Well, the Atlanta Ballet's big moment with Big Boi finally came, and it was certainly as unprecedented a pairing as one could have possibly hoped on Thursday night. I'll leave most of the critical-dance appraisals for others (more on that later in this post), but here are some general impressions:
* God, were they having fun up there! With some 80 performers â Atlanta Ballet company members (including a select group from its school of youngsters), the Purple Ribbon rappers and singers and their 10-piece band, and of course the man of the hour â all whipping around the stage in various sequences, you couldn't help but feel the passion in the air. Throughout the weeks leading up to my cover story, dancers would mention how they couldn't believe they were being afforded such an opportunity, and they took advantage of it, full-throttle.
Part of that came from Lauri Stallings' choreography, which featured a wide range of groupings, pairings, solos, stagings, and which allowed the dancers to essentially let it all hang out. Part of it came from the interactions with the Purple Ribbon crew, who at first could be forgiven for looking like interlopers as they snaked through the pieces, grins aplenty, rapping and singing and feeling like they had just been gifted with the greatest back-up dancers ever.
* What a crowd. Part of all that exuberance must have come the notion that the audience felt like a perfect mix of old-school ballet fans, OutKast fans, and a helluva middle crowd of the curious. It definitely seemed younger, felt mixed in terms of race, and was just plain into it. You just don't hear audience members yell "Hooty-hoo!" at a ballet, is what I'm trying to say.
Some funny moments, though: One middle-aged white woman sitting near us in our balcony-seat perch flagged down an usher at intermission and said something to this effect: "I know it's opening night and all, and I understand if it's going to be loud. But does it have to be this loud?! Can you get them to please turn the volume down?" Even funnier, I think the usher actually tried to deliver the message, because she returned later with what appeared to be comforting words to the woman and her friend (who'd clearly sneaked in a travel coffee-mug with her, but whatev). At the after-party, Atlanta Ballet executive director Barry Hughson laughed when he recounted that an employee approached him at intermission with a message from another audience member who requested that Big Boi better articulate his lyrics because she couldn't understand his rapping. "Should I tell him?" Hughson recalled the employee asking him. His response? "Um, nooooooo." But then, as he scanned the after-party scene, Hughson beamed: "Look at this. You don't see this group hanging out together at events like these."
* Again, I don't pretend to be a dance critic, but after watching rehearsals, two sneak previews and now opening night, I have to say there are some rough edges to contend with, and it will be interesting to see what happens tonight. I chalk up a lot of this to Stallings' ambitions, which are both admirable and challenging. First off, whole sequences that had been listed in the program had been lopped off ("We'd been making changes all this week," Artistic Director John McFall said), including "dialogues" featuring Big Rube. And other pieces, while aggressive in their staging and daring in their movements, just didn't feel tight enough. The timing felt off, and even though you can tell Stallings has worked furiously to figure out the way around and with those ripping syncopated beats of hip-hop and funk, it's still hard to keep everyone in sync on a given piece. But I'm wagering a lot of this can be chalked up to all that last-minute fixing, and a dash of opening-night jitters.
But in some ways, this is a good thing, if you wanna rationalize things, in the sense that what with all that hip-hop and funk, the dancing sometimes had a kind of ragged glory to it. What it lacked in precision (only at times) it more than made up for in brio.
* Balance is a beautiful thing. Going in, I was a little worried about the artistic decision to mix the Big Boi tunes with more classical works, but it proved almost perfectly balanced instead of, say, atonal. Each transition seemed to offer relief from the previous performance, as if to say to the audience (varied as it was), "Don't worry, we've still got a little of this for you." Moving from hip-hop from classic-ballet pieces softened the edges, while going in reverse reenergized the proceedings. If nothing else, big didn't bore.
* Improvisation has its benefits. All that switching around of pieces, which unfortunately included dropping Janelle Monae's second piece, made everything feel lose. And the ultimate payoff came during the encore, which saw the entire troupe onstage taking a bow, laughing, dancing, chatting with other while the standing-ovation crowd clapped to the beat provided by the still-jamming band. And then, with nothing left to prove, Big Boi still left the audience with a magnificent treat by performing "The Way You Move" complete with Sleepy Brown's sweet crooning tenor. The crowd went nuts (well, I know I did). When I told McFall that Big Boi didn't have to perform the song, and that the crowd was happy enough, he replied with a smile, "We made the decision to do that at 4:30 this afternoon." How cool is that? As we left our seats for the party, the DJ blared Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)." A woman of about 65 happily sang the lyrics as she walked up the steps. Another fan.
* Forgive the hyperbole, but it's not often you get to see history being made. I've lived in Atlanta for two years now and have had a blast at many of the signature Atlanta events: Drive Invasion, Screen on the Green, Decatur Arts Festival, the Dogwood Festival. But this is right up there with attending the AJC Decatur Book Festival for first-time events. You just get the feeling that could lead to something special, enduring. Here's to the Atlanta Ballet building on this.
* Never send a neophyte to do an expert's job. That's why, in tomorrow's PopSmart, you'll get the impressions of a real dancer, Creative Loafing assistant copy editor Tara-Lynne Pixley. Pixley began dancing at the age of 3 and rocked the barre for several years before discovering lyrical and jazz as a dance student at DeKalb School of the Arts. She has performed in The Nutcracker: All Jazzed Up and as a company member and soloist with Dance Repertory Company and Orchesis Contemporary Dance Theatre. After a hiatus to focus on her journalism career, she has recently put her dancing shoes back on and will be coming to a studio near you. But tonight, she's on assignment for us. I can't wait to see what she says.
(Photo by Joeff Davis)