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Preview: The Atlanta Ballet Prepares For New Choreographic Voices, This Weekend Only

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Dancers Nadia Mara (lower right), Abigail Tan-Gamino (lower left), and Christian Clark (background) with the Atlanta Ballet. Photograph by Karley Sullivan.

The dancers of the Atlanta Ballet have been busy lately. The Ballet’s productions typically run fall to spring; but this year, trying something new, organizers placed one show per month between February and May in an attempt to give the season a new sense of density and cohesion, making for a very quiet fall and a super-busy spring for the small company. (However, the blockbusting month-long run of Nutcracker always remains in December.)

Georgia Museum of Art

Having just finished Michael Pink’s Dracula, the dancers are now back in the studio preparing for a mixed program of three contemporary works collectively titled New Choreographic Voices. A preview party on March 8 provided an intriguing, yet partial picture of works that were still very much in process.

Choreographer Ohad Naharin created the headlining composition, Minus 16, in 1999; Naharin is the closest the dance world has to a rock star. Featuring an eclectic score with everything from Dean Martin, the cha-cha, the sound of a ticking metronome, to techno and the Ave Maria, the work creates a sort of journey with its on-going shifts in style, physical arrangements and movement (the work was created, in fact, as a compendium, a cavalcade of Naharin’s ‘greatest hits’ prior to 1999). It’s simultaneously epic and wacky, facetious and profound. Most famously, the journey leads to a breakdown in the barrier between performers and spectators, as dancers invite (read: pull) members of the audience onstage to become part of the dance. The fun, appealing, and inventive work has been set many times on companies throughout the world.  The busy Naharin (he’s been artistic director of Israel’s famed Batsheva Dance Company since 1990) isn’t always available to visit each company that performs his work, but his assistant Rachael Osborne has been staging Minus 16 with the dancers of the Atlanta Ballet, and he has been keeping up with some of the rehearsals via Skype.

Dancer Heath Gill practices some very specific movements for the New Choreographic Voices. Photograph by Karley Sullivan.

Naharin’s style—and the style of Minus 16—is based on his movement system called “Gaga” (no relation to  Lady), which seeks to develop new ways to conceptualize initiating movement and to establish flow throughout the body. It’s become enormously influential on the next generation of choreographers. (Lauri Stallings, founder of popular Atlanta dance company gloATL has pointed to Naharin and his Gaga system as important influences. She danced in several of the earliest Naharin American premieres when she was a company member of Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago.) In Israel, even non-dancers now take classes in the Gaga technique for fitness and flexibility, a fad as huge in Israel as yoga is here. “It’s about giving people keys, dancers and non-dancers alike,” says Osborne. “In the end, it produces highly sensitive, articulate, and eloquent dancers, but it’s just a side product of practicing all these things.”

The Atlanta Ballet first performed british choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush last year. (In the intervening time, Wheeldon was named Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet.) The piece uses more of the familiar language of ballet—women en pointe, men taking graceful leaps, classic arm and leg positions, pairs of male and female dancers in recognizable sorts of pas de deux etc—but cumulatively it’s all rendered in a slightly funky, off-kilter way: Wheeldon often sets up classic balances and then disrupts them with surprising little wiggles or unexpected articulations. The company is in the process of recreating the work from last year for this upcoming performance.

Ballet Mistress Dale Shields (left) with guest Choreographer Gina Patterson (right) prepare for the Atlanta Ballet’s New Choreographic Voices. Photograph by Karley Sullivan.

The program also includes a world premiere piece by young contemporary Austin-based choreographer Gina Patterson, who is here in Atlanta in the midst of creating the new work, I AM, with the company. “The whole piece is talking about who you are, and how you can find out who you are through your relationships with other people,” she said before showing an excerpt at the preview. “I’m really interested in feelings and emotions and how we physical-ize that.” Patterson explained that the piece is also influenced by thoughts of the sea, and that was visible in the ripples of movement that passed from dancer to dancer, or often from group to group. Patterson—as demonstrated by her world premiere Quietly Walking for the Atlanta Ballet last year—has a real facility for large stage images, always intriguingly balanced by movement that’s highly personal and delicately, almost minutely articulated.

The challenging athleticism of the three dances goes without saying, but the dancers also face the artistic challenge of engaging with three very different contemporary styles. Getting their bodies to remember a piece choreographed on them last year in Wheeldon’s Rush, engaging with the work of one of the world’s most renowned choreographers in Minus 16, and also creating a brand new work from the ground up in the studio with an emerging artist. If organizers have built this season as a sort of condensed marathon, it may prove for the dancers that the second mile (not the last, as is often said) is the hardest.

Dancer Abigail Tan-Gamino takes to the sky in a graceful move for the Atlanta Ballet’s New Choreographic Voices. Photograph by Karley Sullivan.