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Atlanta Ballet’s Modern Choreographic Voices

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Atlanta Ballet’s Modern Choreographic Voices brings together three works by three choreographers in a fast-paced evening bursting with creativity at the Cobb Energy Centre March 21-23.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was originally choreographed for American Ballet Theatre. Featuring six dancers in flowing ivory and gold costumes that hint of its classical origins, Seven Sonatas takes classical ballet to a new modern incarnation. The curtain rises on a grand piano, deftly played by guest pianist Barbara Bilach, and there is a pleased murmur from the audience that has learned to expect recorded music from mixed-repertoire bills. The music is seven actual sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, but the dance is beyond the wildest dreams of 18th Century dancers who might have used his music while he was alive. It is a ballet of deception, appearing to be easy for the dancers, when, in reality, the cast is performing technical feats with seeming nonchalance. Placement of each foot, hand, and turn of the head is precise. The dancers carve space with their arms and upper bodies. Pirouettes spin off-axis. Dancers charge into space and impossibly stop or reverse. Even awkward movement seems right. For the dance-experienced, there are clever nods to famous ballet moments, but they are fleeting. The dancers play with the rhythm of the music, syncopating like swing dancers.Watch closely or you will miss something ineffably lovely.

“The Authors” is the latest in a series of fascinatingly intriguing ballets by Atlanta Ballet Company dancer Tara Lee. Following on the heels of last year’s successful “Pavo,” “The Authors” weaves complex concepts. The audience watches the writing—and sometimes erasure—of a letter, shown on an elevated screen. The Authors explore their individual realities on the stage below, using their bodies to recreate the writing, and finally come full circle: back to the letter they have composed. Interacting with

Atlanta Ballet dancers in Tara Lee’s “Pavo.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

movable doors, the dance explores the idea that reality is different depending on the individual’s perspective, demanding a more open-minded journey through life than many of us are prepared to undertake. Tara Lee demands total body engagement from the dancers. Her very serious premise is relieved by flashes of subtle humor that won’t surprise anyone familiar with her ballets. A duet between John Welker and Heath Gill has the dancers performing the same movement on opposite sides of a door, but each infuses his own personality in a metaphor for life interactions Equally powerful, Welker is more lyrical, controlled, and polished, while Gill is more dynamic, raw, and explosive. Another pas de deux between John Welker ad Christine Winkler entrances with intertwined limbs that support and propel the movement.

I eagerly awaited Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharim’s “Secus” because I fell in love with the choreographers “Minus 16” last season. For me, this peace was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because “Secus” is the third movement of a longer work, although the choreographer says that it stands alone. Personally, I found the movement very esoteric, the earth-toned shirts and sweat pants dull and uninspiring, and the momentary nudity pretentious and unnecessary. The patterns of this large piece were interesting, and some of the movement was difficult. The dancers performed it very well.

Atlanta Ballet is certainly challenging its dancers, both by the works they are performing and by the compression of the season, requiring dancers to shift choreographic styles weekly and learn new ballets in days. “Seven Sonatas” is so demanding it requires two casts to allow dancers sufficient recovery time. I saw Cast B, which is not an inferior cast, just a description. The company is also challenging the audience: Modern Choreographic Voices is filled with choreography that requires the full attention of the audience and that pushes the dancers to expand their technical and artistic palettes. The program may be too abstract for general or young audiences with little or no dance experience, but it definitely explores the directions in which contemporary dance is heading. For dance aficionados, it is a delightful program.

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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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