At first sight, “54 Columns,” the late Sol LeWitt’s sculpture at the corner of Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive, can seem off-putting. The system of cinderblock towers, described as a visual metaphor for the Atlanta skyline, seems starkly independent and self-contained. But walk inside this simply constructed, elegant form, and there’s an immediate sense of belonging.
It’s an ideal setting for the finale of “Liquid Culture,” the gloATL dance troupe’s series of five free public movement-based installations in four locations around the city, running July 6-21. (The schedule is below.)
LeWitt was commissioned to create “54 Columns” in 1998 as part of a public art initiative in Fulton County. A pioneer of the Conceptualist and Minimalist art movements, he was known for opening his creative process to the input of others, allowing them to participate as artists too.
“54 Columns” is a fitting place for a gloATL performance. Choreographer Lauri Stallings’ group is known for collaborative works, with choreographic forms so flexible that they allow the public to become part of the performance itself.
Stallings recalled preparing for last summer’s “Liquid Culture” event at “54 Columns.” It took her three visits, just standing in front of what she described as “the vertical city,” before she was comfortable enough to enter. But once inside, she felt that it is one of the city’s most intimate public art spaces.
During the performance, the playful array of towers, varying from 10 to 20 feet tall, seemed to encourage the audience to move in and among the dancers’ choreographed formations. Their paths seemed to gently intermesh, in the kind of exchange that Stallings often seeks to foster in her works.
This year she is adding a new element, narrative, part of a promising and daring new partnership with the Atlanta Opera.
In a recent meeting with ArtsATL at “54 Columns,” Stallings introduced her new collaborator, Laura Soldati, the opera’s communications manager, who produces off-season performances.
Soldati and Stallings realized the potential for their artistic partnership during Wonderglo, a gloATL fund-raiser last March at the W Atlanta hotel in Midtown, they said. It happened in “The Apple Tower,” a short vignette on an elevator landing that overlooks the lobby.
Stallings had lime-green light bathe the area to attract a crowd. In the center, Atlanta Opera singers Elizabeth Claxton and Wade Thomas, in elegant evening wear, sang classic arias: “Sempre Libera” from “La Traviata” and “The Toreador” from Bizet’s “Carmen.” A chorus of gloATL dancers framed them. In a spotlight, dancer Nicole Johnson rolled around, sensate, on a bed of green apples as the tangy smell of freshly squeezed apple juice filled the air.
Within this multi-sensory environment, Stallings juxtaposed operatic songs with her unusual “inside-out” movement style. For the audience of 50 to 60 people, Soldati recalled, the effect was startling, charming and funny. The singers were challenged to improvise, and the intimate setting, far from a large-scale proscenium stage, showed that operatic singing is as physically demanding as dance.
Soldati hopes to continue to reach new audiences with this level of intimacy with “54 Columns,” whose urban environment is even more removed from opera’s opulent proscenium-stage settings. The series of arias and duets, chosen for their sheer beauty, range from the well-known “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and “Flower Song” from Bizet’s “Carmen” to lesser-known works such as “The Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ “Lakme” and “Chere Nuit,” an art song by Alfred Bachelet.
The four singers — Claxton, Megan Mashburn, Tim Miller and Heather Witt — have dance and movement training and are comfortable working “outside of their comfort zones,” Soldati said. They’ll be accompanied by pianist Catherine Giel.
Stallings sees endless potential in merging the two art forms, which share common beginnings in 16th-century France. In recent years, they have occasionally been brought back together, notably in German choreographer Sasha Waltz’s choreographic operas. Stallings too aims to find ways to bring them together by presenting opera singers and dancers “side by side.” Gestural movement, a form of physical expression that opera singers and dancers share, will play a large role as she experiments with narrative.
The dancers will explore certain movement ideas through all five performances — the idea of a continuum, of traveling from one “Utopia Station” to the next. At each station, they will work with the idea of leaving things behind and picking things up, both intentionally and unintentionally.
The dancers embodied some of these ideas during a recent rehearsal in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Symphony Hall. Eight to 10 dancers stood in a line from center stage toward the back of the space. The one in front began to move and the others followed, one after another, in smooth succession. Full-body spiraling forms wound down to the floor, then twisted back up again, like a giant, flexible spine. With viscous, fluid motion, they responded to motions of others around them, ready at any moment to support another person who jumped toward flight.
Stallings noted that “54 Columns” was originally unpainted, just grey cinderblock, but at some point was painted white. The paint is beginning to peel, and she plans to incorporate the idea of “peeling layers” into the performance. Echoing the columns, she plans to cover the ground and dancers, head to toe, with white. Then, as with “The Apple Tower,” she may introduce something organic, edible and aromatic to help immerse performers and public in a multi-sensory world.
Stallings observed that most people simply drive by “54 Columns,” rarely stopping to walk inside and experience its effects. But on Friday and Saturday, July 20 and 21, she hopes people will come away saying, “I dipped my fingertip into the city and it was right there, but I felt like I was in this other place.”
The “Liquid Culture” schedule:
- Friday, July 6, 7-8 p.m. at Colony Square, 15th and Peachtree
Streets, with Sonic Generator music ensemble.
- Wednesday, July 11, 5:30-6:30 p.m. at MARTA’s Lindbergh Station.
- Saturday, July 14, 6:30-9 p.m. in storefronts of the Little Five
Points shopping district.
- Friday-Saturday, July 20-21, 8:30-9:30 p.m., with the Atlanta Opera, at Sol LeWitt’s “54 Columns,” Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive.