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Reflections on MAYhem, Atlanta Ballet’s Season Finale

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Atlanta Ballet closed its 2013-14 season the weekend of May 16-18 at the Cobb Energy Center with “MAYhem”: a mixed-repertoire performance combining two world premieres with a reprise of Jorma Elo’s “1st Flash.”

Tara Lee in John McFall’s “Three.” Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

At final dress rehearsal Thursday night, the production opened with the premiere of Artistic Director John McFall’s “Three.” The stunning opening of the piece featured Tara Lee in yoga-derived choreography, demonstrating that one dancer, seated on stage in a pool of light, can captivate an audience using simple gestures, beautifully performed. From there, the work became more complex. The frequently-fragmented choreography explores dreams, moving arbitrarily from one idea to another. Dancers made entrances in various ways, sometimes climbing stairs from the orchestra pit, sometimes arriving from the wings, and once erupting through the set. Fluid movement contrasted with erratic athleticism. At one point, Brandon Nguyen was performing a series of jetés en tournant and other steps reminiscent of a classical variation, while women were engaged in more contemporary, core-initiated, grounded activity. It was a controlled cacophony of movement that showcased the dancers’ dexterity. The music was drawn from a long list of composers, with company dancer Jesse Tyler contributing an arrangement and a composition he performed. The stark set, of hanging strips of paper, made sound that contributed to the surreal atmosphere created by the movement and the music.

Helen Pickett’s “The Exiled.” Photograph by Kim Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The second piece, “The Exiled,” an anxiously-awaited premiere by Atlanta Ballet Resident Choreographer Helen Pickett, proved to be a departure from her usual work. The dance/drama included a script, spoken by dancers Christian Clark and Nadia Mara, the Reckoners who mete out punishment to three persons who had lived less-than-exemplary lives. The stage was transformed by lights and a Plexiglas room in which the majority of the action took place, with a group of unnamed dancers portraying others not selected for punishment, pacing near the left stage wing at the beginning and end of the story. There was acting as well as dancing. Each of the dancers inside the room had a distinctive character, with each of the three desiring affirmation from the others, but not receiving it. They began fully dressed in the clothing each wore to create an outward image for the world to see, but, as the work developed, they took off layers until their clothing was minimal and their individual dance styles and personalities alone differentiated them from one another. This would have been challenge enough, but the choreography was exceptionally demanding. The movement was often frenetic and always intense, but with a sense of purpose. The audience ended up with more sympathy for the exiled than for those who exiled them. Helen Pickett emerges as a storyteller as well as a choreographer. This piece doesn’t allow the audience members merely to observe; they are required to participate intellectually and emotionally. When the piece ended, there was a sense of something unfinished, as though the story is eternally continuing somewhere while the audience moves on.

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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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