Are there any happily-ever-after ballets for Valentine’s Day, or must we search out Disney for a happy ending? In recent years, the Atlanta Ballet has staged “Dracula,” “Roméo et Juliette,” and now a reprise of “Moulin Rouge.” But star-crossed lovers seem to make for more interesting stories, and this ballet’s success is certainly not tragic.
When the curtain comes up on Atlanta Ballet’s “Moulin Rouge,” the audience is instantly transported to Paris more than a century ago, complete with a lighted windmill revolving atop a set depicting the world-famous cabaret. The street is quiet, but soon music is heard, and an accordion player and a fiddler stroll along. The stage soon fills with people, color, and energy. A group of Moulin Rouge performers form a circle and strut their stuff. Amazingly, there is a Can-Can fully en pointe, with flying legs, shimmying ruffles, and gleeful smiles.
Jorden Morris’s ballet is a study in contrasts. The obvious are between the more conservatively-dressed men and the brilliant costumes of the dancing girls. Choreographically, the ballet boomerangs from a classical framework to a more contemporary style and back again. Like songs in musical theatre, the dance sequences sometimes appear out of nowhere. The action is set in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century period of speakeasies and daring investments. The cabaret performers move freely, while the more sedate patrons sit quietly, observing. No classical ballet is complete without a touch of the supernatural, and “Moulin Rouge” does not disappoint here, either. The action set in the real world of Paris at night contrasts with a bit of magic: Appropriately, the green fairies who appear to painters Lautrec and Matthew spring from the absinthe bottle to provide the inspiration for more painting.
And we like them, or most of them. The Atlanta Ballet dancers have created real people on the stage. They are three-dimensional, sympathetic. Even Zidler, the antagonist, is not entirely bad. He is desperately torn between his love for Nathalie and his desire to control her. Jonah Hooper is intense and believable in the role. The girls are dancing a fine line between camaraderie and competition, as each tries to grab or keep a moment of fame. Rachel Van Buskirk (newly a redhead!) is able to dance with abandon while making us believe she is a little older and a little more cynical than the rest of the girls. The cabaret scenes parallel the modern ballet world, where there is always someone a little younger, with flashier technique, poised to steal a role. One of the stand-out elements of this ballet is the acting ability required of the dancers. The company is ready, without sacrificing technical prowess, as they slip into the Paris world, bringing us people of a century past. The characters dance like there is no tomorrow: protected by youth and beauty, they are in love with the moment, careless of the future.
The famous artist Toulouse Lautrec, danced by John Welker, has a chance encounter with the younger, budding painter Matthew early in the ballet. At first they are gladiators competing for supremacy in the iconic Paris art world, literally riding their easels into battle and jousting with paintbrushes, but Lautrec soon recognizes the futility of such actions and takes the younger artist under his wing, introducing him to the underbelly of Paris and the feverish late-night world of the cabarets. The high point of the ballet for me is the cabaret scene where the girls dance frenetically in a group, each one trying to outdo the others with tricks, kicks, pirouettes, and splits, while the men spin a circle of leaps around them. The stage vibrates with enthusiasm and vitality that pours off the stage and into the audience like a wave that left me gasping for oxygen.
A close second was the lovely pas de deux on a lighted bridge over the Seine. “Moulin Rouge” allows Christian Clark to show us his pyrotechnical side, but another of his great strengths is as a romantic partner. The pas de deux reminded us of that fact, in spades. He communicates with every gesture that the ballerina he is accompanying is a delicate treasure, but also a creature of flesh and blood for whom he is awash in desire. Nadia Mara, as Nathalie, responds to him as a girl becoming a woman before our eyes.
And finally, there is Tara Lee as the artists’ model. Saucy and impish, whimsically mercurial, she is like a water sprite turned human, seething with anger when ignored, smiling coquettishly when pleased….and always there are the gorgeous extensions, the elegant gestures, the impeccable musicality she always brings to her performances.
There is drama, there is conflict, and there is star-crossed love. The story is not the deepest I have encountered, and the choreography is not the most original I have seen. But the whole is greater than its parts. “Moulin Rouge” will make you smile, make you gasp, and maybe make you cry. What else can you ask of a Valentine’s offering?
Atlanta Ballet’s “Moulin Rouge” continues this weekend and next at the Cobb Energy Center. I hope there’s not a run on the tickets before you secure yours. For information, visit www.atlantaballet.com