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Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Wabi Sabi at the Botanical Gardens

If I had to write a verse of the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, my list would probably skip over "raindrops on roses" but include: strong cocktails, late summer evenings, and site-specific dance performances. That wouldn't sound quite right in a song, but it was nice to have a few of my favorite things converge last night—along with a large audience that obviously shares these enthusiasms—at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens where the dance company Wabi Sabi had its unveiling.

Wabi Sabi is the new “company within a company” of the Atlanta Ballet. Comprised of a small core of Atlanta Ballet dancers led by John Welker, Wabi Sabi takes its name from a Japanese aesthetic which admires the beauty of that which is impermanent. The group plans to showcase contemporary works in various places around town, reflecting a recent trend in the city for site-specific dance performances. Midway through the opening piece “Passage” set in the atrium of the visitor's center, company dancer Peng-Yu Chen literally stepped out of her fluffy white tutu and placed it on a chair beside her: the pointe shoes had presumably been left at home in favor of a pair of hip, chunky black sneakers.

The group did a great job of integrating into the garden: Upon entering, visitors were handed a map and schedule informing them where the dancers could be found and when. Among the strongest works was a premiere piece choreographed by Juel Lane titled “Moments of Dis” for one male dancer and three women. The piece was smart, funky, funny and a wonderful fit for the dancers who took to the movement with a lot of energy and precision. Two pieces on the oval, a pas de deux titled “Song to the Siren” and a piece for three dancers “Divergemergence” were also very strong.

One of the most interesting pieces also seemed to present the group with the most challenges. “Thru” was set at a large water feature involving several connecting pools and a cascade. It was the most inventive and the most specific to its environment: a dancer climbed and intertwined in the metal vines of a decorative gate, one walked along the retaining wall of the pool, and another moved underneath the cascading water. But the water itself, deep in some places, seemed to provide more resistance and uncertainty than the dancers seemed used to, and although the flowing synergy was cool, in the end there was something tentative about the piece. The evening ended indoors in the more traditional theatrical setting of Mershon Hall for a very strong piece for six dancers, a more narrative, vaguely 1930s work set to the music of Beirut and Gabriel Fauré.

It was great to see so many people at the event, but the audience was so large (I think there was even a Groupon involved) that it was hard to get close to a couple of the pieces. One with a Piazolla tango sounded fantastic, but I couldn't get near. It was disappointing, but I followed along with some others who sneakily used the map to arrive early at the next location to grab a prime spot. One of the challenges with site-specific work is integrating into a given environment, while giving an interactive close-up feel to a shifting crowd of spectators and also providing site-lines.

In the end, Wabi Sabi is a great opportunity for company dancers and audiences alike. Dancers can try their hand at choreographing pieces and performing in contemporary work, and audiences can get up close to our company's ballet dancers away from the more formal proscenium stage. Between pieces, dancers followed along with the spectators, giving the opportunity to chat with them about the piece they'd just performed. (That would be impossible at Swan Lake, so don't even try). Overall, the feeling was a happy one of distance abridged, which doesn't rhyme with anything, but is certainly among my favorite things.

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