The word modern has confused and polarized arts patrons for centuries. Rarely a simple delineation between current and historical work, it refers to a stylistic break from tradition and redefines what is appropriate, allowed or even possible in art. By definition, a modern ballet should throw out, or at least challenge, classical form and content.
But old habits are hard to break, and ballet is chock full of them. The Best of Modern Choreographic Voices, a mixed program now in its fifth year, has, at its best, showcased Atlanta Ballet’s versatility and challenged its audience to think outside the tutu.
In both form and content, just one of the three offerings on this year’s program — which ran last weekend at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre — can be called “modern,” though the company is clearly skilled at both classical and contemporary repertoire.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas fits the classical mold most definitively. Ratmansky calls the work an “abstract” expression of Domenico Scarlatti’s piano sonatas, but narratives abound, and tired, heterosexual themes overshadow sparkling musicality.
In one duet, Jacob Bush chases Nadia Mara in zig-zagging patterns until she runs off. He looks for her to his left and right, raises his eyebrows and delivers the requisite exaggerated shrug, a mimed gesture of cartoonish defeat.
Rachel Van Buskirk, radiant in a white and gold dress, dances one of the few abstract solos; she embodies a reeling, topsy-turvy melody and careens side to side, her torso dipping and floating over rhythmic waves.
Gina Patterson’s 2011 work Quietly Walking, though socially relevant and less ostensibly classical in form, similarly rejects abstraction. The only choreographer to include program notes, Patterson tells us her work addresses deforestation and asks difficult Man vs. Nature questions.
But instead of offering the promised “space in which to contemplate these questions,” Patterson answers them for us. In front of a tree branch stretched spider-like across the stage, dancers reach into the air, then snap their arms into jagged angles. As the piece wears on, dancers remove parts of their futuristic gray tunics and grab at one another in mock desperation.
Eventually three women in green dresses — presumably forest spirits — drift onstage to witness the destruction. Set to Max Richter’s cinematic music, the piece yearns for a moment of levity.
On lesser dancers, Quietly Walking could fall flat, but Atlanta Ballet elevates it. Simple partnering and a formulaic structure allow the dancers to show off their emotional chops, and a few sections — most notably a duet for Yoomi Kim and Christian Clark — tug at the heartstrings.
Thankfully, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin delivers some much-needed emotional nuance and sophistication with his iconic, riotous Minus 16.
In stark contrast to the previous works, Minus 16 is unpredictable from the start. With the curtain closed and house lights up, dancer Heath Gill steps from behind the curtain. He stands motionless, largely unnoticed by the audience, for a time and then starts to jerk in place, his fists balled, head thrown back, vacillating between frustration and euphoria.
Later, 19 dancers, identically clad in dark suits and hats, slouch forward on chairs arranged in a semi-circle. A traditional Hebrew song, repetitive and mesmerizing, booms as the dancers sneeze, bite at the air, toss their heads back, and tear off their clothing piece by piece.
In the evening’s most moving duet, Christian Clark stabs at Van Buskirk’s stomach in quiet desperation as she teases, then drifts away. Tenderness and violence intermingle. Van Buskirk suddenly appears on Clark’s shoulders, and they never make eye contact. Throughout the work, Naharin reveals profound human complexity.
Riveting or repulsive, Modern Choreographic Voices is a place to take a chance and perhaps this program didn’t go far enough. The extraordinary Atlanta Ballet dancers typically rise to a challenge with curiosity and grace. And if audiences follow their lead, the annual program could — and should — become a season highlight.