Atlanta Ballet: MAYhem

What a great night of dance! Any concerns that I harbored going in that Atlanta Ballet would not pull off this concert were, thankfully, unfounded. The performances by the company as a whole and each dancer individually ranged from decent to excellent and every piece was well realized by the dancers on the stage.

The evening began with John Heginbotham’s “Angels’ Share,” which I first saw at a Wabi Sabi performance and for which it was originally commissioned. This is a piece for five dancers set to the Serenade in C Major for String Trio by von Dohanyi, which was performed live by a string trio in the pit. The piece itself is light fare, largely responding to the music and seemingly without an underlying program (despite its interesting title) but is a solid and enjoyable work. It was originally staged on the great lawn of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where the dancers performed without the benefit of wings hidden behind curtain or proscenium nor any form of stagecraft. I’m not sure of the extent to which the choreography was changed to set it on a traditional stage, but the atmosphere of the piece was enhanced with some some hanging lights and a lighting design that tried to evoke shifts in perspective and mood. Although I generally liked the staging, they needed to either change the costuming — which I believe was the same as it was on the great lawn — or the lighting designer, Pearce, needed to take into account the costumes and skin tones of the dancers. During their duets, the dim lighting and the blue wash on the backdrop caused Felder and Kim to be swallowed up by the stage and the black shirts of the male dancers against a dark backdrop muddied the lines of their upper bodies. It didn’t destroy the piece and you could see everyone well enough to enjoy the choreography, but it could have been so much better if the costuming and lighting were complementary colors so that the dancers would pop out a bit more; I think that this would really have enhanced the stage presence of Felder and Kim when they were alone on stage and made it much easier to focus on their movement.

The highlight of the evening was “Classical Symphony,” choreographed by Yuri Possokhov to the eponymous symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. This was canned music, sadly, and I have no idea of the recording because they credited the publisher instead of the copyright holder of the recording. Anyway, just like the music, the piece was exuberant and joyful. The choreographer apologized to the dancers in a video screened before the performance for creating such a difficult piece; I can only imagine how much work the company must have put into a piece that is so fast and athletic to make it come out as slick and graceful as they did. Kudos to everyone who performed, but particularly Nash and Clark who clearly earned their principal roles. My only complaint is the segments during which the women dancers, in gold, were being swallowed up by the stage under amber lights against an amber backdrop. Seriously, why do I keep seeing this in ballet? I first noticed it with Corella Ballet at Spoleto a few years ago. I think that they were performing some Wheeldon and there were a series of solos with the soloists dancing against a backdrop that was lit to match the color of their mono-color velvet suits. Ever since, I keep seeing lighting designers do this and it drives me nuts. Please make them stop. Kthx.

The final piece of the evening was a hilarious send-up of pretentious reviews and even more pretentious dance pieces. “Cacti,” by Alexander Ekman, was set to music that was “collectively assembled, improvised, and composed” by the people who first played accompaniment to the piece, which was played live by a string quartet on the stage who, at times, walked among the dancers while playing (including, Kreuger, the cellist, which was particularly impressive to me) and also a recording (performers uncredited) of Andy Stein’s arrangement of the final movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” for orchestra.

I already said that it was hilarious and I’ll go ahead and say that it was a very enjoyable piece. However, it was also, at times, a little on the obnoxious side. The humor was pretty much a collection of gags that you’ve already seen on YouTube and Vimeo, such as dialog overlaid on abstract movement phrases that gives literal meaning to the individual movements or a recording of an over-the-top pretentious critic’s review. There’s also the usual problem in pieces like this of the artist not quite getting the irony of being anti-pretentiousness being itself a pretension that has its own kind of pomposity. Also, the various parts didn’t really flow into each other very well, which left me thinking that this piece grew out of an attempt to create a serious piece and then a) realizing that it wasn’t up to snuff and b) feeling anxiety about how it will be received by critics.

It began with the dancers engaging in synchronized and semisynchronized performances of gestures and vocalizations that created sounds, kind of in the vein of de Mey’s “Musique de Table” for Vandekeybus. The choreographer stated that this was inspired by some Tibetan monks somewhere or another…sorry, I don’t mean to be dismissive but I didn’t pay that much attention and am not familiar with the practice. Everything else, he said, was burlesque aimed at pretentious critics. I suspect that the bit based on the monks was where he started before A and B from above happened and he decided to just face his feelings by turning the whole thing into a comedy, kind of the way that Kubrick did with “Dr. Strangelove.” Kudos to him for pulling it off as well as he did and thanks for all the laughs but, if I’m honest, I’d not be disappointed to never see the piece again. It didn’t really have anything meaningful to say with its critic bashing and, as I said, it didn’t really have a good sense of flow.

I’ve mentioned before how much I like the way that the various ensembles that are part of the local Classical Music scene are so good at programming concerts so that all of the pieces tie into each other aesthetically and/or conceptually. This is one of those times that I really wish that Atlanta Ballet would learn to do that. The strongest piece on the program tonight was “Classical Symphony” and I wish that I had walked out with that one on my mind. “Cacti,” because of its humor, was a very easy piece to get into and would have made a much better introduction to the evening than “Angels’ Share.” Even better, though, would be if the three pieces had some kind of common thread running through them to give the night a sense of cohesion and flow.

A second complaint is actually not about the company’s performance at all but one performed by four dancers from the Center for Dance Education’s pre-pro program that occurred in the lobby prior to the concert. It was a nice enough piece and it was well performed but it was completely inappropriate choreography for students in socks to be dancing on a floor consisting of thin, tough carpet laid directly over concrete. Between this and all of the pictures on ABC’s FB page of their students dancing on bare tile, I cannot believe that parents send their kids to study with Atlanta Ballet. When I was a kid, every tot in a tutu was taught to avoid dancing on hard surfaces but it seems to be encouraged by the CDE. I wish that I was a big-ticket donor who could threaten to withhold funding if they don’t stop this kind of thing; it’s really disgusting and more people need to speak out about it.

Overall, despite any complaints that I have, it was a very good night of dance and I greatly enjoyed it. I’m particularly impressed that the company rose to the challenges presented by “Classical Symphony” and “Cacti,” both of which played heavily to some of their more pronounced weaknesses. Even dancers who I normally prefer not to see in prominent roles betrayed my (possibly unjust) expectations and performed admirably well. It leaves me wondering if, perhaps, the shows that I’ve seen where they really haven’t been able to pull it together were a result of their small company size forcing dancers to have to focus on too many roles across too many shows at once and possibly also the shift to scheduling all of their shows in successive months so that the time limitations force them to sacrifice focus for some pieces to work on others. Whatever it is, it seems that every season there is at least one show that makes me regret that they are the only fully professional, full-time ballet company ITP; if they can find a way to muster the talent to pull of this evening’s program, I sincerely hope that they find a way to do so for all of their programs henceforth.

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