(Courtesy AJC Decatur Book Festival)
In a continuing effort to dump my reporterâs notebook on this weekâs cover story about the Atlanta Balletâs collaboration with Big Boi, I thought Iâd turn an interview with former Creative Loafing dance critic Thomas Bell into a âguest blog,â something I hope to do more of in the future. I should confess that not only did Tom cover dance for four years at CL, he's also an old friend of mine. But more impressively, he now serves as co-chair of the AJC Decatur Book Festivalâs Programming Committee, and is a member of the festivalâs board of directors.
Tomâs comments, which barely made the story, provide a rather keen insight and context for big, considering that heâs probably one of the few Atlantans who has seen both the Joffrey Ballet collaboration with Prince (Billboards) and the Atlanta Balletâs collaboration with the Indigo Girls (Shed Your Skin). Enjoy â¦
First, a little back story for my ballet studies. I was a competitive cyclist in college. I attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Minnesota has very long, bitter winters, so we always struggled to find ways to keep our legs strong in the winter. Iâd seen that old âBrady Bunchâ episode where one of the boys takes ballet to get better at running the hurdles. So I signed up for ballet. I wasnât very good at it. Not. Very. Good. At. All. But my teacher was patient with me, kept helping me grow and improve in whatever ways I could. It did help my cycling. After college, I stopped racing bikes, but by then my interest in dance had become a thing unto itself. So I kept taking classes. My ballet teacher, Toni Sostek, died soon after of lung cancer â like so many ballet dancers, she was a smoker â and I havenât taken ballet since. But Iâve taken a lot of modern dance.
I saw Billboards, a rock ballet set to music by Prince, up in St. Paul, Minn., when I lived there. Prince is from Minneapolis, so it was a good place to see it. Billboards was actually a four-part ballet by four choreographers, unified only by their use of Princeâs music. They were Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Peter Pucci and Margo Sappington (who later choreographed the Indigo Girls/Atlanta Ballet collaboration Shed Your Skin). As you might expect with such an endeavor, some of the pieces worked better than others. My favorite was âSometimes it Snows in April,â choreographed by Dean. It was minimalist, serialist, moved like a beautiful silver and brass clockwork. The movement would have been at home in a Philip Glass composition. I think it worked best because it didnât try to be like Prince, didnât try to be a rock star. Rather, Dean found the mathematics of the music, and she choreographed to that, and left the music to give the emotion.
Much of the rest was a good deal flashier. I particularly remember one male dancer who started standing, and then very, very slowly bent back, arcing â¦ until at last his hands touched the ground. It was to "Purple Rain," I think, and it was like a ballet dancer would do in a break-dance battle: showing off. And of course everyone screamed and clapped and whooped it up. Iâd never seen that happen in a ballet performance. It was exhilarating. I was casually studying ballet at the time, had been for maybe two years. I asked my ballet teacher, Toni Sostek, what she thought of the show. She said something like, âIt was OK for what it was.â So that was the other side of it, I guess. For a lot of ballet purists, Billboards was too much flash and novelty, not enough refinement, subtlety, or complexity. I saw her point. I still liked it.
I saw Shed Your Skin at the Fox during the 2004 re-mounting of the production. For the record, Iâm a longtime Indigo Girls fan. One summer during college, I worked at a bike shop, mostly assembling and occasionally repairing or selling bikes. My boss was a fundamentalist Christian. On the radio, he would only play light FM or AM talk. Shows like âSwap Talk,â where folks call in hoping to trade a Ford F-150 engine block for a working washer/dryer combo. It drove us all nuts. One day, one of my co-workers brought in the self-titled Indigo Girls cassette. Their lyrics included words like âGodâ and âBible.â Boss didnât listen too much more closely than that. It was OK with him. One of my happiest days at the bike shop was spent putting together bikes while listening to the Indigo Girls. Later, living in Minnesota, I went to one of their concerts on the Swamp Ophelia tour. As you can imagine, big cheers to âThe Mississippiâs might. It starts in Minnesota â¦ .â Emilyâs guitar solo in âTouch Me, Fallâ was one of the best things Iâd ever seen a guitar do.
Shed Your Skin was also a mixed experience for me. The Indigo Girls have that mix of little bit country, little bit rock ânâ roll, and of course a lot of folk bringing it all together. Shed Your Skin had the hardest time with the rock ânâ roll â dancers going through the motions of being tough and bad-ass, but doing so with dainty feet and barely touching the floor. But the ballads they handled much better, allowing more weight to settle into balletâs native lyricism. Quite beautiful. I think maybe there was a story that was supposed to hold it all together, but if so, it hasnât stuck with me. Having Amy and Emily performing live onstage added an extra electricity to it all. Not just that the music was live, but that they werenât in the orchestra pit. They were up there, surrounded by dancers, blurring the lines between Amy and Emilyâs performance and the dancersâ movements.
Overall, I think ballet, like any art, has to risk trying out new things, even if sometimes those things will turn out silly, flashy, unrefined. Otherwise it becomes a museum piece art, and who can blame the next generation if that doesnât excite them? Not all these collaborations of new music with ballet work. Ballet companies have to try them anyway. Itâs the only hope of remaining relevant, and alive. They have to take chances, enter unknown territory, and be willing to fail. Often. Masterworks donât come along often. They donât come along at all though if no one is pushing the envelope.
I so much prefer going to a ballet thatâs trying something new and yet doesnât quite work over yet another highly refined production of âSwan Lake.â I think all of these experiments are vital to the life of ballet. This is living art, and living art is messy. Some of it doesnât work. But every once in a while it does, and then itâs extraordinary. Billboards, Shed Your Skin, and Ramblinâ Suite (the Atlanta Ballet paired with the Red Clay Ramblers) have all stuck with me, not because they were masterpieces â they werenât â but because they were the heartbeat of ballet still alive and growing.