In a final tribute to John McFall’s 21-year legacy as Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director, the company’s 2015-16 season closed with MAYhem: Kissed, a triple bill that proved as eclectic and eccentric as the man himself. The program — a quirky contemporary ballet, an experimental world premiere and a new classic performed over the weekend at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre — encapsulated McFall’s long history and vision for the company’s future. Even the words on his T-shirt, which he wore under a pearlescent white blazer on opening night, summed up the adventurous spirit he has cultivated: “In Art We Trust.”
A fitting opener, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “El Beso” (“The Kiss”) said hello like a brash, stylish European delivering a peck on each cheek. True to its title, kisses were everywhere, mostly punctuating the end of brief, staccato movement sequences like requisite formalities at a family gathering.
Sansano touched on weightier kisses — those that seduce and impassion — with a few brief but satisfying duets, most notably a gorgeous interlude danced by Brandon Nguyen and Alexandre Barros. But those moments dissolved too quickly, giving way to a long, punchy unison phrase that, though executed well, diverted considerably from the work’s original intent.
I wanted to love “Push,” the evening’s second and most controversial work by contemporary New York choreographer Andrea Miller. Remembering a mesmerizing performance by her company Gallim at the Rialto in 2013, I was prepared for something fresh and wholly unlike anything I’d seen from Atlanta Ballet’s stellar company members.
Miller is a former member of Ohad Naharin’s junior company — Ensemble Batsheva — and I hoped that after a few years of making work, she had moved away from the now unmistakable Israeli aesthetic. But by opening “Push” with dancers partying to pop music and surrounded by a semi-circle of folding chairs, she invited comparison to Naharin’s “Minus 16.” If it was a conscious choice, the reference baffled.
Naharin often employs improvisation in his work, a difficult choreographic choice for a large group of dancers given the importance of guiding everyone towards a common impulse. Miller did the same in “Push,” but the improvisational moments felt cacophonous and emotionally flimsy, as if the directive was simply “have fun” or “go crazy.” In contrast, some of the choreographed moments provided stunning imagery: a dancer was lifted and carried, screaming like a wild animal as he bulldozed one person after another to the floor; seven dancers piled on top of another then moved like a many-legged creature, crashing into one another in time to a drumbeat played live by composer Jordan T. Chiolis.
The music elevated this work considerably and turned familiar takes on loneliness into moments of genuine desperation. In one section, dancer Heath Gill ran wildly across the stage, sliding to a stop at another dancer’s feet. He repeated this over and over, each time landing in a position of supplication, as if to beg for another human’s love, affection or maybe just attention. The moment could have waxed melodramatic; instead, Chiolis’s rising electronic score made it feel human and important on a grand scale.
Miller seems to have found her voice as a creator of risk-taking physical theater, and it was wonderful to see Atlanta Ballet’s dancers rise so willingly to the challenge. A dancer lifted another, then a third lifted both. A man tossed a woman through the air as if she were an inanimate object, her body bent and twisted with the momentum. Another dancer balanced on his head and one kneecap. At times I loved seeing the sheer effort; at other times, the extreme physicality felt gratuitous, as if shock value trumped respect for the human body and its limitations.
It deserves mentioning that “Push” was billed as a world premiere created for Atlanta Ballet but looked similar to her company’s work “W H A L E” (complete with the same chair set-up and stage design), which premiered last year at the Joyce Theater in New York. Of course, choreographers often recycle material for a new work, but after watching the trailer on her website, I found myself wishing it was that work she had set on Atlanta Ballet, or at least excerpts from it. “Push” makes less sense as a title, and the many pseudo-narrative moments looked haphazardly stitched together.
If “Push” captured McFall’s love of the new and risky, Yuri Possokhov’s “Classical Symphony” fulfilled his other, more traditional tastes. Unlike the former, “Classical Symphony” had a clear and simple intent: dazzle the audience with high-octane ballet technique. And dazzle they did. From start to finish, the dancers executed Possokhov’s difficult steps and intricately crafted spatial patterns with infectious joy.
Dancer Jackie Nash delivered the evening’s standout performance, gliding through turns and quick, punctuated jumps with stylish, sly precision. She and her partner, Christian Clark, moved seamlessly together, he supporting her in low turns then sweeping her lightly across the floor. The men, costumed in formal black, leapt in crisscross patterns to Sergei Prokovfiev’s powerful score, while the women in gold tutus flitted and spun like supercharged hummingbirds. It was pure pleasure to watch.
Opening night closed with “Bless,” a bittersweet, lovely gift to McFall created by veteran dancer and budding choreographer Tara Lee. In an accompanying video, Lee said she, the dancers, tech crew and costumers worked on the piece in secret to surprise McFall, a detail I found impressive given the work’s sophistication and polish.
Dressed in white, the six dancers — those in the company with the longest tenure under McFall: John Welker, Lee, Jonah Hooper (in his final performance), Christian Clark, Nadia Mara and Rachel Van Buskirk — grabbed handfuls of bright pink powder and tossed it into the air at the end. It was a stirring image of hope and gratitude for the man who has brought so much color to Atlanta’s studios and stages over the past two decades. John, you will be missed.