A creative focus sets Atlanta Ballet apart from many other ballet companies, particularly since John McFall became its artistic director 18 years ago. He hasn’t just commissioned numerous new works; he has created an environment that encourages the dancers to collaborate and contribute to a choreographer’s creative process.
This open atmosphere was evident in “New Choreographic Voices,” Atlanta Ballet’s last show of the season, last weekend on the Woodruff Arts Center’s Alliance Stage.
McFall’s philosophy goes against the old-fashioned, “top-down” approach to dance-making, where a choreographer teaches steps and it is the dancers’ job to execute them. With McFall’s approach, dancers become responsible not only for their performance but, in part, for the choreography itself.
This is also true for choreographer Helen Pickett, whose world premiere “Prayer of Touch” was featured in the program. (Pickett’s “Petal” was rousingly performed by Atlanta Ballet in March 2011.) For 11 years Pickett danced with choreographer William Forsythe, who often taught dancers a sequence and then said to them, “Let’s see what you can do with this.” Two dancers might create an entire duet, which Forsythe would often incorporate into his ballet.
Even Christopher Wheeldon — an internationally lauded choreographer whose “Rush” landed on the “New Choreographic Voices” program for the simple reason that costumes weren’t available in March — is known to draw on his dancers’ abilities to improvise.
“New Choreographic Voices” took this open environment a step further. McFall has given his dancers opportunities to work with choreographers as influential as Twyla Tharp, Wayne McGregor, James Kudelka and now Wheeldon. He offered company member Tara Lee a chance to see where she would take these experiences as an aspiring choreographer. Lee’s world premiere, “Pavo,” reflected her influences but also pushed beyond them to create a dark and mysterious world. The piece was a strong step for Lee on her path as a developing choreographer.
The program opener, Wheeldon’s “Rush,” is a glorious abstract work set to Bohuslav Martinu’s driving and mercurial “Sinfonietta La Jolla.” Because Wheeldon’s ballets are usually performed in big opera houses, it was worth the trip just to see his work in the intimacy of the Alliance Stage.
The dancers were costumed in vibrant colors. The dresses were unadorned and recalled ballet’s peasant dances with a modern elegance. “Rush” revealed the beauty and simplicity of form — for example, the kaleidoscopic possibilities created by a curved arm.
The piece also saw a fresh new talent emerge into the spotlight: Claire Stallman, in her debut year with the company. She is a long-limbed blonde with a lovely face and a youthful intelligence. She trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and has danced with Boston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Stallman showed an intuitive understanding of Wheeldon’s style. Featured in a pas de deux with Jonah Hooper, her lines were strong at the base but soft at the ends. Her feet and lower legs were as eloquent as her torso, and she completed the scene with facial expressions that evoked passion and innocence.
With openhearted abandon, she arched over Hooper’s arm. One leg reached vertically with the architectural grace of a church steeple; Hooper pivoted her for a moment on vertical, then she dived forward and slipped one leg through a space between them. He gracefully supported her as she glided across the floor on the tips of her toes. Circular motions and spiraling body forms cascaded one into another until she arrived in an elegant, inverted lift — legs upward, torso sweeping down around his body to inscribe the curve of a steep upward spiral. The effect was romantic and transcendent, yet straightforward and pure.
Wheeldon’s beauty of form showed that there is much more to be discovered within classical ballet’s formal symmetry and romantic expressiveness.
Lee’s “Pavo,” later in the program, was bold and ambitious. She not only debuted a new piece (with the aid of assistant choreographer Jesse Tyler, another Atlanta Ballet dancer), but it was set to original music by composer and Georgia State University professor Nickitas Demos. “Pavo” featured a live band that included a horn player, a cellist and … a DJ.
Inspired by the symbolism of the peacock, which is able to digest poison and then produce even more colorful plumage, “Pavo” seemed a ritual transformation. As the music began with the loud pounding of a conga drum, a spotlight went to dancer Christine Winkler. She stood in the back corner of the stage in apparent contemplation, svelte in a flesh-colored costume embellished with touches of the peacock’s blue-green. Then, at stage center, a circle of light appeared in which five dancers paced around and around and around. A single figure, John Welker, stepped into the circle and struggled to break free.
When Winkler began to dance, she was primal and otherworldly. She moved with incomprehensible speed, one leg inscribing circles in the air as if writing in a mysterious language. Then, set to ritualistic drumming, the other dancers’ bodies began to ripple as if poison were coursing through them. Their legs took on odd shapes and unusual angles, punctuated by quick and bird-like tics of hands, feet and heads.
To DJ Jennifer Mitchell’s strong beat, a metaphoric storm ensued, followed by a spectacular duet by Winkler and Welker. Winkler, as the peacock — a benevolent, almost supernatural being — helped Welker break out of the cycle in which he had been bound. Peacock-blue paint spread from her to him, as if her healing power had transformed him into a figure capable of the same ability.
“Pavo” was clearly inventive. But as is often the case with new choreographers, there was a tendency to include too much. With the strengths of “Pavo,” however, Lee’s choreography is off to a fascinating start.
The bridge between “Pavo” and Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch” was Lee, who danced in the latter. “Prayer of Touch” found the passion in Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor and personified its internal tugs, sense of urgency and struggle.
The work was developed in collaboration with the ballet’s dancers. It was inspired by their physical, emotional and spiritual connections to movement, and how this creative act fosters authentic human connection. The title suggests a quiet reverence, but the actual dance was filled with wit, surprises and comical quirks, such as the moment when Welker carried Lee off stage and she playfully slapped his arm as if to say, “Put me down!”
The female dancers wore brief, silvery-gray tunics with hand-dyed blocks of vibrant green; the men were clad in vests and slacks — casual, urban and approachable, in what seemed a struggle between the desire to touch and the fear of being touched, like flipped magnets, in a dance of attraction and repulsion.
A duet between Nadia Mara and Hooper seemed built on his possessiveness and her yearning to be free from his grasp. Later, there was a dynamic duet between Peng-Yu Chen and Jesse Tyler, alternately slow and sensual, then explosive and aggressive.
With its company and commissions, Atlanta Ballet is on a brightly promising trajectory. Hopefully, as it continues to explore, it will aim to develop the kind of mastery of formal principles so apparent in Wheeldon’s work.
Lee, Hooper and Peng-Yu will show new work at the Wabi Sabi performance June 21 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Perhaps they’ll do with Wheeldon’s piece what they’ve done with previous choreographers’ works. We’ll see what they can do.