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Pilobolus at the Ferst Center

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The contemporary dance company Pilobolus is a young, 7-member company that presents new and now-classic creative art works from the company’s forty-three years of collaborations. The performance was everything a “mixed repertoire” performance should be: varied, exciting, innovative, and offering something for nearly everyone.

The dance company Pilobolus is named after a barnyard fungus that propels its spores with extraordinary speed, accuracy, and strength…and the Ferst Center audience saw all three. Pilobolus was originally formed by four non-dancer students at Dartmouth College in 1971, emerging from a project assigned in their beginning modern dance class. The early work was very acrobatic, and often involved using multiple bodies to create the illusion of a different creature or object. You may have seen examples of this technique in their commercials for Toyota or Hyundai. “Ocellus,” first choreographed in 1972, makes use of this concept. It is as fresh and interesting today as it was when it was created; the audience does not have the impression of watching a “museum piece” built on outdated movement, as can occur with some historical works.

The company’s website bills its workshops as “not training in dance but rather in methods of effective group creativity that use physical expression as their medium.” Co-Dance Captain Nile H. Russell says the company looks for dancers who are not necessarily perfect technicians, but who have a deep well of creativity the company can tap. The concert at the Ferst Center is an illustration of this approach. The dancers were on stage when the audience arrived, warming up and experimenting with weight and support, synchronous and asynchronous movement, and team-building, all critical to their performance, and inviting the audience to share vicariously in the creative process. The movement works were interspersed with video presentations, including Robert Holbrook’s whimsical film “Kites,” featuring fighter kites that reminded me of a squadron of the Thunderbirds accompanied by the Flower Duet from the opera “Lakhme;” and the film “Explosions,” by Dumt and Farligt, which can best be described as a fascinating and perversely beautiful cross between “Myth Busters” and Gallagher. Pilobolus does not ever give us conventional dance, but their gifts are creative, cerebral, and captivating.

Today’s company utilizes trained dancers, although some began their dance training later than is usual. They are still active collaborators in the choreographic process, as noted in the program notes for three of the five pieces. A perfect example of the company’s unorthodox work is the humorous “[esc],” collaboratively created by three of the artistic directors, illusionist/comedians Penn & Teller, and the dancers. The piece was inspired by the life and escapes of Harry Houdini, and made use of magic tricks, gymnastic feats, and abundant wit. A little humorous whining about air travel today was included, along with props that included a giant duffle bag, a 13-foot pole, a chair and duct tape, and a large wooden box “built by audience members” with padlocks and shipping straps.

The more recently created “Automaton” was a fascinating piece that utilized three 40-pound mirrors to expand the shapes and bodies visible on the stage. The dancers wove in and out of the mirrors, moving them around the stage while seeming to appear and disappear. Highlights included a series of very lovely duets and the exploration of the limitless possibilities of movement begun by a dancer hooking ankles with another and then initiating movement from that connection.

The company’s “Shadowland,” an evening-length show currently touring internationally, was represented by “The Transformation,” a work performed live, but entirely in silhouettes projected onto a giant screen.

The final piece on the program, and my personal favorite, was “Licks.” For me, this new piece exemplifies everything that is riveting about a Pilobolus performance: It is fast, athletic, and staggering in its genius. So dangerous that the dancers had to wear protective body and eye gear, the work made use of heavy training ropes in various lengths to generate moving designs. The ropes were in the air, on the stage floor, wrapped around dancers, and everywhere in between. Bodies were ducking under them, leaping over them, and trapped by them. More than an extension of the dancers, the ropes took on lives and characters of their own. Amazingly, nobody dropped a rope, and nobody was hit, although that was surely not the case during the development of the work. The timing required for the intricate interceptions and connections was impeccable, and the strength needed to wield the ropes for the duration of the piece was astonishing. When it was over, the audience leaped to its collective feet and gave perhaps the longest standing ovation in which I have been privileged to participate.

The Ferst Center always provides quality art experiences.  In addition to the concert, the audience was treated to a photography exhibit by Keiko Guest in the Richards Gallery. The metal prints of dancer images were beautifully executed, with a three-dimensional feel and a multi-layered creativity that paired well with the Pilobolus performance. The Ferst is definitely a venue to watch and attend. You can wait for the announcement of their 2014-15 season at www.ferstcenter.gatech.edu.

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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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