Every time that I see the TMBT abbreviation on Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s logos, I can’t help but read it as standing for “Teenage Mutant Ballet Turtles.” This weekend, Atlanta’s newest ballet company came out of their shells for the first time to present “Extasis,” choreographed by company cofounder Tara Lee. It was a strong debut for the company, with a polished staging and general presentation that really showed the benefits of their good fortune to fall in with Westside Cultural Arts Center and Serenbe. Their support, along with the company members’ existing connections established through their time with Atlanta Ballet, allowed the Ballet Turtles to hit the ground running in their first season.
The work was staged at Westside Cultural Arts Center, which isn’t the best venue in the world for dance. There are concrete support columns through the stage, though only one of which was really a problem. Also, the seating consisted of two or three rows on the floor with about five on risers behind those. The first row was all reserved and the terracing of the risers wasn’t very deep, meaning that most of the audience had a very hard time seeing the floor. From my seat, I couldn’t see terribly far below the waists of the tallest company members. For ballet, this is terrible since so much of the art is below the waist. For this ballet, it was even worse since so much of the choreography had the performers sitting or prone on the ground. While it felt like about a tenth of the work was out of view, it was probably less than a twentieth, but it was more than enough that there I heard grumblings from a number of other members audience as we were leaving.
The set was fairly simple, with large, white parallelograms on casters framing the stage. There was some small amount of video projected on two of them, but only briefly, and mostly to set the location of the work. It was integrated very well and was not disruptive at all. The lighting tended toward cool colors and, although there were moments where the shadows that partners were casting on each other were inkier than I’d have liked, it was mostly good and effective without being obtrusive. The music was an eclectic blend of classical music, mostly from the Baroque and Classical periods, and popular music, mostly in the way of classics from the likes of Sam Cooke or Nina Simone. Costuming was simple: black slacks, white shirts, black hoodies, and an occasional light-colored dress. It was a slick and professional production despite the drawbacks of the stage.
The ballet – and it was, thankfully, a ballet; I was concerned that it would be more of a mixed-modal work after an interview that I heard on the radio, which might not have been bad but wasn’t what I really want from the Ballet Turtles – was in three acts, with an intermission between the first and second. Each act was made up of one or more narrative pieces that explored a way in which a person can be a prisoner, both literally and figuratively.
The first act, Libertas, was centered around a prisoner in a traditional prison. We watch as he was subjected to violent incarceration by two jailers, who, due to the music, their solemn demeanor and all black costumes with hoods up, and the fact that I’ve been reading The Name of the Rose, put me in mind of inquisitors moreso than prison guards. We are then shown a loved one visiting him and their pain at not being able to touch, ultimately realizing their moment of extasis when the visitor defies the guard and their duet includes touch and embrace, though this doesn’t last as we see her run off with two men while he is locked away. I think that the most touching scenes were those where the prisoner is dreaming of freedom, represented by a single ballerina dancing, much like in McKayle’s “Rainbow Round My Shoulder.” Throughout these scenes, the prisoner marks first one and then a second period of time – perhaps a year – on the rear wall.
We returned from intermission to act II, Veritas. This was made up of a set of three separate narrative scenes. The first was a reworked version of Lee’s “Mind Myself” that was first performed as part of Wabi Sabi. A small intro was added in which a fun social dance is interrupted by a duel that explains the depressed prisoner’s imprisonment. The wall on which two periods of time are marked is rotated to show a large number of tally markings, suggesting this prisoner has been serving a very long period of time. In the first humorous back-and-forth dialog about the prisoner’s state of mind, the prisoner tells us his depression is due to having too much time. The danced portion of the work includes a duet expressing something that looks like a friendship in which one member keeps luring the other to be relaxed and happy before tripping him up, followed by a more sincere, and desperate sounding repetition of the back-and-forth and a solo repetition of the prisoner’s portion of the duet, only this time alone and with a look of despair on his face.
The second scene was a brief duet in which a woman is dancing with a man who seems to be controlling her. Taken literally, she’s miserable in a relationship in which she has no control. A more figurative interpretation may be that it’s an expression of the feelings of despondency born of her throwness in a life over which she has no control. She turns the tables, though, and takes control over herself and tames her partner. A final scene follows, which seems like our prisoner is lost in a wistful nostalgia.
In Immortalis, the final act, the rear wall is turned again, showing the two tally marks from the first act again, but now with ‘Days Left’ written above them. This act was a countdown to death, with the marks being removed one at a time as the work progressed until both were gone and a zero was drawn before the two words. I didn’t find this act to be as clearly drawn nor imbued with the level of emotional sincerity as the first two. In fact, there was a sort of decline in clarity through the whole work, with the first act being a fully drawn story in itself, the second being a solid but rehashed work followed by two that looked less and less like they were coming from somewhere deep inside the choreographer with a smaller amount of mental effort put into developing them. This third act, I found fairly forgettable. In fact, if I’d written this last night when I got home then I’d have more to say about it. As it stands, my notes aren’t really enough to bring much of it back to me except for the final sequence of solos as the dancers took turns dancing in a lit circle while the rest of the company kept them from being able to exit it, as though they were either trying to die or live – the choreography didn’t clearly express which – but weren’t being allowed to do so. Honestly, I see where the idea of mortality works in the overall concept behind “Extasis,” but the peculiarities of my experiences and education have left me very hard to impress when it comes to addressing the idea of personal mortality through art, so some of my reaction could be my own bias. Still, I don’t feel that this was a strong ending to the program, though even this part was enjoyable to watch.
Overall, this well performed work was a very promising start to the life of the new company. However, there are two things that leave me thinking that I might not want to shift my schedule around to catch their show next year: 1) the problems with the venue and Lee’s failure to adapt her work to its shortcomings really didn’t detract sufficiently from the experience to make it impossible to enjoy but it was annoying and disruptive enough that it made it so that I couldn’t get completely drawn into the work; and 2) I don’t feel that Lee has shown much growth from previous works that I’ve seen to this piece. While I like her work a lot, as anyone who has spoken to me about it can attest, and each work is a unique and new expression, if I’m not seeing any real development or divergence in her choreographic style from piece to piece then I won’t feel like I absolutely have to see each new work. That’s a big concern for me about the Ballet Turtles in general: up until now they were being exposed to new choreographers on a regular basis, but now that they are more of a vehicle for one or two choreographers, I worry that they’ll stagnate. I also wonder, given their origin story, how well this company will handle turnover or, for that matter, if members are going to retire when they can no longer perform at the level that they are now or if they’ll just dumb down the choreography to accommodate members whose bodies can’t handle the rigors of contemporary ballet. Of course, it is possible to create works that have less of a physical impact on the dancers without sacrificing the impact on the audience, so it is possible that they will simply grow into something new; but, purely for the sake of my own personal tastes, I really want this to remain a ballet company because I really want more ballet companies available to me ITP. Of course, my worries are coming from a position in the audience far from the machinations of the company itself, so hopefully they’ll turn out to be unfounded. My hope, of course, is that the Ballet Turtles will continue to bring strong programming to Atlanta audiences for years and years to come.