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Diavolo Flies at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts

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The ten dancers are falling, tumbling, soaked in exertion; they are coiled springs exploding into the air, sliding and twisting, caught and released.  This is in-your-face dance. It seems to be improvised, unchoreographed, but the split-second timing and perfect spacing contradicts that impression. The movement is instantly recognizable as that of skateboarders on the street, but we are not deceived into thinking we could perform it ourselves. The music is pulsing through the crammed-to-capacity theatre at the Ferst Center, and we are on the edges of our seats. Need an adrenaline rush?  Diavolo delivers.

“If you’re wearing socks, they’ll be knocked off,” reads an advertisement for the company’s appearance at The Broad Stage in Los Angeles.  That’s a pretty good assessment. The Ferst had to put four extra rows of seats in the orchestra pit to accommodate the audience.

Diavolo—the name is a combination of Dia (day) and Volo (I fly)–made its second appearance at The Ferst Center for the Arts on Georgia Tech’s campus Friday evening, September 20.  The company, which has been touted as a cross between modern dance and Cirque de Soleil, was founded in 1992 by Jacques Heim and has been controversial ever since.  Critics claim the performances are more theatre and circus than dance, or that the dancers spend too much time moving the enormous structures, or that the movement is too dangerous. Dangerous?  Coming from a country that flaunts its love affair with football? Well, the company was recognized as a cultural treasure by the City of Los Angeles in 2007. They have toured the world.  For the last six years, Diavolo has been collaborating with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a series of three world premieres at the Hollywood Bowl. The last of the three just premiered two weeks ago, and had its first indoor premiere here at Georgia Tech.

A closer look at the pieces on the Ferst Center program supports some of the controversy and argues against the rest.

Photo Credit: Julie Shelton

The dancers are young. Most of them have only two or three years with the company, perhaps because the works are so physically punishing.  The dancers are vital and enthusiastic. They are transparent: they love what they are doing.  This company works collaboratively, with everyone contributing to the pieces, and the pieces continue to develop. These dancers have not arrived at this company through the usual channels of big-name dance programs and major company apprenticeships. They have unusual credentials:  gymnastics, competitive diving, cheerleading, lesser-known college dance programs.  Their talents combine to provide an evening of dance that is unpretentious and robust. There are no anorexic women or pompous men in this powerhouse.

The work begins with the architectural structure, continues through the music, and is then filled in with the improvised movement that is finally set as the final product, company founder/director Jacques Heim told the small group that stayed for the post-performance Q&A.  Heim called the company’s work “alive, abstract sculptures with themes.” It is definitely dance, even if there are theatrical elements.  There were only two pieces on the program, but each is nearly an hour long, and the audience doesn’t go home hungry.

The first piece, “Transit Space,” was set on and around four skateboard ramps. An engineer is required to create the massive structures the company uses, and Heim and the dancers talked about the structures as the Eleventh Dancer.  The dancers brought their boards, but they were wheel-less—amazing, because the movement made it appear that the dancers were on moving boards. The choreography drew from everything imaginable:  street dance, ballet, modern dance, and gymnastics. The sets moved around the stage, but it was intentional movement, woven into the dance.  The dancers, clad in cargo pants and different colored tee- and sweatshirts, were on the ramps, moving the ramps, sliding down the ramps, climbing the ramps, or leaping and diving off the ramps. They took the ramps apart and supported the metal parts with their bodies as other dancers moved across and through them.  They stacked them. None of the movement was intricate alone, but when combined with everything else happening on the stage, the effect was intoxicatingly overwhelming. Heim is a master at crafting layers of visual intensity. Within the piece, the dancers built relationships and trust (diving backwards off the top of a ramp and believing the group will save your life will do that!), just as young people develop their friendships and family-outside-the-home in our inner cities.  These are completely believable characters, each an individual, each taking a dare, each with a dream. The integrated curtain call was even more fun than the piece, with dancers appearing over the top of the ramp and sliding down into individual bows.

The second piece, “Fluid Infinities,” showcased a fiberglass dome pierced by Swiss-cheese holes and a clear tube reminiscent of those elevator shafts on the outside of some hotels.  This piece was more lyrical and fluid, as well as more complex.  An exploration of the evolution of the human spirit and form, it was much more cerebral, as well. It required incredible upper body strength, as dancers

Photo Credit: Mara Zaslove

levered themselves through the holes in the dome or supported the tube with their arms as another dancer moved through it.  “Fluid Infinities” built more slowly to its climax.  At the end, this piece felt unresolved, like the end of a season on television, to be continued: perhaps the ideas put forth here will be revisited in a future work. After all, human development is hopefully not at an end.  I would love to see the Hollywood Bowl version with live music.

The dancers were still emitting sparks of energy, even after the performance ended.

If the company has a weakness, it is that the physical requirements of the choreography demand dancers who are still at the thresholds of their own artistic evolutions.  At times, there is perhaps a lack of the depth and refinement that more mature dancers could bring to the work—but then, aging bodies can’t take the battering that young people shrug off.

Creatively and technically, the work is compelling.  Diavolo brings an experience that should not be missed.

Feature photo: Julie Shelton

Dance

“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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