an audience connection. A series of exquisite sculptures are connected by fluid transitions. There are subtle gestures of fingers, wrists and feet, and a wonderful, flowing, rising spiral.
“Dark Embers” was choreographed by Rachelle Scott, a student at the Juilliard School. Danced by Kelsey Ebersold and Kelly Prather in the Rose Garden, the piece included some envelope-pushing lifts between the dancers that are beyond those usually performed by two women. There were some well-performed synchronous moments, but others were less clear. The wet grass could have contributed to the slight fuzziness in the timing. The softness of the blossoms was a sharp contrast with the fiery intensity of the dance.
“Talk Yourself Down” was set against the boundary separating the Garden from Piedmont Park. The opening of the work utilized stone gateposts and iron fencing. Some of the most interesting moments in Wabi Sabi performances arise from unplanned moments, and throughout this piece there were cyclists, runners, and a young man running the stairs behind the dancers. “Talk Yourself Down”, by Gregory Dolbashian, founder of The DASH Ensemble and winner of several choreographic competitions, displayed serious clarity of movement, astonishing control, and beautiful shading, as Alexandre Barros and John Welker explored intricate interactions, including a fascinating, rotating horizontal lift. The powerful action grew out of silence and dissolved gently into the gathering dusk as the dancers exited from the grassy performing space up a shadowed walkway. Frequent Atlanta Ballet attendees are very familiar with Welker’s versatility, but Barros’s performance evidenced technical precision we have not previously seen from him.
Another solo work, “Rumination,” choreographed by Atlanta Ballet dancer Heath Gill and danced by Atlanta Ballet Apprentice Kelsey Ebersold, expressed a moment of reflection through rapid level changes, turns, and falls. Gill chose to express meditation, not through stillness, but with a high-energy current of synaptic electricity, framed with occasional intervals of tranquility, that kept the audience entranced. Gill translated his distinctive performing style into choreography, and then inspired Ebersold to express that style using her own, distinctive voice.
The audience moved to the Great Lawn for “Intra Lobus Temporalis,” choreographed by the Joffrey Ballet’s Michael Smith, who also developed the soundscape for the piece based on the music and the concept used by the original composers, Animal Collective. There was a wealth of movement to watch in this work, including fascinating rhythms reminiscent of savannah animals leaping and loping across the landscape. The dancers fashioned small groups that merged, separated, and reformed. In a brief conversation, the choreographer said the choreography was inspired by two elements: the music and the role of the temporal lobe in hearing, vision, language comprehension, memory, and emotion. Michael Smith used humor and innovative movement that ensnared the audience. Brandon Nguyen anchored the piece, swinging between serious and humorous moments and giving a powerful and scintillating performance that stood out without overshadowing the superbly articulated dancing of the other cast members.
“En Route,” an endearingly lovely contemporary ballet by Atlanta Ballet artist Tara Lee, showcased Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper. Unlike many of Tara Lee’s works, this one evidenced little of her usual complexity. A brief encounter–a love story– the ballet seamlessly interwove floral elements of the garden through dance, music, and visual art. The joy of the characters in the piece was palpable and the audience could practically feel the endorphins emanating from the couple as they intertwined in whirling lifts and lighthearted embraces. Tara Lee is quickly becoming a multi-dimensional choreographer.
The final piece on the evening’s program was “Sweet Sorrow,” by Arch Dance founder and artistic director Jennifer Archibald. Moving the audience to the far end of the Great Lawn, and coming back full circle to a space that once again used the backdrop of the fish mosaiculture fountain—now lighted—the dancers used two benches and a large tree that are part of the space, climbing on and launching off them. Hip hop and ballet influences,with intricate lifts (including one that required impeccable timing as Rachel Van Buskirk ran beneath a moving structure made by Jackie Nash with Alexandre Barros and Miguel Angel Montoya) were highlights of this work.
Wabi Sabi pairs emerging choreographers with quality professional dancers to create new works. An emblem of Wabi Sabi performances is the intense, uninhibited physicality of the pieces they present, with the whole being of each dancer choreographed into them. While the dancers shine, both individually and collectively, in their regular season performances, Wabi Sabi often brings out a new multi-dimensionality from the company members. This performance revealed new artistic strengths and technical expertise from Brandon Nguyen and Alexandre Barros, as well as new choreographic talent in Heath Gill. It is always exciting to discover new elements of Atlanta’s artists.
Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi will reprise the performance during Cocktails in the Garden at the Atlanta Botanical Garden Thursday, August 22, beginning at 6:30 pm. Last chance this season!
“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.
MUSIC10 years ago
The Best Rock in Town – Charley Magruders Memories
Tough Mudder10 years ago
10 Musts to Survive Tough Mudder
GeekChic!6 years ago
7 Tips On How To Be Successful at Dragon*Con
Music Gallery5 years ago
Turkuaz at Aisle 5
Aural Pleasure6 years ago
Exclusive : Tom Arnold Interview with The Backstage Beat
Comedy5 years ago
Ho Ho Ho Steve-O? Holiday Laughs with Steve-O at the Improv Atlanta
Concert Reviews6 years ago
Hundred Waters Entrance The Sinclair
Artists to Watch2 years ago
Cry With Us! Puddles Pity Party in Orlando