In what’s become an annual tradition since its founding in 2011, the Atlanta Ballet’s contemporary performance group Wabi Sabi gave a series of outdoor performances around Atlanta at the end of August. The performances, which included an array of familiar works and world premieres, showed the group to be in top form, especially in a new work by former Atlanta Ballet student Robert Dekkers. The end-of-summer miniseason will conclude with a final performance at the Atlanta Botanical Garden on Thursday.
The series began August 21 at the Botanical Garden, the spot where the group had its very first appearance in 2011 and where it continues to host some of its most popular events. Earlier shows at the Botanical Garden typically utilized different areas and features of the property for site-specific works (perhaps most memorably dances in the Cascade Fountain) with the audience following the dancers from place to place, but this year the performances were far more stationary. A duet in the Rose Garden was followed by the remainder of the works being performed in a single spot on the Great Lawn.
The fun of moving through the garden to follow the dance was gone, but there were some clear advantages to the format this time around: there was no confusing movement of a large crowd to a new spot, no hurried unfolding of the photocopied map, no disappointment at arriving and not being able to find a good position. Viewers settled into place to enjoy the performances and that was that. But the sense of discovery, conviviality and interactivity that the movement from place to place created was also diminished.
After the evening at the garden, the group moved on to two more appearances at the Sifly Piazza at the High Museum, August 22 and 29, amid the red house-frames and hammocks of the installation Mi Casa, Your Casa. Though the garden is the venue that the group is ostensibly more accustomed to, the pieces seemed to come most alive at the High on the final night, which featured live music from Sonic Generator.
The shifting, crystalline symmetries of John Heginbotham’s Angels’ Share for five dancers, three men and two women, were far more apparent when set within the stark geometry of the Sifly Piazza than they were in the naturally grassy setting of the Great Lawn, where things just looked conventionally pretty, and the costumes, including eye-popping white tights for the men, distractingly odd.
Tara Lee’s En Route, a sort of silent film in dance form which premiered at the garden last year, kept its sweet, allegorical overtones, with Nadia Mara as a painter and long-limbed Brandon Nguyen as a passerby. Mara was also wonderfully charming alongside Alexandre Barros in Bennyroyce Royon’s Me in Your Fall. Both dancers seemed to understand that charisma and interaction were central elements of the dance. RINPOCHE was a moving ensemble piece by choreographer and KSU dance professor Ivan Pulinkala: as the light faded in the garden, electric torches and a flat rectangular light, like a blank screen, provided potent symbols of grief and loss.
The entire series seemed to have its culmination with performances of a new work by Robert Dekkers, a former Atlanta Ballet student and founder of San Francisco’s cutting-edge Post:Ballet. The two performances (the first week without live music, the second with) provided an object lesson in how crucial live music can be. The second evening, I felt that the forms, gestures and interactions came alive. Sonic Generator’s performance of “Bodega” by composer Jonathan Pfeffer created a percussive, entrancing atmosphere, while spoken word artists Lushlife and YIKES the ZERO rapped alongside the capoeira-inspired dance. In its martial movement, the piece suggested pathological violence and sexuality, but it was seductively, almost troublingly attractive.
A Wabi Sabi performance offers the chance for Atlantans to see some of the city’s best dance from the city’s best dancers, often, as in the case of the High performances, for free. The performances this year moved away from site-specific works (which had seemed a signature element of Wabi Sabi’s earlier appearances) and toward “site-adaptable” works, pieces made in the studio that can be placed in any number of environments.
It created a tension, I thought, between pieces that were conventionally pretty — some seemed almost decorative — and those like Dekkers’ Yours Is Mine that indicated a distinct effort to depart from or expand that role with edgier work. If there are challenges for the group, they may lie in creating a clear identity for audiences that’s instantly recognizable and sustainable across different works and different venues.