Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: Atlanta Ballet in New Choreographic Voices

Posted By on Sat, May 19, 2012 at 9:53 AM

The Atlanta Ballet gives Tara Lees Pavo its world premiere on the stage of the Alliance Theatre this weekend as part of the mixed program New Choreographic Voices.
  • Charlie McCullers
  • The Atlanta Ballet gives Tara Lee's "Pavo" its world premiere on the stage of the Alliance Theatre this weekend as part of the mixed program "New Choreographic Voices."
The three short pieces that make up the Atlanta Ballet's New Choreographic Voices are abstract works without specific characters, settings or stories, but nonetheless there's about as much drama on stage as you'd ever want in an evening at the theater. The program, which ends the ballet's 2011-12 season, premiered last night and runs through the weekend at the Alliance.

It's been a rigorous year for our ballet, with the company taking a decided turn towards performing more contemporary work. Throughout the season (and even before it started) the dancers worked intensely with the famously demanding choreographer Twyla Tharp on her story ballet The Princess and the Goblin, which had its world premiere on the company in February. Dancers also took on vastly different and challenging pieces by contemporary dance luminaries like Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo, and James Kudelka. The season has featured a lovely combination of focused energy, precision, openness and adaptability in taking on new work that comes through powerfully in the three new pieces.

This weekend's program opens with Christopher Wheeldon's "Rush." Those who come to a contemporary program secretly wishing to see some classic ballet moves won't be disappointed. The piece features a classic shifting tableau comprised of most of the dancers in the company, with women en pointe, men taking athletic, graceful leaps. Still, Wheeldon mixes the classical with the contemporary in a curious way: the women give little quick, funky hip swivels while en pointe, an extended leg has an unusual little arc, or a bright and celebratory group gradually dwindles down into a more troubled, surreal, dreamlike duet.

A scene from Helen Picketts Prayer of Touch
The company also gives the new work "Pavo," created by the Atlanta Ballet's own principal dancer Tara Lee, its world premiere. The piece is a meditation on the spiritual symbolism of the peacock, usually associated with beauty and pride, but here celebrated for its aspect of transformation, specifically its ability to digest some species of poisonous plants which allegedly make its plumage more vivid and beautiful. The piece becomes especially dramatic under Robert Hand, Jr.'s precise lighting design, which carves the floor and space into stark sections, and by Atlanta composer Nickitas Demos' pulsing live score for DJ and three musicians. The piece opens with dancers in tense, conforming postures, walking in rigid circles which gradually release through an agitated storm of movement. Especially lovely is the duet at the piece's center, danced splendidly by Christine Winkler and John Welker on opening night. With paint on her arms, she leaves gentle, but transformative traces on his body, points of contact that become literally visible.

Helen Pickett, who set her gorgeous work "Petal" on the Atlanta Ballet last season, gives outrageously dramatic and humorous life to Mendelssohn violin music in "Prayer of Touch." The second section in particular pops off the stage with daring little flights of fancy and funny, sharply-observed manifestations of the dramatic dips and turns of Mendelssohn's music.

It's a rare opportunity to be able to watch a world-class company take on such a program at an intimate venue like the Alliance Theater, and it's an unusual combination of circumstances - a risky move towards programming more contemporary works, an eagerness by the dancers to take on the challenges of working with some of the world's most demanding choreographers. A small close-knit regional company has clearly come into its own. It would be silly not to go enjoy the moment with them.

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