Black-corseted creatures wrapped in tulle, lace, and ruffles gradually wiggled their way through the mass of Valentine’s Day shoppers two weekends ago in the atrium of Atlanta’s Lenox Square mall. Titled Bloom, the three-night performance featured an impressive list of local contemporary artists: the dance project gloATL, Georgia Tech’s Sonic Generator, and Big Rube, an original Dungeon Family rapper/poet. Funded by Flux Projects, Bloom is the creative invention of Lauri Stallings, gloATL’s director and choreographer. From her first performances in Atlanta as resident choreographer of the Atlanta Ballet to today, Stallings has been pushing the limits of contemporary performance.
Like her previous performances, Stallings set Bloom in an unusual space: a shopping mall. Her choreography brings art into the real world. In Atlanta, she has presented work in locations from Little Five Points to Castleberry Hill to performances inside and outside the High Museum at the Woodruff Arts Center. In every case, Stallings has exploited the potentiality of the architecture and audience. The shopping mall is her most successful venue yet.
Suburban shopping malls are a post-World War II invention that mark the pinnacle of American capitalist culture. Developed as highly engineered utopian worlds created for a vehicular consumer, the length of the mall is carefully calculated to provide a comfortable stroll along each level. At each end, core mega stores with escalators facilitate a shopper’s continuous looping path. Like in theaters, the architectural priority is view. Typically, all stores face inward onto a common, open (preferably two-story) atrium with pedestrian circulation framing the edges. Storefronts are glass; boundaries are transparent, reinforcing the symbolic firmament of the shopping Wonderland. While shopping malls originally were isolated geographic islands for a narrow credit-card elite, the histogram of Atlanta’s mall-going public stretches much wider than any audience found at, say, either a familiar Atlanta Ballet or esoteric Sonic Generator performance.
Stallings knows all this. Instead of resurrecting ancient works of “classical ballet” for an insider elite, she brings a contemporary movement to the 21st century audience. In this way, she is completely modern, and she is serving and educating a wider cross-section of Atlanta.
Bloom began at the north end of Lenox Square with a single dancer riding the escalators in various frozen poses. As the crowd grew, another dancer joined her, then another, and they then slowly led the audience through the atrium, meeting more dancers and musicians on a central stage set at the bottom of a great staircase surmounted by a continuous balcony. By the beginning of the second piece, the large audience that had formed was blocking out a main dance area. But the dancers were not tied to this specific space or volume. They moved in, around, and through the audience. Viewers could hear them breathing and see the articulation of Stallings’ nuanced gestural choreography. For the first time all day, I noticed the people around me.
The work didn’t have a hierarchical focal point or range of view. Wherever you looked, or didn’t, there was a dancer. Stallings was intelligent about how she interacted with her audience—she grabbed their attention, familiarized them with her movement, and then brought them to a greater awareness of their environment and social circumstances.
As the work began to close, the dancers pulled the audience with them through the rest of the mall. When the dancers passed each store, they stared innocently, captivated by the goods on display. The shoppers were now watching themselves. The finale culminated with some of the dancers gathered around a bench at the end of the atrium. Curiously, repetitively, they asked the surrounding audience, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Merica May is a graduate student in the College of Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology. Before studying architecture, she danced with the Atlanta Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Washington.