It takes a special ebullience and tenacity to maintain a dance organization in Atlanta that’s as strong as Ballethnic Dance Company, now in its 23rd season. The troupe’s fall repertory concert, “Elevate,” ran last weekend at Fulton County’s Southwest Arts Center, featuring a mixture of revivals, new work and guest artist appearances. The varied program exemplified some of the cornerstones of the company’s staying power: artistic integrity, a rich and diverse repertoire, and a supportive community of like-minded artists.
Ballethnic co-founder Waverly Lucas II plans to retire from major dance roles in 2014, and several revivals offered a last look at the stage duo of Lucas and co-founder Nena Gilreath. As fresh and vital as ever, the married couple danced the 1989 duet “Somewhere Out There” in a reunion performance with R&B singer Adam McKnight and singer Christy Clark. Lucas and Gilreath also danced the emotional “Lovers Trilogy” by Harry Bryce.
The company appeared in peak condition as it performed several pieces, including Lucas’ high-energy “Alonzo,” restaged after its premiere during the 1996 Cultural Olympiad.
The reunion with McKnight also offered a window on Ballethnic’s strength, beyond its signature blend of ballet, African and other ethnic dance forms. It’s community — in this case, three groups of guest artists, including McKnight; guest artists from Edeliegba, a troupe of senior adult dancers; and Full Radius Dance, which showed one of its most finely crafted works. An enthusiastic and well-trained youth ensemble rounded out the cast, suggesting that the company has a bright future.
In its premiere performance run, Mel Tomlinson’s “Ne Blanc” opened the show, introducing a company of dancers with solid technique and great expressive gifts. Tomlinson, formerly of Dance Theater of Harlem and New York City Ballet, set the neoclassical work to variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. With the women clad in simple white leotards and chiffon skirts, and men in black and white, the dancers progressed from the dignified, spare simplicity of that classical adagio to subtly free jazz leaps and turns and back to elegant classicism. Tomlinson took his time, allowing space and breathing room around simple gestures and arabesques. The dancers were free to imbue every move with honest, personal expression — at first soft and reverent, then full of vigor.
The Ballethnic Youth Ensemble gave strong showings in “Names” and “Fire and Ice,” both choreographed by Lucas. The group has a special exuberance, with solid pointe work, poise and wholesomeness. These are marks of their teachers’ expertise and dedication.
Edeliegba, a group from the Bowden Senior Center, performed “Gospel,” choreographed by Theresa Howard. About a dozen women in long white skirts and tunics gathered onstage as an airy rendition of the 23rd Psalm played. Referencing Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” the group then clustered together. Their arms reached upward with open hands; circling from the waists, they seemed to stir the air. Hands reached up again in prayer, then broke open wide as they hovered forward toward the earth. From prayer to swirling turns to fluttering fans, every gesture had a sense of steadfast faith and reverence that only decades of living could bring.
Gilreath and Lucas worked with McKnight on an AIDS benefit tour in 1989. McKnight has since recorded and toured with Elton John. McKnight delivered his solo, “Be Loved” from his new album, “ALM… A Work in Progress,” with finesse, vocal command and emotional honesty. He had the audience in the palm of his hand.
“Somewhere Out There” followed. The choreography was by Mannie Rowe, a member of Atlanta Ballet during the late 1970s and 1980s, who was named the company’s assistant artistic director shortly before he died in 1991. Partnered by Lucas, Gilreath was radiant in a pale aqua dress. In a duet that spoke of hope and friendship, she spiraled backward into his arms, then descended while turning on pointe. Lucas supported her as she spun back up and unfurled into an exhilarating overhead lift.
All of the guest artists were standouts, and no exception were Full Radius Dance company members Laurel Lawson and Shawn Evangelista, who performed one of choreographer Douglas Scott’s most sophisticated and polished works, a duet from “Touch.” The full work received its premiere last January and is one of the most appealing modern dance duets from 2013.
“Touch” unfurled seamlessly, as Lawson’s and Evangelista’s mature relationship evolved. True professionals, their stage focus and emotions graded just right for the choreography’s sculptural forms. These shifted continuously from one to the next. In what seemed infinite configurations, they spun, arched and circled their heads, orbiting each other and exchanging support with a sense of give-and-take, trust and tenderness.
Gilreath’s and Lucas’ duet in “Lovers Trilogy” was charged with the complex emotions of love and separation. Lucas, in military clothes, seemed called to war. Both danced emotionally wrought solos — Gilreath with a coat rack bearing Lucas’ garment, Lucas with a chair — as if the prop were the missing partner. Gilreath’s solo was filled with passion and sadness, doubt and yearning. Lucas balanced on the chair and descended effortlessly — his tilted balances on one leg felt like cries of frustration.
“Alonzo” showed the professional ballet ensemble at its best. Set to the deep, resonant beat of a taiko drum in music by Japanese New Age composer Kitaro, the work blended the grace of ballet with the athleticism of martial arts. Calvin Gentry’s technique stood out, though there’s more potential inside. Regine Meteyer’s authority continues to grow, enhancing her ethereal qualities; Laila Howard, a former student of Ballethnic, brings crisp exactitude and vigor to her paces. New this year is Indya Childs. In size and proportion, she fits alongside the other dancers; she carries a supple, muscular facility that’s naturally kinetic. Her pleasure is palpable.