Atlanta Ballet: Tu Tu & More

I generally enjoyed Atlanta Ballet’s program last night. Up first was Tu Tu by Stanton Welch, set to Ravel’s piano concerto. Costuming was pretty fun, with everyone in shiny, Klimt-esque attire. The women were in pancake tutus with bare legs and the men were just in shorts. The set was fairly simple, making use of a white backdrop lit with a color gradient with black panels in front of it. Each movement had a different configuration: for the first movement, only a center panel of the colored white backdrop was visible, the second was all black, with the dancers lit mostly from above, and the third was an inverse of the first movement, with a black panel in the middle and a blue gradient stretching to the wings on either side.

The piece was choreographed for three color-coded pairs of principles and a supporting corps. The color coded pairs took turns being the focus, sometimes dancing as duets and other times alternating who was the focus. With the exception of a beautiful solo danced remarkably well by Emily Carrico as the Blue Lady in the second movement, the principle characters were rarely alone on stage. There was a lot of ensemble work throughout the piece and the whole work had a kind of baroque richness to it. Movements were generally very sharp and clean. There was a lot of athleticism and strength involved, but generally as part of the aesthetic of the scene and not for its own sake.

My first impression of this was that it was a collection of Welch’s favorite things about the ballet form: it was just so varied and all over the place, made up of scenes that were fun, technically complex, and often beautiful. Despite the variety, it remained coherent throughout, largely because it was so closely set upon the Ravel. I was particularly impressed by the transitions between the scenes, which went beyond smooth with a clever and often complex integration of the segues into the ends of the previous scenes and the beginnings of the next. It was well performed and a true pleasure to watch.

The Welch was so good that I feel that it detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of Tara Lee’s Blink. A world premier commissioned for this program, Lee’s work was a choreographic interpretation of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini. It was set against a backdrop of lights depicting scenes of stars, nebulae, and planets that changed with each variation. The dancers were in silver costumes that gave the piece a somewhat fantastical spacey feel. This was the only piece on the program to feature live music, with pianist Di Wu providing the accompaniment. I wrote recently about how tired I am of Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 and I’ve just never been fond of Brahms, but I still managed to enjoy Lee’s piece. It had a nice, fluid style with some enjoyable athleticism and a sort of exaggeration of movements that was really interesting and worked well with the music. And, although I think the lights came down on it too soon, the explosion of glitter in the finale was fun. After the Welch, the transitions in Blink felt a bit abrupt and, although they maintained an aesthetic coherence, the scenes for each variation felt a bit disjointed.

Wu handled the technical complexities of the music incredibly well. The Brahmsian fireworks came through clear and exciting, though she was a bit dry on the slower, more tender variations. The dancers were generally good, as well. The casting seemed to favor Lee’s old colleagues, though some of the newer faces were also involved in the smallish cast.

The program closed with Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. This is the third time that AB has staged this. I decided to walk out during intermission the second time because they were so terrible with the first production that I didn’t think it would be worth staying (which was confirmed by a friend who did stay through it). This performance was heads and shoulders above that first one but it still wasn’t a particularly good performance. It wasn’t even the best performance of it in Atlanta, which is an honor held by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. Frankly, I don’t know why a ballet company is performing this work: it’s not even remotely related to their strengths. Just as I wouldn’t want to see Philippe Jaroussky sing Carmen nor Alisa Weilerstein perform on a viola de gamba, I don’t really want to go to see a ballet company perform modern dance. Even if they can do it well, I just see it as a waste: there are a lot of excellent modern dance companies who come through Atlanta but there are few companies performing here at the same level as AB that can stage works that require dancers who have spent a decade or two devoted to the intensive study of ballet.

To say a bit about what I thought about the performance, I thought that the dancers seemed a bit reserved and uncertain in their use of gaga. This really impacted the Mabul duet in particular: the dancers not only didn’t own their movements but had such poor stage presence that they were swallowed up by the large, empty stage. And, amazingly, they widened the semicircle for Echad Mi Yodea so that the back legs of the chairs were actually off the stage. Nobody sitting outside of the aisles would have been able to see the entire thing, which really does ruin the piece. The first time that I saw AB perform this particular excerpt, the first two chairs in the semicircle had difficulty getting their pants off and ended up throwing their timing for the shlosha asar repetition/extension. This time it was just the first chair stripping the shirt in shneim asar and his recovery was pretty quick. They did do an excellent job with the false endings, though. And it’s worth noting that this is the first out of several viewings of live and recorded performances where I’ve seen all of the audience participation members being women.

One final note on this presentation: the program notes stated that Minus 16 is set to a “thrilling musical compilation” of music that includes traditional Israeli music. There is no traditional Israeli music in this at all. There are some works based on traditional Jewish music, but this is not the same thing. Israel is a republic in which a minority of the world’s Jewish population lives. It is not the cultural center of our world and the vast majority of us do not have a vote there. A lot of people use Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians to justify their antisemitism, so it’s kind of a big deal that Nathan Hites, AB’s research/historian, made the mistake of conflating the two. Hopefully he’ll be more careful of such things in the future.

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