This concert was a lot to digest for a little old writer like myself, but in a good way. There was so much I liked, by way of movement vocabulary, image and theme, that it was hard for me to process and put onto paper. I’ll tell you what, folks; I am becoming a very big fan of the redefining process–or metamorphosis–Atlanta Ballet is currently experiencing. I think they are making really good choices in the work and choreographers that they commission. I like an edgy company and artistic director John McFall is taking risks and driving them to the lip of a canyon.
But first, let’s talk about the Alliance Theater in downtown Atlanta, adjacent to the High Museum in the Woodruff Arts Center; the theater is simply gorgeous. Outside the front doors, one is greeted by a gigantic metal sculpture of a person holding a sphere, but it’s made up of hundreds of tiny artist-figure models. Inside the building one could get lost in its vast lobby. In fact, there are two performance spaces and I initially ended up at the wrong box office. And as for my seats, I’m on the small side, barely kissing 5’2”, so I love to get a bird’s eye view of a performance. I also have this thing about seeing a dancer’s feet, not to mention the giant heads that usually block my view. I was thrilled when I realized I had front row balcony seats. The night was off to a good start.
IGNITION was a night of new choreographic voices. The artists were from all over, but their work was relevant to the city of Atlanta. It was as though each choreographer flew in, got a Petri dish of local flavor through the dancers, the city and history, and took it to the lab to create something magical.
The first order of business was a piece called FLUX by Bennyroyce Royon. The first image we got was a series of white squares hanging from the ceiling almost like a disjointed quilt. The movement vocabulary was delicious. The dancers swam in the space as though they were moving through something tangible like pudding. They rolled through their bodies and arms like modern break dancers, without the hard edge, “mend” or “heal” dancers, if you will. They were smooth and serpentine, but when they did stop and pop it was surprising and took my breath away. Images of the work were projected on the fabric behind, in a slow, Butoh fashion. As the piece moved forward, florescent lights were lowered to represent a cityscape behind the action. The tempo got faster and more frantic and so did the choreography, but the dancers still executed it in the same calm, perfect manner. It was a striking contrast and a testament to how really talented these dancers are.
My favorite moment was later on in section III. Lush and Chopped, was comprised of three duets that occurred simultaneously. Each duet was danced by the pairs Tara Lee and John Welker, Alessa Rogers and Jonah Hooper, and Christine Winkler and Heath Gill. The men seemed to move the women without touching them–almost like elegant puppets. They weaved in and out of each other’s negative space, connecting every now and again, like they were having a conversation underwater. I forgot to mention the funniest part of this piece; I love it when a ballet company is allowed to perform in their socks.
Quietly Walking, by Gina Patterson, was the next dance on the roster. The central theme of this work was urbanization and deforestation. In the program she mentions a very powerful image of seeing trees one day and nothing the next but a lonely disoriented turkey. She uses this feeling of disconnection throughout the piece. We started off with the dancers, in blue velvet costumes, entering the stage in a very businesslike manner. They marched around robotically on a grid, men versus women. Soon a tree appeared on stage separating the stage into two different worlds. Up stage there was a green, more natural setting and a grey, urban realm down stage. There was a nice scene with six dancers, two female dancers each engaged in a pas-de-trios with two men. The women had removed their skirts and were being beautifully manipulated in the air. As the piece unfolded the dancers entered the space in various stages of undress, suggesting a vulnerability and feeling of displacement. Nature is represented by three dancers in gowns and point shoes, bathed in a neon green light in the background. At one point five male dancers joined the nature goddesses, facing in all directions. They melted as though nature was breaking down industry, like delicate grass growing through the cracks in an unforgiving sidewalk.
One of the highlights of this piece was when Christine Winkler and Christian Clark were slowly walking towards the audience. They engaged in a duet but were joined by Rachel Van Buskirk. She danced the duet without a partner but, like the turkey, we would find her getting disoriented, torn between both worlds. The women in green, played by Anne Tyler Harshbarger, Kristine Necessary and Abigail Tan floated nearby as Van Buskirk got lost in the woods. There was a variation on this theme with Tara Lee and Jesse Tyler dancing the duet and both Nadia Mara and Jonah Hooper represented the wandering, wild turkey role. Mara executed the fast, frenetic parts and Hooper did the big-yet-quiet moments of the duet. In the end one woman was left running and melting in a spot light.
The next piece was Home in 7 by Amy Seiwert. On stage the dancers were joined by a poet reciting a piece that was written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and a violinist, who also composed his own music, Daniel Bernard Roumain. Roumain was off to the side jamming live in his own little cosmos, sometimes alone and other times with recorded accompaniment. The poetry, which completed the score, was rooted in southern Atlanta culture and the poet gave a fine performance. Joseph’s ever present voice circulated the action; he supported the dancers with his words but he was equally the main attraction. What became clear during this piece was how amazing the dancers are. For example, in section one, Secrets, John Welker, who we had seen throughout the show, gave a brilliant performance. He was sharp, athletic and manly. With his spot-on technique he was able to perfectly execute an arabesque turn to the floor.
What I loved about Home in 7, as a whole, was that you have this “in your face” poetry, but the movement didn’t dictate the words verbatim. The choreography still told the story in an abstract way. An homage to Atlanta, the themes from section to section ranged from baseball to beautiful southern women. The poems described everything from Georgia red clay to the”missing and murdered children case.” The words, dance and music came together seamlessly to paint mourning relatives and the rebuilding of a great city.
I get a little nervous when I enjoy a concert as much as I did this one. I know it will take a little longer for me to digest it all, process the information and find the right words to describe the show. I want Atlanta to get a good sense of the quality of work being put on its stages. I am proud to be part of the force trying to get audiences out of their living rooms and into the theaters. I have to say, if you are not a ballet lover and you think it’s just filled with poofy costumes, dying princesses and men leaping in circles, this is the company that will change your mind. If you have never seen a ballet company live this is the company to see. If you love all genres of dance and want to experience a really great performance, Atlanta Ballet will not disappoint you. If you need a special date night and a place to wear something pretty, well . . . you get the point. Georgia, support your arts and become a patron of your very own ballet company.