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Atlanta Ballet’s “Roméo et Juliette” is a sweet treat for Valentine’s Day

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The Atlanta Ballet’s production of “Roméo et Juliette” is spectacular. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s choreographic interpretation of the Shakespeare play is genius, a word I use next-to-never. The dancing on opening night at the Cobb Energy Center was exquisitely presented, the casting was perfect, and the audience’s impression of the characters was changed forever.

It may seem like a stretch to choose a ballet about two young lovers who die as this year’s Valentine’s Day production, but so many enduring romances end in tragedy—and Shakespeare’s story of the youngsters who catapulted themselves into disaster has been beloved of audiences and readers for over 400 years. (Besides, recently Atlanta Ballet has not been a company to follow a traditional path. Last year’s Valentine’s Day performance was “Dracula”!)

Juliette (Alyssa Rogers) and The Nurse (Rachel Van Buskirk). Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The Prokofiev “Romeo and Juliet” ballet score was written in 1935. When Prokofiev first presented the score to the Bolshoi Ballet in 1935, it was considered not danceable, and was rejected. Today, many critics consider it the best ballet score ever written, and it has many choreographic versions, from Frederick Ashton’s 1955 work for the Royal Danish Ballet, to the 2007 creation by Peter Martins for the New York City Ballet. The original score was unearthed in the Russian State Archives and given its world premiere July 4, 2008, at New York State’s Bard College, with choreography by Mark Morris.

Despite the popularity of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, it is not the only score for a ballet about these famous, star-crossed lovers. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who was fascinated and inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare, wrote a Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy in 1869, and it has become one of the best-loved Tchaikovsky ballets, along with Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and America’s adored The Nutcracker.

With that history behind it, the ballet arrived at the Cobb Energy Center in The Atlanta Ballet’s production of Roméo et Juliette on February 7, with the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, and the audience was blown away by what Artistic Director John McFall calls “the signature version.” It was predicted that we would see “smoke coming from the orchestra pit.” I didn’t see smoke, but the conductor and his highly accomplished musicians definitely earned their paychecks for their performance of this score.

Alesssa Rogers and Christian Clark as Roméo and Juliette. Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Maillot has included subtle movement and visual references to other great artistic works—if you watch very closely, you may catch a glimpse of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” as the dancers oscillate seamlessly between contemporary and traditional ballet movement—but Maillot’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous love story is otherwise unique. The ballet is starkly minimalist, without the massive sets and prolific props usually seen in Romeo and Juliet productions. Atlanta Ballet has partnered with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet in producing—may I use the word “genius” again?—the sets designed by Ernest Pignon-Ernest. A collection of curved, white, movable walls bisected by a narrow ramp allow the audience to move from scene to scene, indoors and out. They are canvases for subtle lighting and are sometimes used as props. A stool or two and the occasional piece of fabric round out the décor. A program note informs the audience that “Mr. Pignon-Ernest rejects art created for exhibitions and museums.” He has created the museum walls before the art is hung; it is a perfect background for the dance. Jérome Kaplan’s simple costumes are equally effective.

The choreography is edgy and contemporary, with unexpected angles juxtaposed with flowing curves, but we are treated to flashes of traditional ballet pyrotechnics as well: four men in simultaneous pirouettes a la séconde, batterie at the speed of light, exquisite arabesques and developpés. The dancers move incredibly quickly: although the excitement ensnares the audience, this is also a dancers’ ballet; the dancers fling themselves through space and time, leaving the audience gasping for air. They fly like Blue Angels on a romp; the stage seems too small to contain them. Observers can tell they love dancing this piece; they own the movement. We are convinced that their characters are real, even when they are conveying intricately difficult passages. It is amazing that they can even remember the complex choreography, which is filled with subtle nuances delivered at speed, much less gift it to us so expertly.

Friar Laurence (John Welker) with the acolytes (Alexandre Barros and Miguel Angel Montoya). Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

In most theatrical productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” Friar Laurence is a kindly man overwhelmed by good intentions. In Maillot’s ballet, he is the architect of the action and the ultimate manipulator. In this production, Friar Laurence opens the ballet. The role is masterfully danced by John Welker, accompanied by two acolytes (may I say “minions”?) who do not exist in the original script. The story is seen through his eyes, and they are the eyes of a tortured soul whose desire to promote good results in calamity. The figures from the play that are most familiar are The Nurse and Lady Capulet, danced by Rachel Van Buskirk and Christine Winkler. In other departures from Shakespeare’s play, Juliette’s father is absent, Rosaline is present, and there is no happy ending with the Montagues and Capulets reunited. The ballet ends with a lot of dead bodies: Tybalt, Mercutio, Roméo, and Juliette.

Tybalt, danced by Georgia’s own Jonah Hooper, was a convincing bad guy with great technique. Appropriately dressed in black, he spent most of the evening spoiling for the fight he eventually got. Mercutio was performed by the dynamic and mercurial Heath Gill, who was greeted by the audience with screams of joy during the now-familiar standing ovation at the curtain call. It was well-deserved.

Mercutio (Heath Gill), Roméo (Christian Clark), and Benvolio (Benjamin Stone) in Atlanta Ballet’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

But it was the complexity of Roméo and Juliette themselves that made this version of the story work so well. I’m used to the leading characters in this play being portrayed as youngsters in first love, swept away by the political situation in their town, unaware of the results of their naiveté.

This pair seemed more sophisticated and more aware of the politics of their world. In the balcony scene, with Juliette at the apex of the center stage ramp, she presents her back, her arms appearing to be the wings of an angel, perhaps foreshadowing her death. Later, Juliette proffers the inside of her wrist and her throat to Roméo in delicate gestures cognizant of the dangers of entrusting her most vulnerable pulse-points. We also see passion deeply felt by adolescent brains awash in hormones, two characters that are playful, yet mature and intense. They manipulate Friar Laurence even as he is manipulating them. The marriage night in Juliette’s room is one of the most subtly sexual, yet charmingly tender, pas de deux I have ever seen. There is a moment in which Roméo kneels, pressing his cheek to Juliette’s ankle, then slowly traces her outline with that cheek, ending standing in a kiss that caused the audience to hold its collective breath.

Alessa Rogers and Christian Clark as Juliette and Roméo. Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

I left the theatre feeling speechless. It took many hours for words to come back. Whether you are new to dance, love classical ballet, or gravitate to modern dance, if there is one must-see story-ballet, this is it. Atlanta Ballet’s “Roméo et Juliette” will be at the Cobb Energy Center through February 15, so there is just time to reserve your tickets.

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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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