Janelle Monáe is almost finished limbering up in Studio 1 on the first floor of the Atlanta Ballet's building on West Peachtree, doing her stretches in black leotard and black-and-white floral-print skirt. She has the figure of a ballerina, with a face of brown porcelain and her trademark hair pulled back in a bun.
But this is a world alien to even the interstellar-inspired Monáe. She's no ballet dancer; she's a pixie-sized, big-voiced singer from the world of OutKast's hip-hop and soul. Monáe stares into a wall-to-wall mirror, her reflection moving not to a selection of Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, but her own song, "Sincerely Jane."
It's one of about 10 contemporary songs that will intersect with orchestral music for big, an unprecedented ballet and hip-hop collaboration this weekend between the Atlanta Ballet and OutKast's Big Boi. In addition to the hip-hop star, artists associated with his Purple Ribbon Entertainment group will perform. Monáe's the only one who's actually dancing in the production as well as singing in one of the numbers, so it's important to nail this down as precisely as possible.
Lauri Stallings, the company's resident choreographer, steals glances at Monáe's reflection in the mirror while she discusses the piece with an assistant. The fair-skinned and freckled choreographer has her curly red hair pulled into a ponytail, and her tall, wiry frame covered in a loose T-shirt and black sweats.
From a door in the near corner bounds dancer Tara Lee – a Chinese-American who is barely 5 feet tall and even tinier than Monáe.
"She's almost ready," Stallings calls out to Lee, who will partner with Monáe in this particular piece. Together, Monáe and Lee try to work out their dance duet. Monáe sings along to herself as her song plays, and seems to catch the dance counts until, almost inevitably, she stumbles near the end of the routine.
"She's going further than any of the other vocalists are going to find the classical part of this piece," Stallings calls back to me, and indeed, Monáe's taking morning dance lessons for extra training.
Monáe grimaces. She's close, but she can't quite mimic the hand gestures that Stallings shows her as the punctuation point to the piece.
"I got it," she eventually tells Stallings, warming to the challenge. "Can we try it one more time?"
Since 1996, when Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall went into the Atlanta Public Schools system to work with at-risk students, he has pondered how to use dance to inspire kids. He knew the students related to hip-hop. The question became how to incorporate the inspirational possibilities of dance with the relevance of popular music.
"To me, the language of hip-hop – the spirit, the essence of it – clarifies and articulates what these young people are going through in their own neighborhoods and communities," says McFall, 64, the ballet's director for 13 years. "It's about their dreams and their aspirations. It informs them about what's keeping them down. So, working with them, I started wondering, 'How can we create opportunities? How can we help them realize their potential?'"
In the fall of 2006, Atlanta Ballet board of directors member Joanne Gross invited McFall to join her at a fundraising event for Big Boi's Big Kidz Foundation, and introduced the two. The Atlanta Ballet had already performed well-received collaborations with the Indigo Girls and the Red Clay Ramblers, and when McFall broached the idea of the ballet company working with Big Boi, the hip-hop star loved it. "I remember he told me, 'That's a great idea. Just don't make me wear tights and a tutu!'"
To McFall, the idea of fusing two seemingly disparate forms of cultural expression – from different eras and different continents – wasn't such a wacky idea. If the oldest continuing professional dance company in America could make a connection with the most successful artist from the Dirty South hip-hop hub, the possibilities were endless.
"There's a certain dynamic when you connect to your own community, and respond to the people in the community and others," McFall says. "We're going into places that are unimaginable creatively."
They agreed the production should be neither a hip-hop concert nor a ballet performance, but somewhere in between, with artists that include Janelle Monáe, Sleepy Brown, Scar, C-Bone, Konkrete, Rock D and Khujo Goodie. They will perform and sing live, while the ballet group dances around them, both to their music and to select symphonic pieces. Big Boi (who was unavailable for an interview before press time) will even premiere a new song from his upcoming solo CD.
The pairing represents opportunity: for Big Boi to expose his music and roster to a more mainstream audience, and for the Atlanta Ballet to snag newer, and younger, fans of dance. Clearly, the stakes are higher for the dance company, which has struggled over the years in the face of management shake-ups, increasingly limited funding, bad public-relations hits and tragedy. It would be an overstatement to say the success of the Atlanta Ballet rides on the success of big, but it sure is a golden opportunity to increase interest in a performing-arts medium that seems more suited for the wealthy, the cultured, the older and the white. The collaboration could be a win-win proposition for both groups. But will it work?
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