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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Atlanta Ballet explores three different worlds in "Man in Black"

Dancer Peng Yu Chen in 1st Flash by Jorma Elo.
  • Photo by C. McCullers, Courtesy of Atl Ballet
  • Dancer Peng Yu Chen in "1st Flash" by Jorma Elo.
Man in Black, the Atlanta Ballet's new mixed program of three contemporary works, takes the stage this weekend at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The program provides an engaging glimpse at three distinct and wildly diverse styles of movement, which the Atlanta Ballet takes on with commitment and energy.

The opening piece "Moments of Dis," choreographed by young emerging Atlanta choreographer Juel Lane, is an energetic tour-de-force combining hip-hop moves with broadly expressive, graceful, even classically-tinged gestures. Lane has said that he likes to utilize fast movement, and the piece certainly provides: dancers move from one movement to the next with lightning-like agility, and one composition or physical pattern will emerge and then fade almost as soon as it's glimpsed. The kaleidoscopic opening segment with its shifting arrangements of dancers, occasionally clicking into synchronous movement and then snapping out and merging into another pattern, focuses on the theme of "discombobulation." Lane's movement style certainly suggests a strong influence from beat-driven, full-bodied hip-hop, but there's also a really interesting vein of theatricality that hints more towards Broadway and Fosse. Composer Quentin "EQ" Johnson's score with its driving baseline and funky, detailed variations is a delight from the top of the piece to the end. Dancer Heath Gill is a standout in the third section with his natural grasp of the piece's melding of funk, drama and cool. In all, it's such a disjunct in style from ballet, it truly opens your eyes to the grace and skill of the company.

The work's premiere is especially exciting because Lane is the first independent Atlanta-based choreographer commissioned by the Atlanta Ballet, and the work also represents Lane's first major commission. Lane's work seems right at home set on the Atlanta Ballet alongside pieces by more experienced, internationally-established choreographers, and the young artist will be a fascinating talent to watch as his career develops.

L. Barrieau, C. Clark, J. Hooper J. Bush in The Man in Black.
The evening takes its title from the program's second piece, James Kudelka's "Man in Black" set to six stark late cover songs by Johnny Cash. Four dancers, three men and one woman—in cowboy boots and Western wear—remain on stage throughout the piece, suggesting, but never specifying an overarching narrative. The combination of Cash's music and classically-trained ballet dancers is a provocative one, but the movement is often far too storybook-simple and literal. In the song "Sam Hall," Cash sings "Damn your eyes," and the dancers point to their eyes, "A-swingin' I must go," and the dancers make broad swinging gestures with their arms, "I saw Molly in the crowd," and they point out towards the audience. On the Beatles' "In My Life," with the line "Some are dead," a dancer lies prostrate on the floor, and then when Cash continues "... and some are living," a dancer takes a lively leap. It has a nice touch of whimsy, but the Western wear and cowboy boots seem to return it all to the obvious (And were cowboy gear, western wear, flannel, line-dancing etc, ever really a crucial part of the Cash persona?). In their own way, the boots do provide an interesting shift in weight for the dancers, adding a sexy earthiness and some audible clicks and scoots, and the costuming is suggestive of character, history and relationships between the dancers. The dancers often capture a fascinating balance between angularity and sinuousness: Elbows bent, hands resting on belt-buckles, it's a whole new take on port-de-bras. Line-dancing has never looked better. Still, with its too-literal take on Cash's lyrics and his image, the music ultimately proves more compelling than the choreography.

The final piece on the program is Jorma Elo's crisply modern "1st Flash," set to violin-centered music of Sibelius. John Welker, who just a month ago memorably created the dual roles of King Papa and King of the Goblins in the world premiere of Twyla Tharp's "The Princess and the Goblins," remains king here, too, with his startlingly quick and efficient but always elegant turns and flourishes. The whole company takes to Elo's style: especially fascinating to watch is the way a movement ripples through the company in waves, as if the motivation were passing from mind to mind. The end of the piece, with movement sustained in silence after a huge thundering symphonic Sibelius finish, is as intrguing as the sudden flash of light, and it bookends the evening perfectly. Things end, as they begin, in silence.

The evening is, like the man in black himself, a fascinating collection of contradictions: stark, serious, humorous, stripped-down, and intricate all at once.

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