Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Atlanta Ballet to paint the town red with “Moulin Rouge”

Posted By on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 11:49 AM

The Atlanta Ballets production not only takes its look from Lautrecs famous paintings of the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec is a charater in the show itself.
  • The Atlanta Ballet's production not only draws its look from Lautrec's famous paintings of the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec is a character in the show itself.
It's hard to say precisely why the Moulin Rouge—a nightclub that saw its heyday almost 120 years ago on another continent—still maintains its hold on the popular imagination. But maintain its hold it does. There have been at least six films and a book titled “Moulin Rouge” and countless other works that have taken inspiration from the famous cabaret, including the now iconic paintings by Toulouse Lautrec. Even Bugs Bunny evoked wolf whistles from Elmer Fudd when he danced the can-can, and more recently, Nicole Kidman sang her heart out and high-kicked before she coughed her blood out and kicked it in Baz Luhrman's eye-popping, fanciful take on the Moulin Rouge in the 2001 film.

To this long list of familiar works that took inspiration from the risque Belle Epoque cabaret you can now officially add a ballet. Starting this weekend, the Atlanta Ballet will be the first American company to produce Jorden Morris' ballet “Moulin Rouge.”

“I wanted to make something colorful and lively, something that would take audiences on a journey,” says choreographer Morris, who is bringing the show down from Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where it had its world premiere last year. When initially commissioned to create a ballet for the RWP, Morris toyed with the idea of creating a Cyrano de Bergerac, but in the end rejected the idea as too heavy. The Moulin Rouge's combination of Parisian glamor, music, and romance proved irresistible.

The problem: the name Moulin Rouge belongs to the still very existent Parisian nightclub, and the club owners have recently become far more selective about how their club's name and image are reproduced in popular culture. The first step in creating the ballet was convincing the protective club owners that the ballet would do right by them.

“The Moulin Rouge in Paris is now very wary about who they let use the name,” recalls Morris. “I had to send them my script, the music and the whole concept for the ballet. Once they saw those materials they became interested, and we started working together. Part of what the Moulin Rouge in Paris loved about the ballet is that it is historically based and very different from other versions that exist in film and elsewhere.”

The ballet tells the story of two ambitious innocents in the Paris of the late 19th century: Natalie a launderette who dreams of becoming a dancer at the Moulin Rouge and Matthew, the young painter who falls in love with her. As in the Paris of a Balzac novel, no one can stay ambitious and innocent for long: the two get caught up in the money and fame-driven hierarchies of 19th century Paris and the Moulin Rouge.

Through music and dance, “Moulin Rouge” tells a far more cinematic and narrative-driven story than the Atlanta Ballet is used to presenting. As opposed to the fairy-tale places and magical events of, say, “Sleeping Beauty” or “The Nutcracker,” “Moulin Rouge” is set in a very real and specific time and place, even employing real historic persons like painter Lautrec or club manager Harold Zidler as characters.

“The moment I found out I was going to play the lead, I read all about the Moulin Rouge, about Toulouse Lautrec, about the time period,” says Atlanta Ballet dancer Nadia Mara of taking on the new production and playing the role of Natalie in some of the shows (casts in Atlanta Ballet productions rotate to give lead dancers a chance to rest and to highlight different members of the company). “I really tried to get into that time of the early 20th century by doing a lot of research,” she says.

Dancers of the Atlanta Ballet rehearse a scene from Moulin Rouge at their new headquarters.
  • Jonah Hooper
  • Dancers of the Atlanta Ballet rehearse a scene from "Moulin Rouge" at their new headquarters.

An acting coach was brought in to help cast members learn to carry the narrative with facial expression and other forms of theatrical story-telling that aren't usually required in a ballet. “We're used to just dance and movement alone carrying a story,” says Mara. “But the story of 'Moulin Rouge' requires a lot of traditional acting. Facial expressions and acting really carry the story here.”

The realistic, historic setting requires not just a more specific style of acting than the company is accustomed to, but far more elaborate costume and set changes, as well. Some of the female dancers change costume, hair and make-up as much as four times during the show.

And of course the show required the dancers to learn the Moulin Rouge's signature dance: the can-can. The version seen in the show melds the more earthy, naughty, nightclub dance with the grace and fluidity of classical ballet. “There are dances where you kick your legs high in ballet,” says Mara, “but in the can-can you kick and kick and kick. It's challenging, but it's been very fun for us. It's a challenging dance, but in the end classical ballet is much harder, far more controlled.”

The production also is the first to be rehearsed in the ballet's spacious and stylish new headquarters on Marietta Boulevard, a $10.9 million renovation of a former appliance warehouse. “We love it!” says Mara of rehearsing in the new space. “We're so much happier there. The new studios are so clean and spacious, and everything is so well organized. The rooms are huge, the pianos sound fantastic. Everyone is very happy.”

And no wonder. The company had long outgrown its old space on West Peachtree, where cramped conditions often left dancers in studios that were smaller or differently proportioned than local stages, in bathrooms without hot water, or in hallways where they had to compete with ballet students to find a place to relax during breaks. With the great new space as a launching pad for the elaborate production, expectations from Atlanta audiences will be justifiably high as the Ballet takes a shot at bringing back the glamor of bohemian Paris in “Moulin Rouge.”

The Atlanta Ballet's production of “Moulin Rouge” starts Friday, October 22, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center and will run through October 31. Tickets start at $20. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.atlantaballet.com or www.ticketmaster.com

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