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Atlanta Ballet’s “Hamlet” at the Cobb Energy Centre

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This weekend, Atlanta Ballet will be presenting “Hamlet” at the Cobb Energy Center, and, once again, Shakespeare leaves us a stage filled with dead bodies.  “Hamlet” is a difficult play to present as a ballet, as it is extremely cerebral and dependent on the language to express abstract ideas (such as Hamlet’s decisions, which are explained in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Act III of the play). Choreographer Steven Mills has done a masterful job in making the conversion, but at times it helps to refer to the libretto!

The music is by Philip Glass and is a participant in the action rather than supporting it from the background. Throughout the ballet, the lovely Atlanta Ballet Orchestra seems to engage in conversations with the dancers, a relationship that is rare and a treasure for both the dancers and the audience.

One of the devices the choreographer uses in the ballet is multiple, consecutive repetitions of specific gestures, often in concert

with repetition in the music.  I think this may be because we are watching Prince Hamlet flashback to various events as he lies dying, and he is focusing on things that, in retrospect, are particularly relevant to those events. They are often intensely dramatic gestures that help the audience understand the emotional state of the character at that point in the action.

“Hamlet.” Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Several scenes are especially outstanding.  A sequence between the three ghosts and Hamlet is filled with quick directional changes and sharp angles juxtaposed against curved lines and flowing movement. There is a scene in which the women are seated on stools; their spatial design and movement seems as though they have stepped out of Ailey’s “Revelations.”  Later, there is a dazzling moment in which Ophelia, danced by Tara Lee, mourns in the river, filled with actual water, while shiny raindrops fall behind her. The sword fight between Hamlet (danced by John Welker) and Laertes (danced by Heath Gill) is one of the best-choreographed, most-believable fight scenes I can remember. Some of the finest choreography includes the full cast; the movement in the group sequences is intricate and requires full attention.

The décor and costumes have a contemporary feel, but the costumes seem to have been inspired by a variety of historical periods, sometimes within the same scene. The costume designer’s intent may have been to create timelessness rather than placing “Hamlet” in a specific time period, to emphasize that the human emotions examined in the ballet could happen now or any time in the past, but I found it distracting.   For the most part, the set is abstract, simple, and effective, although high-tech glass towers and strobe lights are used to highlight the appearance of the ghosts.

“Hamlet.” Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The Atlanta Ballet dancers, for the past three years, have all been very impressive in their abilities to dance a myriad of styles and to move from one to another quickly–this ballet comes only three weeks after the company’s last challenge,a mixed repertoire performance.  But this year, audiences should pay special attention to John Welker, the veteran Atlanta Ballet company member who has danced a variety of extremely demanding roles, each one artistically better than the last. He is becoming more and more adept at portraying complex, tortured characters such as Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet” and this weekend’s “Hamlet.”  Hamlet’s descent into madness is both disturbing and poignant; in this iteration, Welker’s Hamlet is a multi-dimensional character painted in shades of grey instead of the frequently seen two-dimensional, black and white character. In between, Welker has offered up technically proficient performances in classical and contemporary pure dance ballets.

The Atlanta Ballet isn’t wrapping up their season yet.  For more information about this performance or upcoming concerts, visit www.atlantaballet.org or http://www.cobbenergycentre.com/

 

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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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