Atlanta Ballet: Look/Don’t Touch

Atlanta Ballet’s Look/Don’t Touch began with a piece by Mark Morris titled Sandpaper Ballet. It was set to the music of Leroy Anderson and featured a large cast of dancers dressed in full-body costumes by Isaac Mizrahi that were mostly green with a little bit of blue sky with random cloud shapes at the top of the torso. If you were to line everyone up, it would look like a rolling meadow on a nice spring day. If you didn’t line everyone up, it looked like the strangest super-hero gang ever. They were lined up through much of the piece, though.

Morris is one of the those choreographers who basically just expresses the music that accompanies his work through movement. As such, a set of Leroy Anderson tunes made for a very light and rather silly show that kind of made me think of it as “Boston Pops – The Ballet” as I was watching it. His work is as enjoyable as the music that he’s setting it to and I have to say that I generally don’t have the same taste in music as Morris. As such, I didn’t really enjoy it that much despite it having some very clever things in it, like a pointe shoe tap scene or lines of dancers shifting about like the paper feed of a typewriter for Anderson’s The Typewriter. It didn’t help that the attention to blocking wasn’t that great when the piece relied so heavily on formation for its aesthetic concept. Two dancers in particular nearly always broke up any lines they were in, though they weren’t the only ones who were off mark through the performance.

I kind of got the feeling that this piece was included as the incitement to bring in audience members who aren’t comfortable with more contemporary ballet and, judging by the poor audience showing for Saturday evening’s performance, I think it’s safe to say that Morris isn’t familiar enough to Atlanta area audiences to make them care. I don’t recall a sell-out crowd the last time that the Mark Morris Dance Group came to town, either, though I believe that it was well received. I think that they’d have done better to program an excerpt from a more familiar classical or neoclassical choreographer.aon

If I’m completely honest, I wasn’t terribly excited about this program and had even considered not getting a ticket. Aside from Mark Morris, whose work doesn’t really appeal to me, it featured a piece I’d already seen that I wasn’t excited to see again. The main reason that I decided to go for a full-season subscription instead of getting just three tickets this year was the premier by Yury Yanowsky, which turned out to be AON <All or Nothing>. I was not familiar with his work, but that makes it even more interesting, right? Anyway, it was a good piece, though I think that the stagecraft did a disservice to the choreography.

Yanowsky stated that this is the first piece in which he’d developed the set, lighting and costume design before the choreography. The set consisted of three broad, white stripes spaced out to take up most of stage left. The last bit of the stripes up-stage tapered somewhat and then went up as a backdrop. Each of the three had some amount of black sheathing, varying the height to which the white stripes went up the back of the stage, with the most stage-right being sheathed nearly at the very top of the visible space, the middle one being sheathed the furthest down, and the stage-left one being midway between the two. At first, it looked somewhat like a poor attempt at creating a perspective that the white lines went on into the distance forever. However, the lighting gently colored the vertical portions of the stripes throughout the performance, making them seem much more like back-walls to the set rather than an attempt to create a perspective of distance. Aside from these white stripes, with the occasional bit of color projected on them, the rest of the stage was black.

The costumes, unfortunately, didn’t stand out much from the blackness of the set. They were four pairs of charcoal costumes of various cuts with sashes/slashes of middle-thickness color over them. The colors were dark shades, two sets were a variant of red, one was blue, and one was green, keeping a coherence for each pairing of the eight dancers. There was a sort of mid-to-late 20th century futurist sense to the way they were cut that made me think that they would work wonderfully as ballet-costumes on Terminus in Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge. As I mentioned, they didn’t provide good contrast with the background of much of the stage and muddied the dancer’s lines quite a bit.

The music was a kind of dark, atmospheric soundscape by Lucas Vidal that impressed me as being kind of like a store-brand variant of Max Richter’s music. In fact, I left a little note for myself on my program that simply said “Store-brand McGreggor & Richter.” I don’t really stand by that characterization of Yanowsky’s choreography, there were a lot of elements that reminded me a great deal of McGreggor both in terms of specific movement phrases and in the way that it had a certain intensity to it. However, whereas I feel that McGreggor’s works can be a bit overly intense and can make me feel like I’m being dragged along without a chance to process what I’m seeing, Yanowsky’s choreography gave audience’s eyes a chance to breathe. The dancing was always interesting, was sometimes beautiful, and I frequently found it clever or just plain neat. The purported subject of the piece was duality and I don’t know that I felt that he expressed terribly much about that through the work, but I did find myself quite engaged by his choreography. Taken as a whole, along with the stagecraft, I found the overall aesthetic concept a bit contrived; like he was trying too hard. It was a kind of late West-German modernist aesthetic that I feel only works well when there’s something much more specific to be said with it. If I’d seen less attempts at such an aesthetic over the years then I might have found it more interesting but, instead, I find it a little tired, if not quite hackneyed.

Some of my feelings about this may have come from the staging, which wasn’t that great. The white flooring of the stripes was a little crumpled here and there in a way that looked like it was not only not deliberate but also perhaps not that safe for the dancers. Much of the lighting for the piece relied on follow-spots and I couldn’t tell if the lighting techs running them were off or if the dancers were off their blocking. Also, depending on where the dancers were, the lights or the lines of the white stripes broke their lines a little, making the muddying effect of the low-contrast black-costumes on black-stage even worse. I was seated pretty close to the center of my row, but the most stage-left stripe, along with any action taking place on it, wouldn’t have been visible to large portions of the audience in the left side of the auditorium thanks to the poor design of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. This wasn’t a huge deal as most of the action was elsewhere, but I could imagine it being pretty frustrating for those audience members.

The program concluded with Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. I mentioned the last time that Atlanta Ballet staged it that I found it funny but didn’t really have much of a desire to see it again. Now that I have, I think that I like it a little less. I found that some of the humor worked better for me when it could betray my expectations or, in the case of the cat, surprise me. As such, I didn’t find it quite as funny the second time around. I also think that I liked the performances better last time, if for no other reason than that I preferred a larger height differential in the voice-over duet. It was nice to have the orchestra playing where last time only the string quartet were live. Beyond these things, I really don’t have anything to say beyond what I wrote last time.

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