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ArtsATL > Dance > Year in Review: From myth to the political, Atlanta dance found new expression in 2018

Year in Review: From myth to the political, Atlanta dance found new expression in 2018

For the first time in four years, Christine and John Welker performed on stage together in Heath Gill's fall·en in October at Serenbe. (Photo courtesy of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre)

Early in 2018, Lauri Stallings’ group glo led viewers to Atlanta’s Zero Mile Post, which marked the point where the city began, encased in a building inside a downtown parking garage. The post was not only a concrete symbol of the way we mark distances but also a reminder of certain milestones we pass with the coming of each new year. In 2018, Giwayen Mata, the all-female African dance and drumming group, celebrated 25 years, its founding artistic director Omelika Kuumba passing the baton to Tambra Omiyale Harris as Kuumba became artistic director emeritus. Dance Canvas marked its 10th anniversary, and Kit Modus, ImmerseATL and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre celebrated their first years with promising futures ahead.

This year, Atlanta dance expression spanned from myth to political commentary and from fantasy to the absurd. ArtsATL‘s Candice Thompson, Kathleen Wessel, Amanda Sieradzki, Sydney Burrows, Scott Freeman and Cynthia Bond Perry sifted through numerous achievements, chose several highlights and singled out some of the best.

Best locally produced show — fall·en

The atmosphere was electric when Christine (Winkler) Welker, Atlanta’s prima ballerina for nearly two decades, made her return to the stage four years after her retirement from Atlanta Ballet. That alone gave heft to Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s fall·en in October at Serenbe. It also put pressure on choreographer Heath Gill to create a work worthy of the moment, and fall·en was all that and more. In the first half that featured Welker, Gill’s choreography showed off gorgeous neoclassical chops that many didn’t think he had. The second half — set in a post-apocalyptic bunker — featured a man alone with his hallucinations and self-doubt, facing the probability that he is the last surviving human being in the world. It was dark, it was funny and it was alive with nuance, nostalgia and even an old soft-shoe. The thread of both halves of fall·en was the quest for personal meaning, the hunger to find one’s place in the world. They were two short stories told through dance. And every word mattered. –SF

Mirelle Martins and Shamel Pitts in BLACK VELVET (Photo by Itai Zwecker)

Best out-of-town touring production — BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes

In March, former Batsheva Dance Company artist Shamel Pitts and performance artist Mirelle Martins illuminated the backstage area of Atlanta Symphony Hall with the provocative BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, presented by Tanz Farm, a performance series curated by Lauri Stallings’ group glo and the Goat Farm Arts Center. In a duet that blurred gender lines and pushed the boundaries of physical virtuosity and exertion, Pitts and Martins created inventive mirror images with their androgynous appearance and with movements that juxtaposed strength with softness. Using ladders for their minimal set, they deftly maneuvered them into different configurations in order to convey an abstract, and incredibly moving, exploration of human connection and black love. The hour-long journey transfixed audiences, allowing room for them to contemplate something larger than themselves or a single issue — like race, gender or injustice — that would have been too facile of a takeaway. –CT

Best dancer — Anna Bracewell Crowder

Anna Bracewell Crowder (Photo by Christina Massad)

Arguably the hardest working dancer in Atlanta, Anna Bracewell Crowder is a member of Core Dance and Staibdance and is a veteran of performances with Blake Beckham, Gregory Catellier and The Lucky Penny. This year, Crowder studied for weeks with dance artists from around the world at Berlin’s b12 dance festival. As a result of her research and performance experience, Crowder’s technique has become as nuanced and indefinable as it is fascinating to watch. For Crowder, the riskier a work’s content, the better (see Germana Civera’s Human Landscapes), and she has proven her acting skills of late in more theatrical dance works. Next month, she will appear in Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s American Playground, which will be remounted by Core Dance along with a new work. Unpredictability is perhaps Crowder’s most exciting quality because she is a shape-shifter. She plays with her audience, pitching wildly off balance then snapping into stillness with startling control, as if nothing happened, as if your eyes deceived you. –KW

Best dancer — Benjamin Stevenson

Benjamin Stevenson had a breakout year in 2018.

An exceptionally articulate mover and published poet, Benjamin Stevenson had a standout year. The recent Emory University graduate boldly entered the dance scene with interests in works that focused on identity politics, mental health and multiculturalism. This focus lent itself to Stevenson’s performance with Okwae A. Miller & Artists for I call him. he[R], exploring heteronormative standards of masculinity and black gay identity. Other credits have included joining Staibdance and performing with Kit Modus in Noelle Kayser’s The Excursion: Realized this fall. Stevenson’s diverse range and dynamism as a mover lends itself well to these distinct choreographers and companies; however, Stevenson’s voice is not only that of a performer, as he also debuted original work, Mother’s Day, as part of Poetica’s Night of Experimental Dance this summer. This fresh and poignant solo performance cemented Stevenson’s stance as a gifted emerging artist and whet the palate as one to watch for the new year. –AS (Full Disclosure: Amanda Sieradzki is the founder of Poetica.)

Best dancer — Rachel Van Buskirk

This season, Rachel Van Buskirk has come into her own. (Photo by Joseph Guay)

Being a great dancer is more than mastering and executing technique. It’s also about having the ability to connect with the emotions that define a role and convey those feelings to the audience. And no Atlanta dancer does that better than Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre cofounder Rachel Van Buskirk. She first made her mark with Atlanta Ballet, where she was named by Dance Magazine as one of “25 to Watch” in 2012. ArtsATL dance editor Cynthia Bond Perry wrote in that article, “With jumps that lick upward like flames and descend like feathers, Van Buskirk . . . is poised to burst into the limelight.” Over the past 18 months, Van Buskirk has arrived. Whether it was her stunning duet with Tara Lee in the ethereal Translation in November or her haunting presence throughout Lee’s The Vertical last spring, Van Buskirk connects with an audience on a deeply emotional level. Many dancers have two basic onstage modes — a fixed smile and a blank expression. Van Buskirk carries an Audrey Hepburn air of sophisticated elegance, along with an intoxicating blend of innocence and fierceness. She doesn’t just dance roles; she immerses herself in those characters, and she always brings the audience with her. –SF

Best choreographer — Heath Gill

When he was with Atlanta Ballet, Heath Gill was not considered an elite leading man on the scale of his fellow Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre cofounders John Welker and Christian Clark. Gill was a performer who stood out more for his skill as an actor on stage, particularly his talent for conveying sly humor. He also tried his hand at choreography, conceiving short pieces that bristled with potential for the ballet’s now defunct summer troupe, Wabi Sabi. When the five Atlanta Ballet ex-patriots formed Terminus in 2017, Gill was given the daunting task of being one of the troupe’s two in-house choreographers, along with Tara Lee. By that time, Lee had already established herself as a choreographer. But Gill’s emergence, starting with last season’s Lore, is a revelation. Lore was cinematic in scope, with a deep emotional presence that poignantly investigated life’s passages. Gill’s growth continued with this year’s evocative Confronting Genius, which debuted at the High Museum of Art, and the unforgettable fall·en outdoors at Serenbe. Gill’s gift is as a storyteller — in the quality of the story he tells and in his skill in translating that story into dance. Over the past 18 months, Gill has established himself as a choreographic force in Atlanta and potentially beyond. –SF

Highlights of the Year

Indya Childs reaches toward Drona as the hovering machine projects Childs’ image onto the scrim. (Photo by Myra Bazell)

Ghosts and Other Guests

The riveting otherworldliness of SCRAP Performance Group’s Ghosts and Other Guests stole the show at Georgia Tech’s Robots, Drones, Artists, and You concert in April. Choreographed by Myra Bazell, Ghosts and Other Guests incorporated a flying drone into choreography performed by PhaeMonae Brooks, Indya Childs, Britt Ford and Melanie Swihart. The drone — aptly named “Drona” — became a character that recorded birds-eye views and arresting closeups of dancers and projected them in real time. The added perspective asked audience members to choose between focusing on projections on the rear scrim or on dancers in the foreground, provoking much thought around visual effects and voyeurism. Drona’s role and vague familiarity became startlingly clear as she rotated around and the audience involuntarily watched themselves watching the dance — a brilliant dystopian move by Bazell to be admired and remembered. –AS

The Rite of Spring

In one of the most outstanding collaborations of 2018, Staibdance and ImmerseATL joined forces with pianist Elena Cholakova and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano in April to breathe new life into Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Hotly lit in the cavernous Emory University’s Emerson Concert Hall, the reinvention of Stravinsky’s timeless work brought together choreographers George Staib and Sarah Hillmer. Their cast of dancers gave a powerful, spellbinding performance that juxtaposed earthy tableaus against the man-made marvels of the balconied concert hall and Werner Wortsman Memorial Organ. Diving and rolling off the risers, the dancers moved freely between orchestra aisles and box seats, underlying Stravinsky’s hammering score with a boundless sense of elasticity. Breaking from the theatrics of native villagers or terrified virgins, Staib and Hillmer’s crafting of space stretched back Rite of Spring’s skin and reanimated it with compassionate humanity. –AS

Citizen Lift: A Choreographic Conversation on Men of Color and Politics

Demonte Polen is a member of LIFT’s new dance company. (Photo by Darius Jackson)

LIFT, the Atlanta-based organization dedicated to presenting work by male artists of color, gave a landmark performance in June at Out Front Theatre in West Midtown. Produced by Daryl Foster, the annual concert, which formed in 2010, took on a new sense of urgency — both political and personal — with topics ranging from police brutality to nonviolent gestures of the Civil Rights Movement to love, friendship and HIV. LIFT, the dance company, also debuted that night, its seven members as well-versed in the visceral rhythms of hip-hop as they were in the lyricism and athleticism of technical modern dance. The evening’s eight works conveyed a rawness and honesty that had the power to dissolve tough personas and rip away stereotypes while forging deeper human connections through truth and compassion. –CBP

The Excursion: Realized

Kit Modus, a contemporary dance company only two years old, has proven itself to be a small but mighty force in the Atlanta dance community. The group’s growth and promise were most evident in Noelle Kayser’s The Excursion: Realized, which received its premiere at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in September. Despite the company’s youth, Kayser’s work had a beautiful maturity to it, with stunning images and potent moments. Choreography ranged from intricate floor work to intimate partnering based in contact improvisation, which left the audience to contemplate the complicated relationships established on stage. Some movement indicated displacement and desertion, which was especially poignant in light of the current immigration crisis. In one motif, dancers shook their hands uncontrollably to a powerful and disturbing effect. And while Kit Modus dancers were beautiful to watch, Kayser revealed the struggles of our society in these haunting movements. –SB

My People

Longtime collaborators Corian Ellisor and Alex Abarca offered a glimpse into the complexity of friendship and family — both chosen and biological — with My People, which debuted in November at 7 Stages Theatre. The third in a series of autobiographical theatrical dance works, My People was a tight, meticulously crafted journey that showcased impressive choreographic growth from both artists. Ellisor and Abarca, dressed in blue and red track suits respectively, integrated movement sections seamlessly with the work’s content, literally relying on each other for support, at times pushing, falling, chasing or being chased. Composer Siana Altiise, dressed in a pink track suit and looping gorgeous vocals in real time from upstage center, gave My People a rare and fascinating form — a sort of duet for three people. Ellisor and Abarca were the active participants in the joys, injustices and heartaches faced by queer people of color, while Altiise was the witness, the conductor, the deity or even the ancestor. The work was relevant, personal and at times profound. –KW

Noelle Kayser, Jimmy Joyner and Nathan Griswold explored different facets of relationships in Fly on a Wall’s Byte. (Photo by Felipe Barral and IGNI Productions)

Byte

For the Uncaged Community Dance Festival in November, Fly on a Wall remounted and reimagined Byte, a flashy, at times hilarious trip into the absurd world of media (social and otherwise). Three years after its premiere, the new version featured guest artists Noelle Kayser and Jimmy Joyner with original Byte cast member Nathan Griswold, and all delivered excellent performances. The work upheld and dissected character archetypes — the smarmy radio host arrogantly dispensing love advice, the overenthusiastic bride-to-be gabbing to a friend on her (corded!) phone — and questioned the nature of human connection in a world of seemingly one-sided communication. With its props, set changes, roving red curtain and “show ninjas” (i.e., stagehands subtly incorporated into the performance), Byte was a many-course, oddly satisfying meal. –KW

Remi Nakano as Marie and Nikolas Gaifullin as Drosselmeier in Atlanta Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker choreographed by Yuri Possokhov (Photo by Kim Kenney)

The Nutcracker

By necessity, Atlanta Ballet’s new multimillion-dollar production of The Nutcracker, just coming off its world premiere run at the Fox Theatre, must captivate audiences and inspire them to return year after year. It’s a tall order, but this powerhouse of a show is likely to deliver on its mission — through its fusion of Yuri Possokhov’s choreography, dazzling multimedia effects and Tchaikovsky’s score played live. Possokhov’s conception, sans Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen, removes those layers of symbolism and instead develops Marie and the Nutcracker Prince’s love story. But their two heart-stopping pas de deux are just part of a larger fantasia orchestrated by Drosselmeier, omniscient godfather in the first act and a hat-and-cane showman in the second. Magical moments — such as the tornadic flight of books at the top of Act II — suggested that all was part of a giant clockwork mechanism only Drosselmeier controlled. Yet as Airi Igarashi and Sergio Masero-Olarte showed on opening night, some aspects of life — such as first love — defy reason. –CBP

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