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Wabi Sabi Searches for Its Signature at Atlanta Botanical Garden

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All photos by Karley Sullivan.

In his welcoming remarks, Wabi Sabi‘s founder John Welker referred to the company’s recent performance at the Atlanta Botanical Garden as a “treasure hunt,” a promise well delivered in the whole feel of the evening. On arrival, visitors received maps of the garden with various locations and performance times marked out on them. There were six works in all during the September 20 performance in the garden, the group’s third use of the venue for its dance “scavenger hunts” since its founding last year. The company has also shown works at several other functions including January’s Off the Edge dance festival and in North Georgia’s Sautee Nacoochee Center.

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Wabi Sabi is an offshoot of the Atlanta Ballet designed to bring the dancers’ work off the proscenium stage and into more accessible environments. It’s a small company-within-a-company composed of principal dancers, giving them the opportunity to choreograph their own work and perform in smaller, often site-specific, and less formalized contemporary work than the typical season of staged ballet productions provides. It’s also a way for the company to reach out to audiences that it might not otherwise reach. The group performs without pointe shoes or marley flooring—necessities for ballet dance that can greatly straiten its portability and adaptability. The first work at the group’s unveiling in September of 2011 involved ballerina Peng-Yu Chen slipping out of a fluffy white tutu and placing it on a seat beside her, a symbolic declaration of the group’s spirit and purpose. Wabi Sabi takes its name from a Japanese aesthetic that admires the ineffable imperfection of the transitory.

Wabi Sabi began its second season last Thursday with a new round of performances at the garden. Although the quality of the dance and choreography remains incredibly high—it’s unquestionably among the best in Atlanta—Wabi Sabi still seems like a company searching for a recognizable, consistent, accessible identity that audiences can latch onto.

Photo by Karley Sullivan.
Photo by Karley Sullivan.
Photo by Karley Sullivan.

The evening’s performance opened with a dance by Nicole Jones at the cascade fountain along the garden’s main entrance. The work was remarkable for its complete use of the water feature; the dancer, who also choreographed the work, was literally swimming at several points. To the eerily spacious music of Arvo Part, Jones made a journey from the top of the feature where the series of cascades begins, stopping to mount each of the several walls that create the falls as she made her way down,  ending up in front of the audience, facing back towards the cascade again.

Visitors next made their way to Day Hall for two more dances and finally ended up on the Great Lawn for the final three. Especially notable were the two central works by company member Tara Lee. The ensemble piece, “Akara,” was almost a mini-epic with different moods, tones, and arrangements in each section. The work seemed to reference the mass migrations of the early twentieth century: a stylish, but unspecified Eastern European or Argentinian atmosphere pervaded. A shifting arrangement of ensembles, duets, and solos—always involving an old-fashioned leather suitcase and evocative gypsy-like accordion music—evoked, in turn, departure, arrival, drunkenness, camaraderie, loneliness. The tango was never specifically referenced, but its undertones of eroticism and violence, an early twentieth-century craze for movement and exoticism, hung over several sections.

Photo by Karley Sullivan.
Photo by Karley Sullivan.

Lee’s piece “Mind Myself” for two male dancers set on the lawn was framed as an interview: a news journalist’s man-on-the-street interview suddenly became a personal interrogation about the subject’s emotional state, which then morphed into a danced duet as the Pixies’s “Where is My Mind?” kicked in. The piece was notable for its smart use of the abundantly available resources: the natural gifts of dancers Heath Gill and Jesse Tyler for physical comedy and athleticism. Male dancers shone throughout the evening: Heath Gill and Christian Clark in particular drew my interest to broad, athletic moves that could suddenly become detailed, intricate, and elegant. Their dialogue between exuberant exteriority and an implied interiority was compelling to see in motion. Peng-Yu Chen’s choreography for John Welker and Yoomi Kim to Rachmaninoff was also elegantly and expertly executed.

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All the works were lovely, but outside of Jones’s “Thru” at the cascade fountain, they seemed like pieces for the proscenium stage that had simply been lifted up and placed in a new setting. It’s not that I needed to see dancers climbing trees or swimming through fountains in every single work, but something about the evening seemed to float somewhere between the stage and the outdoor setting. The works were powerful, a delight to watch, but they would be equally powerful and delightful seen in a studio or on a stage.

Photo by Karley Sullivan.
Photo by Karley Sullivan.

What was nice about Chen’s removal of the tutu, about Christian Clark’s performance in the gazebo at Woodruff Park, and Jones’s work in the fountain was the integration of dancer, movement, and environment to create a memorable, declarative statement. It’s at these moments when Wabi Sabi seems to have most arrived as a distinct entity. True arrival for the group, I think, would involve more pieces like Welker’s that premiered at Woodruff Park as part of the Off the Edge festival: site-specific, viewable from any angle, 360 degrees in the round. It also had interesting political overtones: the performance took place in January 2012 at a crucial early moment in the Occupy movement, with Woodruff Park itself still somewhat occupied during the dance. Clark began dressed in a three-piece suit, eventually removing the jacket and tie, all as if in a moment of private, existential crisis as Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” belted out its accusations.

It’s clear that the dancers and choreographers of Wabi Sabi have the talent to create amazing work. But for the group as a whole, there still seems to be something missing: a distinct personality, a sense of purpose, a brand, a unique identity that results in work that is, for the audience, instantly identifiable as being by Wabi Sabi and no one else. It will be interesting to see if the group can distinguish itself as a separate, vital entity while it works within the existing structure of the Atlanta Ballet. The challenge will be creating work that more clearly and confidently makes the journey from the studio out into the world. The performances already are a wonderful treasure hunt for the audience; we should get a stronger sense that they feel that way for the artists, too.