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Big Boi does the ballet 

April 9, 2008

Janelle Monáe is almost finished limbering up in Studio 1 on the first floor of the Atlanta Ballet's building on West Peachtree, doing her stretches in black leotard and black-and-white floral-print skirt. She has the figure of a ballerina, with a face of brown porcelain and her trademark hair pulled back in a bun.

But this is a world alien to even the interstellar-inspired Monáe. She's no ballet dancer; she's a pixie-sized, big-voiced singer from the world of OutKast's hip-hop and soul. Monáe stares into a wall-to-wall mirror, her reflection moving not to a selection of Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, but her own song, "Sincerely Jane."

It's one of about 10 contemporary songs that will intersect with orchestral music for big, an unprecedented ballet and hip-hop collaboration this weekend between the Atlanta Ballet and OutKast's Big Boi. In addition to the hip-hop star, artists associated with his Purple Ribbon Entertainment group will perform. Monáe's the only one who's actually dancing in the production as well as singing in one of the numbers, so it's important to nail this down as precisely as possible.

Lauri Stallings, the company's resident choreographer, steals glances at Monáe's reflection in the mirror while she discusses the piece with an assistant. The fair-skinned and freckled choreographer has her curly red hair pulled into a ponytail, and her tall, wiry frame covered in a loose T-shirt and black sweats.

From a door in the near corner bounds dancer Tara Lee – a Chinese-American who is barely 5 feet tall and even tinier than Monáe.

"She's almost ready," Stallings calls out to Lee, who will partner with Monáe in this particular piece. Together, Monáe and Lee try to work out their dance duet. Monáe sings along to herself as her song plays, and seems to catch the dance counts until, almost inevitably, she stumbles near the end of the routine.

"She's going further than any of the other vocalists are going to find the classical part of this piece," Stallings calls back to me, and indeed, Monáe's taking morning dance lessons for extra training.

Monáe grimaces. She's close, but she can't quite mimic the hand gestures that Stallings shows her as the punctuation point to the piece.

"I got it," she eventually tells Stallings, warming to the challenge. "Can we try it one more time?"

Since 1996, when Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall went into the Atlanta Public Schools system to work with at-risk students, he has pondered how to use dance to inspire kids. He knew the students related to hip-hop. The question became how to incorporate the inspirational possibilities of dance with the relevance of popular music.

"To me, the language of hip-hop – the spirit, the essence of it – clarifies and articulates what these young people are going through in their own neighborhoods and communities," says McFall, 64, the ballet's director for 13 years. "It's about their dreams and their aspirations. It informs them about what's keeping them down. So, working with them, I started wondering, 'How can we create opportunities? How can we help them realize their potential?'"

In the fall of 2006, Atlanta Ballet board of directors member Joanne Gross invited McFall to join her at a fundraising event for Big Boi's Big Kidz Foundation, and introduced the two. The Atlanta Ballet had already performed well-received collaborations with the Indigo Girls and the Red Clay Ramblers, and when McFall broached the idea of the ballet company working with Big Boi, the hip-hop star loved it. "I remember he told me, 'That's a great idea. Just don't make me wear tights and a tutu!'"

To McFall, the idea of fusing two seemingly disparate forms of cultural expression – from different eras and different continents – wasn't such a wacky idea. If the oldest continuing professional dance company in America could make a connection with the most successful artist from the Dirty South hip-hop hub, the possibilities were endless.

"There's a certain dynamic when you connect to your own community, and respond to the people in the community and others," McFall says. "We're going into places that are unimaginable creatively."

They agreed the production should be neither a hip-hop concert nor a ballet performance, but somewhere in between, with artists that include Janelle Monáe, Sleepy Brown, Scar, C-Bone, Konkrete, Rock D and Khujo Goodie. They will perform and sing live, while the ballet group dances around them, both to their music and to select symphonic pieces. Big Boi (who was unavailable for an interview before press time) will even premiere a new song from his upcoming solo CD.

The pairing represents opportunity: for Big Boi to expose his music and roster to a more mainstream audience, and for the Atlanta Ballet to snag newer, and younger, fans of dance. Clearly, the stakes are higher for the dance company, which has struggled over the years in the face of management shake-ups, increasingly limited funding, bad public-relations hits and tragedy. It would be an overstatement to say the success of the Atlanta Ballet rides on the success of big, but it sure is a golden opportunity to increase interest in a performing-arts medium that seems more suited for the wealthy, the cultured, the older and the white. The collaboration could be a win-win proposition for both groups. But will it work?

Like many choreographers, Lauri Stallings speaks in her own language. As she works with her dancers, Stallings punctuates her instructions with "shhh-OOOPs" and "shhhh-UUUs" and "ha-ha-has" to emphasize particular movements. It's a form of shorthand her dancers immediately pick up on. In interpreting Big Boi's music, first with her dancers and then with the audience, Stallings says she hopes to tell his story as that of a journey, what her artistic director John McFall refers to as "an American fable" but in a modern context.

And she can't wait to do it.

"This music feels as if I've been waiting for it for a while, for quite some time," Stallings says. "It's very organic for me to respond to it. The interesting thing is when we can find contrast with it, and that's what I'm interested in. That's also what Big Boi's interested in. Hip-hop music has been responded to in an incredible, energetic way. Now, what we're trying to do is say, 'Hmmm, what's underneath all of that and what's going on right now in the world, 2008? And what's going on in this community of artists, community of people?'"

In Big Boi's music, Stallings has found some of the most intricately produced and forward-thinking hip-hop of its generation. And so dancers will perform to something as traditional as Verdi's La Traviata, followed by Big Boi triumphantly entering the stage with Scar and Sleepy Brown rapping to "Morris Brown" from OutKast's Idlewild soundtrack: "Music makes the world go 'round / Where it goes / Ya just don't know / My heart is like a marching band."

Throughout the show, Big Boi will narrate, comment on, even challenge the story, not unlike the way he raps in his songs.

"OutKast's music is so extraordinarily sophisticated and artistic," Stallings says. "I really don't respond any differently to them then I would to Stravinsky or Shostakovich or Vivaldi. I'm responding exactly the same way."

Contradictions and paradoxes aren't new for Stallings, 39, who turned heads during her five-year stint with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago as a dancer and choreographer before setting out on her own. She often marveled with her audacity, which earned her a "25 to Watch" nod last year in Dance magazine. In Chicago, the magazine notes, she "always looked a little different. Even in a company characterized by strong personalities, she frequently seemed to be marching to her own drummer."

A work like big demands that kind of audacity and willingness to take risks. Someone who noticed Stallings' unique style immediately is Laura Molzahn, a 20-year dance critic for the Chicago Reader (a sister paper of Creative Loafing).

"She was a distinctive dancer just as she is a choreographer," Molzahn says. "She just kind of stood out. As a dancer, she's tall and lanky. That in itself is a little unusual. Some dancers are so tight and precise, but Lauri was a little more freeform. Less controlled, in a way."

Molzahn recalls one particular Stallings work, The Manifests, in which the choreographer tried to convey an inspiration from the waltz dance form. "I had no idea what the title means," she says. "When I watched it, frankly, I didn't see that (inspiration) so much. And I can't remember any specific movements from that piece. But I remember thinking, 'Wow, every piece is different, and it's different from anything else I've seen.' It's full of invention."

Judging from Stallings' previous choreography, one thing is certain: Regardless of whether it holds together, big sure will be fun to watch.

Barry Hughson started his new job as the executive director for the Atlanta Ballet at 8:30 a.m. Monday, March 12, 2007. Two hours later, he learned that the chair of the board of directors, 46-year-old Lisa T. Fair, had died suddenly from a staph infection.

A seven-year figure at the company, Fair was admired for her love of dance as much as for her fiscal discipline. "She was a very bright woman, and a really accomplished leader," says Karen Vereb, president of the board of directors.

At that point, the struggling company was still reeling from McFall's controversial decision the previous summer to scrap the use of a live orchestration to save $400,000. It was a smart move for the bottom line but horrible for public relations.

Losing the budget-conscious Fair didn't make it easier to ease the ballet's deficit, which was about $760,000 for 2007.

Fair had helped pave the way for the sale of the Atlanta Ballet's building to the Shailendra Group for $12 million. The sale covers most of the company's most pressing costs, including the purchase and renovation of its new home on the Westside as well as an accumulated debt of $3 million. The company obtained a $500,000 gift from the Goizueta Foundation to help fix two basic needs: revitalize the fundraising wing of the company, and help fund scholarships for the company's nationally renowned Ballet Centre for Dance Education.

"It's been a challenging year, I'm not going to deny that," says Hughson, an affable, candid man whose emerging paunch belies his award-winning dancing background that turned years ago into arts administration. Hughson came to Atlanta from a stint as executive director of the American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School in New Brunswick, N.J. Before that, he served as the first executive director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York City. Coming from New York City to Atlanta could not have been a bigger culture shock. New York has hundreds of dance companies fighting for lots of money, Hughson says. The Atlanta Ballet represented a lone dance juggernaut fighting for scraps – no major competitors, but not much money, either.

Atlanta Ballet has an $8.1 million budget and a $1.6 million endowment. Compared with companies in five other major U.S. cities – Houston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth and Kansas City – Atlanta's last in percentage of money contributed, second in budget size, third in single-ticket sales, and fifth in both endowment and subscriptions.

As if the debt and tragedy weren't enough, last December a 17-year-old dancer injured herself in a fall during a production of Nutcracker.

"Do I feel as if there's a dark cloud hanging over us?" he asks rhetorically. No, he says. He believes the company can turns things around.

"Atlanta's arts community is slowly coming into its own," Hughson says. "But it's about a community's priorities. Atlanta hasn't been as generous to the arts as it has to other things."

Hughson has no illusions about big solving any of the Atlanta Ballet's pressing financial needs. Its $875,000 price tag is about average for a company production, and there's no telling how ticket sales will go. The event has benefited from positive publicity and constant marketing by the company, but it also falls during spring break, when much of its target audience might be out of town. While advance-ticket sales are slower than a typical ballet, Hughson is banking on a surge leading up to opening night.

But the hope for the company's future remains strong. After this season's finale, the company will join the Atlanta Opera up at the more intimate, 2,750-seat Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (compared with the 4,700-seat Fox).

Hughson sees the big production as a longer-term investment.

When asked what would make big a success, Hughson says he sees a dual opportunity: to gain a new audience that hasn't typically attended the ballet, and to lay a foundation to draw a more diverse group of future dancers.

Hughson is quick to point out that, sometimes, Atlanta's diversity is misleading; studies show African-American dance students stop taking classes at around 12 years of age, which explains why there are so few black principal dancers at ballet companies.

"We had a conversation with the National Black Arts Festival about the issue of training dancers, getting them to stick with it, and to find out, where's the disconnect?" he says. They're still working on the answer.

For Hughson and others, it's not so much a question of artistic or commercial success for this production; its success may well be judged by its sheer existence, and figuring out where to go from there. "We'd of course love people to embrace this, and also to consider it artistically valid," he says. "There could be critics [of big], but it won't 'fail.' The failure would be if the Atlanta Ballet doesn't harness the creative energy and the dialogue in the community and not capture that."

This isn't the first time a dance company, or even the Atlanta Ballet, has taken on the challenge of dancing to popular music. Back in 1973, Twyla Tharp turned heads with Deuce Coup, a production set to the music of the Beach Boys, to critical and popular acclaim. The Joffrey Ballet, long known for pushing boundaries and playing with popular songs, brought the music of Prince to the dance stage with 1993's Billboards, which premiered at the University of Iowa and celebrated everything from the balladry of "Purple Rain" to the funky erotica of "Get Off."

And then there's the Atlanta Ballet itself. McFall and choreographer Margo Sappington collaborated with another Atlanta music legend, the Indigo Girls, on 2001's Shed Your Skin. The production, which was remounted in 2004, featured Amy Ray and Emily Saliers performing on one side of the stage with the dancers on the other.

Ray says the Grammy-winning folk duo wasn't sure what to expect when the company first approached them with the idea. "We were just like, 'Of course,' you know?" Ray recalls. "We thought, 'Is this going to be a stretch?' Then we looked at the more orchestral, epic songs we had, that had a lot of things going on and were more dramatic. I just thought it was a really creative idea."

Tom Bell, who covered dance for Creative Loafing for four years, saw both Prince's Billboards show and Shed Your Skin. While he questions whether either production had a narrative cohesion, he appreciates the attempts to move ballet forward.

"I think ballet, like any art, has to risk trying out new things, even if sometimes those things will turn out silly, flashy, unrefined," he says. "Otherwise, it becomes a museum piece art, and who can blame the next generation if that doesn't excite them? Masterworks don't come along often. They don't come along at all if no one is pushing the envelope."

Big hopes to meld the two forms much more closely, with the Purple Ribbon crew working with and around the Atlanta Ballet dancers. In an ironic twist, Purple Ribbon will supply the musicians, while prerecorded classical music will feature Giuseppe Verdi, Thomas Newman, Max Richter and J.S. Bach, among others.

For the Atlanta Ballet dancers, it's not such a stretch to dance to hip-hop. After all, one of its stars, Anne Tyler Harshbarger, is a DJ around town whose Tuesday night "Martini Mix" at Bluepointe is a popular draw. Plenty of the dancers can be found haunting the city's nightclubs, shaking off their classical training to dance music at Hot Lava and Fever.

Nicole Johnson, a 23-year-old dancer, almost couldn't believe her ears when she heard the company might be performing to OutKast's music. An Atlanta native, Johnson attended the DeKalb School of the Arts and came up through the Centre for Dance Education.

I ask her if she listened to OutKast growing up. "Yeah. I mean, everyone has, haven't they? Or I feel like everyone has. But it's been interesting to listen to it now, and I think you look a little deeper into it and find different things in the music. It's definitely a new way of coming back to the music that I've always listened to."

Janelle Monáe grew up in Kansas City. With an addict for a father, she created her own little worlds as an escape valve. She loved music, loved hip-hop. Tupac was her favorite, even if she wasn't into the gangsta lifestyle. ("I did the opposite of what I grew up around," she says.)

She also loved Elvis, Stevie Wonder and Judy Garland. She laughs as she acknowledges, that, being from Kansas, she just had to love The Wizard of Oz. Musical theater – with its own little pretend worlds of story, song and dance – became her favorite form of artistic expression. It also seemed to bring different ethnicities together, and she liked that. "I just felt like I could grow in this environment," she says.

She moved to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, with an eye toward Broadway. She even dabbled in classical music – singing more than listening – and performed the aria "O, Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi for a class. She also stood out in another way.

"I was the only African-American girl in all of my classes," she says.

She quickly realized the only Dorothy she could play in New York wouldn't be in The Wizard of Oz; it could only be in The Wiz, the all-black homage to the musical.

For every role she wanted, Monáe says, "the lead was always, you know, a white female. I was like, 'OK, well, what kind of roles are there for me?' Well, forget this. I want to create my own musical."

Monáe's song "Sincerely Jane," with its haunting lyrics, is a centerpiece of the ballet performance in Atlanta: "The way we live, the way we die, what a tragedy, I'm so terrified. Daydreamers, please wake up, we can't sleep anymore."

The song is an orchestral wonder unto itself, with trumpet and string arrangements moving the song forward, a French horn punctuating her thoughts. When she conceived the song, Monáe decided to draw from her experiences growing up in Kansas. "The lyrics are a letter my mom wrote me," she says.

Inside Studio 1 at the Atlanta Ballet, the song blares from speakers as Monáe continues her attempt to nail down her dance movements.

"Think about your focus on [count] seven," Stallings instructs, as Monáe tries to execute a sudden back-and-forth look and then land in position, her arms set at an angle while Tara Lee watches. During the breaks, Lee stays caught up in the beat and kicks into funky little dance moves by herself.

Monáe starts to get the hang of the counts as Stallings continues to work with her. Stallings moves right up in front of Monáe and turns her back to her, helping her trace the moves together.

The clock ticks overhead. The session's almost over. On the last pass, Monáe comes really close to nailing it, and this time doesn't flub the tricky move at the end. The black R&B space funkster from the streets of Kansas City smiles at the pale dance choreographer, and she smiles back. "That's fantastic!" Stallings shouts.

She walks up to Monáe and they share a hug.

Monáe is thrilled that she's getting closer. "Wow!" she exclaims. "That was fun!"

big. $25-$125. Thurs.-Sat., April 10-12, 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., April 12-13, 2 p.m.; Sun., April 13, 7 p.m. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. 404-817-8700. www.foxtheatre.org.

More information on big can be found on these PopSmart posts. 

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Joeff Davis
FLIGHT RISK: Atlanta Ballet resident choreographer Lauri Stallings is known for taking risks and pushing boundaries. "It's full of invention," one critic says of her work.
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