Saturday, April 12, 2008

The way they move: A little more big

Posted By on Sat, Apr 12, 2008 at 7:41 PM

click to enlarge bigboi.jpg

As I walk to my seat, I can’t help but notice the palpable static of expectancy and excitement running through this very atypical crowd of ballet-goers. Age, race, gender and money is of little apparent importance to the make-up of the human spectrum filing through the Fox’s gilded doors. It’s refreshing and unique, setting the tone for the evening of dance.

Several minutes from the show opening, dancers in various forms of costume and warm-up clothes preen across the stage, stretching, talking, moving — essentially rehearsing — in full view of the filling theater. Classical ballet merges with modern-influenced choreography to form a hodge-podge of movement, serving as a preview of what’s to come. And suddenly … there is that lull unique to theater, where the crowd has settled in and somewhere a stage manager has signaled a beginning.

Big Boi struts onstage in full Southern I’m-on-my-own-time style replete with hoodie and bright yellow socks. All bravado and bass, he’s in stark contrast to the array of dancers clad all in white behind him. The lights go out, the curtain falls and all I can think is showtime.

From the start, the ballet is a mix of confusing imagery, characters and concepts. One thing I was most curious (and concerned) about was how this performance would flow, what thread would tie the songs together and make a coherent story. It seems those producing the show had the same concerns but also had no answers.

Twelve-season Atlanta Ballet veteran Tara Lee opens the first dance, a solo, by biting an apple she later throws on stage. She goes on to climb curtains, run around with a young boy who acts as a minor aggregator throughout the show (a mini Big?), and beat down a door covered in graffiti that lets in a slew of male dancers and, of course, Big Boi. Seeming to serve as an archetypal Eve or Pandora, opening the box (door) of hip-hop, Lee is impeccable in that role. She lends a somehow equally haunting and humorous bent to her articulation of the angular, abrupt modern movements interpreted in ballet form.

As the rapper and his entourage of dancers make their way through the first several songs, much collar-popping and leaping ensues. Triple pirouettes coupled with stunner shades is a sight to behold indeed — a strange yet somehow fitting combo.

Several songs continue like this, with Big and his Purple Ribbon compadres laying the smackdown on the mic as ballerinas jete and gesture gracefully behind, beside, between them. At times it’s utterly disjointed, with the dance so apart from the tempo it’s as though they’re listening to Bach instead of the southernplayalisticadillacmusik the rest of us are hearing. It’s evident that when the choreographer asserted she had never listened to hip-hop, she wasn’t lying. There is a serious disconnect between much of the movement and the music that highlights a lack of understanding between the two. As my ballet companion points out emphatically, several of the dancers just “don’t get it."

But some of them do.

In an otherwise disappointing rendition of “Bombs Over Baghdad,” one ballerina dances a pointe version of the ragtop in time to its reference in the song and it is hip-hop music, electric revival. Everything improves from that point. They segue into a dream-like sequence that features rope swings and acrobatic stunts a la the infamous Circus of the Sun. Though it once again confusingly employs the Eve/Pandora character, this piece is stunning in its simplicity.

The piece set to “Church” really has the show getting down to business. The dancers lose their pointe shows and with them, their overwrought decorum. Finally, the stage is alive with energy and a rawness that had been noticeably absent. As an imitation of a lively church service, it is hilarious, as a piece of choreography it’s ingenious and powerful.

Nicole Johnson, a first-season company member but a vet of the Atlanta Ballet's Centre for Dance Education, dances a beautiful solo, showcasing a soulful style that many of the company members lack. She proved to be one of the few dancers who “got it,” and it was evident the choreographer recognized her forte for genre-bending dance and took full advantage of it. Johnson was given most of the plum roles outside of Lee’s integral character. Those two understood how to harness the musicality of the songs and also do justice to Stallings’ innovative movement.

Janelle Monae's performance, set to her own "Sincerely Jane," was superb — a perfect unison of lyrics, foot-tappingly good beats and Lee’s pointe prowess. It was, I think, the piece that should have begun the show.

Sleepy Brown’s crooned dedication to the lovers ("I Can't Wait") was clearly more familiar territory for the dancers, as they effortlessly weaved a masterpiece with that song. And picking up where those pieces left off, the second act was pure spectacle and purely fabulous. Beautifully conceptual light schemes and movable screen props paired with gravity-defying stunts and balletic interpretations of break-dance moves formed a commendable end worthy of the show’s title. The second act was enough to make me entirely forgive and almost forget the frustratingly odd choices of some of the first act.

Where big works best is with its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Big Boi and his cast of character’s songs. When the dancers are a part of the musical landscape, the show soars and makes you want to stand up and clap along. When, on occasion, the company acted as some strange, unrelated backdrop to a hip-hop concert, it makes you understand why most of the people in the crowd for this ballet have never come out for Coppelia. And that is really what this show is supposed to be about — accessibility. The question is, will what these new people (minorities, the young, the not-so-wealthy) have seen in big spur them on to attend again? I think that’s a toss-up. Where the performance should have been simple, it was heady and over-reaching with its intellectualism. Yet, where it was simple and fun, it was a marvel.

To me, ballerinas have always been otherworldly creatures, re-imagining gravity and space, cultivating music to weave a new fabric from its tempos. In a way, Big Boi’s style of jazz-infused hip-pop does much the same, re-imagining the scenery typical to rap. They are two entities evolved in different worlds, different times but struggling to bring the same joy and meaning to the lives of those who can appreciate the art forms. Will the classical ballet-lovers love this ballet? Will the hip-hop heads find their way back to the Fox? I guess it is much the same as it was for the dancers, you either “get it” or you don’t.

(Photo by Charlie McCullers/Atlanta Ballet)

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