Atlanta Ballet: Director’s Choice

I can’t say that I thought much of Director’s Choice, last night’s production by Atlanta Ballet. If I hadn’t gone to this then I’d have gone to the MAD Festival on Friday and been able to make the ASO performance on Saturday, which would probably be enjoyable enough despite featuring Oliverio’s double-timpani concerto. Normally I’d just go on Thursday, but Richard Prior’s …of shadow and light… isn’t quite enjoyable enough to offset the Oliverio and I honestly don’t feel that I can trust Spano to do a serious reading of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 on a program like that. (Hence my willingness to skip it in favor of the MAD Festival to begin with.)

Anyway, the program began with Sum Stravinsky by Kiyon Ross. It featured sky blue lights on sky blue costumes, making everyone look a little anemic and providing a total lack of contrast so that everything blended together into indistinct shapes, requiring more attention from the audience to register the breadth of the dancers movements. Lighting designer Randal G. Chiarelli really needs to get a color wheel. And maybe watch some dance from an audience’s perspective. There was also a heavy reliance on follow spots – which is something one often sees used to cope with the fact that everything looks indistinct when the lighting designer has flooded the stage with the same color as the costumes. Unfortunately, the techs were pretty bad at keeping the dancers inside of them. They seemed to get the hang of it eventually, but it was pretty awful in the beginning and even toward the end there were almost always some body parts hanging out of the cone of light.

The choreography was pretty basic ballet: nothing exciting but pretty ok to watch. It felt to me kind of like Ross might actually make things that I would want to see but wasn’t that inspired in this case. The piece was born of a commission to choreograph something for an all-Stravinsky show and he admitted that he didn’t really know much about Stravinsky and had a hard time finding something “danceable.” He really could have found a much better piece than the Dumberton Oaks chamber concerto. I’m not a huge fan of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period and, frankly, if someone says that they had to look to that period to find anything danceable then they didn’t actually try: his Russian period is full of excellent pieces on which to set choreography. It was his work from this time that caught the attention of Diaghilev, after all, and the period includes his three best known ballets.

Gemma Bond’s Denouement was next. It first premiered in Atlanta Ballet’s Gennadi’s Choice back in 2017 when the audience was still on a first-name basis with Artistic Director Nedvigin. My opinion of it this time is roughly the same as last time. I tried watching it just for the choreography without trying to read anything into it, but the movements really just scream that they’re trying to say something but then fail to get anything across to me. If anything, I found it more boring this time around and ended up listening more to Charae Krueger and Shirley Irek play Britten’s Cello Sonata and letting the dancers be in the background of the music. Odd thing of note: the program credits pianist Irek first despite it being a cello sonata. Huh.

The final piece on the program – and the one that I was most looking forward to – was the premier of Liam Scarlett’s Catch. What really stood out most to me in this staging was the horrific performance by the orchestra and soloist in Phillip Glass’ Cello Concerto no. 1. There were times when I wondered if the musicians could hear each other and, if not, why they weren’t watching the conductor if they couldn’t count on their own. The violin soloist was Atlanta Ballet Orchestra’s concert master, Lisa Morrison, and I just don’t think that she had the chops to play the piece. Her intonation was terrible, her bowing sloppy, and her timing sounded awkward as hell. She’s not a concert soloist, though. I blame her less than I blame Atlanta Ballet for not engaging a professional soloist for this piece. Even someone from the first and second chairs of the ASO’s violin sections would have done well enough. Or perhaps they should have just owned up to the fact that they didn’t have the musicians to play the piece and gone with canned music instead. It’s something that maybe choreographers should be aware of when they select the music for their work: pit orchestras are very often made up of semiprofessional musicians who spend most of their careers teaching or playing weddings. When licensing this work, Scarlett might want to have a clause requiring the use of a professional soloist or canned music because the poor musicianship really did wreck my experience of the piece.

As for the costumes: velvet material with a gradient going from yellow at the top to blue at the bottom. They looked pretty bad on pretty much everyone. Scarlett stated that he wanted costuming that would let us see the dancers movements well but then he put this on a bunch of White and Asian people and then lighting designer David Finn flooded the stage and backdrop with yellow and blue lights, creating the lowest possible contrast possible between the dancers and their visual context. It was pretty bad. If the costumes hadn’t looked so lame then I’d just say that someone needs to get lighting designer David Finn a damn color wheel, but even if he had done a decent job lighting the piece then it still would have been hideous. And, honestly, how would you even light that where it wouldn’t look bad? Purple hides the male dancers legs and the women’s bottoms while orange would gobble up everyone’s torsos, so you can’t really make anything pop out dramatically. Maybe green on the backdrop and just unaccented light and shadows on the stage? That wouldn’t really be dramatic enough to go with the music, though: you’d have an odd contrast of a pastorale scene with choreography and music that is just way more intense. If Scarlett hadn’t also designed the costumes that I liked for his piece Vespertine then I’d probably say something about how some choreographers really shouldn’t design their own costumes; instead I’ll just say that he really shouldn’t have done so on this one and maybe he should get a color wheel…and then just hope he doesn’t torture any more lighting designers by trying to combine primary colors on stage again.

The title seemed to be referenced in moments toward the beginning and end of each movement when the performers would mime playing with balls. It was silly in a kind of way that almost wasn’t bad if it had done a little bit more to drive the piece. It was like pensive-artist-takes-ball-playing-very-seriously silly and could have been somewhat fun but it didn’t fit with the aesthetic of the music nor the rest of the choreography and it also didn’t manage to provide a significant contrast to anything. And has Scarlett ever played with a ball? The physics and timing in the pantomimes were sometimes just off. I might have been more receptive to it or shrugged it off if the costuming, lighting, and musical performance were better. In fact, the poor musicianship was such a distraction for me that the ball-play may have actually blended in better than I managed to notice. As to the rest of the choreography, I’d probably have liked it a lot if I wasn’t so hung up on everything else in this staging. There were moments that were truly beautiful or that would start to fill me with awe but then Morrison’s violin would screech or she’d hit a sour note or the brass would come in late and any joy that the dancing brought to me was quite quickly quashed. If this were staged again with canned music then I might have a higher opinion of the piece (though not the stagecraft). Overall, this was a pretty weak ending to the season and I’m honestly wishing I had done something else.

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