2010 might be remembered as the year dance took the driver’s seat among the arts in Atlanta. Dance showed the rest of the local performing arts community how to explore, express and innovate — while attracting sizable audiences, generous patrons and critical accolades. More than the other arts, dance in 2010 was a hot topic of debate, discussion and more than a little infighting. Simply put, dance in Atlanta was thriving.
Almost all of the metro area’s arts groups faced financial setbacks in 2010, but such obstacles couldn’t hold back the dance scene. Some groups took to the city’s public spaces; collaborations generated fresh points of view; risky subject matter confronted audiences with tough questions. Styles and approaches varied, but the city’s adaptable, diligent dance artists found new ways to engage and even grow their audiences, whether by physically reaching out to them, by inviting them to watch spontaneous dance-making or through captivating choreography performed with emotional truth and technical finesse.
Atlanta Ballet, an artistically and financially spry 81-year-old company, opened its deluxe new headquarters. New groups sprang up in support of local dance. Flux Projects, in its aim to attract new audiences by bringing art into Atlanta’s public spaces, commissioned gloATL’s “Bloom” in February and featured Project 7 Contemporary Dance Company and Zoetic Dance Ensemble at FLUX 2010, the public art celebration in Castleberry Hill. DanceATL set its community-building agenda; LIFT produced its first all-male concert. The Wormhole Project launched a new mentoring program in the spring and produced its first performance, “Just,” in September.
There was no slowdown for the city’s dance presenters. Those lucky enough to get a seat or floor cushion at Emory’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts Dance Studio caught Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s “An intimate look at Ohad Naharin’s Decadance 2007” in February. Trey McIntyre Project packed the Rialto Center for the Arts in April. The Ferst Center for the Arts responded to its strong contemporary dance following by launching its first ARTech residency program with choreographer and media artist Jonah Bokaer, a former Merce Cunningham dancer who is integrating dance with motion capture. Bokaer’s new work, “Filter,” will receive its U.S. premiere at the Ferst in April.
There were other memorable moments in 2010:
In February, choreographer Lauri Stallings’ “Bloom” launched Flux Projects at Lenox Square mall, taking thousands of Valentine’s Day shoppers by surprise. This wasn’t another trendy “flash mob” show, but a site-specific work of considerable artistic merit. Joined by musicians from Sonic Generator and rapper-poet Big Rube, the gloATL dancers charged through the mall’s corridors, glided up and down escalators and converged at a central “point of gravity” for an arresting performance that pointedly asked mall-goers, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
In July, Stallings’ “Roem” attracted about 2,000 people per night to the Woodruff Arts Center campus. In November, in downtown Atlanta’s Robert W. Woodruff Park, gloATL and rap star Big Boi collaborated on “Hinterland,” produced by Luminocity Atlanta. The event attracted about 10,000 people, according to the official head count — as well as a healthy controversy over its balance of dance, pop music, public spectacle and how it related to Atlanta’s ghostly-at-night downtown. For some observers, the controversy also displayed an undercurrent of racial anxiety or animosity (“I’ll get mugged if I go downtown!” and “Homeless people live in that park!”). Curiously, the most barbed complaints about the dance itself came from members of the local dance community. Was this sour grapes or a legitimate concern that spectacle was surpassing art?
Then there was “Your Head Is Full of Stars: Accident Meets Intention in an Evening of Improvisational Dance and Music.” As wonderful as dance improv’s unfettered expression feels when you’re dancing it, performance is risky; it’s a challenge to build a structure that allows freedom but keeps an audience engaged. Artistic Director Blake Dalton‘s Crossover Movement Arts — a tight ensemble of seven dancers — achieved this last March at Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, in collaboration with improvisational music trio Zentropy. For an hour or so, the dancers engaged in spontaneous creation, giving and receiving support, as group movement patterns evolved, mutated, branched and dissolved. At times playful, at others emotionally raw and exposed, the dancers traversed Zentropy’s shifting landscape of jazz and electronic sound. Intoxicating.
Atlanta Ballet presented “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” James Kudelka’s masterwork, in its U.S. premiere. (Photo above by K. Kenney, courtesy Atlanta Ballet.) John Welker, as Everyman, passed through life’s stages, each represented by a season, as his primary relationships unraveled through sophisticated and musically nuanced partnering. The ballet’s artistic director emeritus, Robert Barnett, appeared in what is likely his final stage performance. Kennesaw State University student Myles Johnson showed his contemporary work “rEVOLUTION,” and Lila York’s “Celts” brought rhythmically complex, athletic vitality to the evening as lilting, driving Irish music lifted the spirits.
With “Staibdance, Vega String Quartet, and William Ransom: In Concert,” Emory-based choreographer George Staib pushed his expressive range — and it seemed that his troupe of dancers pushed themselves further to keep up with Staib’s ideas. To live performances of music ranging from 19th-century Romantic to contemporary Minimalist, Staib offered six new works that rode the tenuous line between abstract and literal movement — aiming, as Staib said, to be “theatrical without being literal.” The dancers shone, the musicians inspired, and the choreography kept you guessing.
“Blackbird,” in November, was another brave step forward for choreographer Joanna Brooks, who took on the tough topic of child sex trafficking — and pulled it off, powerfully. (“Blackbird” photo, above, by Will Day.) As I wrote in my review, “Her vocabulary — based in impulse and expressive gesture — sensitively represented brutal acts and extreme emotional states without literally depicting them. If it weren’t for this thin layer of abstraction, the actual would have been unbearable.” Brooks bravely stuck to her old-school modern dance principles, challenging herself and her dancers, bringing an issue to our attention so shocking that it’s easier to look the other way. Bravo.