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Push Dance Company at the Ferst Center Feb. 7-8

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It’s all about Sixes. Push Dance Company choreographer and artistic director Raissa Simpson is bringing six dancers to Georgia to perform six works at the Ferst Center for the Arts on Georgia Tech’s campus February 7 and 8. Ms. Simpson describes the dances as varied in style and length, and she also talks about the dancers’ skills and personalities as varied, too. Describing her dancers as each having “a little piece of me,” the choreographer says, “each person has a certain unique quality that works for me.” Bitter Melon Press’s Anastasia Pahules describes the company as “riveting and emotional, but also extremely thought-provoking.” The choreographer describes her work as “raw and athletic.”

The driving force behind the company is Raissa Simpson herself, a dancer who traces some of her family’s roots to the South, and is excited to share her vision with Atlanta in what she calls a “kind of coming back home.” The company got its name because dancers she worked with “pushed” Ms. Simpson into forming the company. She says originally, she made it for everybody else. But now, she comments that, “When you put [the artists] together, you have an image of who I am as a dancer.”

Atlantans attending the performances will see dance works ranging from 5 minutes to 20 minutes long, and from hip-hop opera to multi-media pieces. Raissa Simpson emphasizes that she incorporates a lot of input from the artists she casts in the pieces, and considers the space in which the performance will take place. The company performs installations in non-traditional venues as well as on more traditional stages. The Ferst performance will be a mélange: the audience will be placed on the stage, morphing the traditional stage space into something unexpected. Investigating ways to do that will be on the to-do list when the company arrives in Atlanta and the final staging of the pieces begins. Ms. Simpson indicates she will change the works if necessary, focusing on their rebirth.“It’s important to honor the space,” she says.  She wants her dancers to “create an imprint on the movement itself.”

Push Dance Company, courtesy Ferst Center for the Arts.

That movement is often quick, always dynamic, and gives the impression of springing from diverse origins. Raissa Simpson looks for relevant topics occurring today, and she says, “We’re about telling untold stories.” One of the pieces Atlanta audiences will see is about African-American hair—“about wishing you can wear it naturally without any social stigma.” It addresses people who do things to fit in, and about being comfortable in your own skin. Ms. Simpson commented, “People are invited to laugh, but I hope they will see the seriousness if you’re on the wrong side of that conversation.”

She’s eager to stretch herself as a choreographer, too. A recent piece is a men’s trio about manhood, which she finds to be a challenging topic for a female choreographer.

“Push Dance Company is excited to share with Atlanta all the elements we’ve been sharing with the rest of the country,” the choreographer says. This company has a “young, vigorous voice.” They’re eager, and they’re excited. When you come to see what the sixes are all about, expect to see movement that requires the full body, from the core to the fingertips. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss something, and it will be something astonishing.

For more information or to order tickets, visit http://www.ferstcenter.gatech.edu/plugins/shows/index.php?id=558 or call the Ferst Center Box Office at 404-894-9600.

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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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