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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Atlanta Ballet kicks up the mix with Fusion

Pedro Gamino and Peng Yu-Chen in Helen Picketts Petal
The Atlanta Ballet obviously takes the term “mixed program” very seriously. When an evening encompasses traditional African music, Bach, a ritualistic sacrifice and some gorgeous minimalism, it's safe to say that the term “mixed” definitely applies.

But it's a measure of the Atlanta Ballet's strength as a company that the dancers can incorporate many different ideas, styles, images and tones into a single evening that feels balanced, lively and engaging. It's a program that long-time ballet fans will adore, but it's also great entertainment for those who think they normally don't like ballet. Through drama, joy, tragedy, narrative and abstraction, Fusion shows what a broadly adaptable and accessible art form ballet can be.

"The Rite of Spring" is the name of the second piece on the program, but it might just as easily cover the first. The evening opens with choreographer Helen Pickett's "Petal," a gorgeous, minimalistic dance for the company in front of a spare but brightly lit and changing backdrop based on the colors of a garden in bloom. Picket doesn't just have a great eye for lovely, lyrical movement, but she also possesses a natural ease with subtle shades of emotion: There's no specific narrative for "Petal," but there is a sense of a steady, skillful unraveling of information and images as with a story. Against larger patterns of movement, Picket reveals little pockets of activity and drama. It's a piece in which the joy and sensuality of spring are everywhere, but there are also tinges of sadness, too. Beneath the prettiness, there's a haunted and troubled quality—even an unpredictability—to some of the movements, as when the women go limp in the men's arms or a single male dancer remains seated in the foreground at stage left as a rich interweaving of pairs and groups continues on the stage behind him.

British choreographer Christopher Hampson offers the second piece on the program, a world premiere work based on Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." It's a daring, challenging piece which is as full of primal energy and terror as the famous score. Stravinsky's outrageously dramatic music usually brings to mind enormous, cataclysmic events—tribes sacrificing maidens or dinosaurs facing extinction as in the famous sequence from Disney's Fantasia—but Hampson has stripped the work down to a drama for three. It's surprising how much the three dancers are called upon to do for this "epic movie in miniature.”

Christian Clark and Jacob Bush in Christopher Hampsons The RIte of Spring
  • Charlie McCullers
  • Christian Clark and Jacob Bush in Christopher Hampson's "The RIte of Spring"
Jacob Bush in particular must carry so much. It's unusual to find at the center of a piece, at the center of a company's program, a single dancer as the focus and fulcrum, but Bush deftly handles a part which is both enormously athletic and intensely dramatic. The phrase “give until it hurts” came to mind, and those who were lucky enough to catch opening night saw a dancer fully answering the call to give everything he had. He depicts an interior journey that starts with puppy-like innocence and devotion and continues through the most degrading forms of suffering, cruelty and betrayal. The dance takes place against a spare backdrop of gently sloping walls (or “the half-pipe” as someone sitting next to me called it), and the half-pipe allows for some inventive movement woven into the drama: the dancers run up the sides, climb it, hang from it, slide down it, Bush even does a back flip off of it at one point. It's the sort of piece when the lights come up, you'll think to yourself “Did I really just watch that?” One gets the sense of Hampson as the sort of artist who rushes to embrace the images and ideas that most disturb him, ideas he knows will trouble the audience, as well. It's daring, brave work, a blind leap of faith off an artistic edge, bravely carried out by the three dancers to devastating and powerful effect.

The final piece is Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena," which fuses traditional forms of African dance with ballet. This sounds like it could be jarring: One would have thought ballet's frontality, precision and formality would be utterly incompatible with the voluptuous, rhythmic movements typically associated with West African forms, but they fuse together surprisingly well: Everywhere you see similarities, and you start to wonder why the two have been held apart for so long. If I had to place bets, my guess would be that this is the piece that the company enjoyed dancing the most. There's joy and celebration in every movement.

2010-2011 has been a banner season for our ballet, starting with the move out of its old cramped headquarters on West Peachtree and into a new, light-filled, spacious, state-of-the-art facility on Marietta Boulevard. The ballet's first production in fall 2010 was the certifiable hit Moulin Rouge. The opening of the Nutcracker, which is usually greeted by yawns and eyerolls from ballet fans, was greeted by cheers this year due to the return of the orchestra. The promise of an artistic jump forward that was hinted at by live music was brought to its full realization by the pretty and elegant production of The Sleeping Beauty. Another evening of mixed pieces Ignition is still ahead in this season, but the ballet is now rounding their final lap of 2010-2011. With the recent announcement of a new ballet next season by dance world icon Twyla Tharp, the Atlanta Ballet seems prepping itself to complete the move from being a beloved regional company to becoming a unique player with real clout on the national scene. Orchestras, ballet centers and Miss Twyla don't come cheaply, so there is considerable risk involved here, too, but the ballet has proven itself a company willing to take risks and successfully navigate them. It's a fantastic, if dizzying, moment for the company, and they're the ones to watch, this weekend and in 2011-2012.

The Atlanta Ballet will perform its mixed program "Fusion" today Saturday, March 26, at 2 pm and 8 pm and tomorrow Sunday, March 27, at 2 pm at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit the Atlanta Ballet or call 404-873-5811.

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