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Atlanta Ballet’s 2010-11 season: New voices, enlightened choreography, “Moulin Rouge”

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With buzz words like “innovative,” “physical,” “creative” and even “edgy,” Atlanta Ballet appears to be projecting a new image with its 2010-11 season lineup, its 81st season, aiming to build a profile more in step with what’s current in the field and less tied to traditional images of tutus and pointe shoes, executive director Arthur Jacobus told me last week.

It’s a delicate balance: meeting a demand for contemporary dance without leaving fans of the classics behind. But whether it’s next May’s evening of emerging choreographers’ works at the Alliance Stage, or “The Nutcracker” with a live orchestra playing every show next December, there seems an interest in growing audiences with careful attention to artistic quality.

I expect that the season’s most enlightening choreography will be Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena” and a new ballet from Christopher Hampson, coming in March. But a lesser known choreographer, Jorden Morris, headlines the season opener, and his full-length, narrative “Moulin Rouge – the Ballet” looks promising.

Morris was a Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal for most of his dance career. He’s been choreographing for more than 10 years while teaching, coaching and, most recently, helping run the RWB School. His 2006 full-length “Peter Pan” broke a box-office record for RWB.

Morris appears to be a deep thinker — someone who immerses himself in the history and culture of his ballet’s setting as he choreographs. In his “Moulin Rouge,” true to the era, opulent sets and vibrant costumes transport audiences to late-19th-century Paris: the famous Moulin Rouge dance hall, a tango café, street scenes by the Eiffel Tower, a bridge over the Seine. Through a painstaking process of musical selection, Morris compiled 31 pieces, mostly by French composers from the time when the Moulin Rouge was at its height, but also including songs by Edith Piaf and tango music by Astor Piazzola, which is played live onstage by a tango quartet.

Morris experienced authentic French can-can during the mid-1980s when he danced a lead role in Leonide Massine’s “Gaîté Parisienne.” But Morris told me that “Moulin Rouge” wasn’t influenced by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s 1938 comedy. Rather than put the can-can ladies in high-heeled character shoes, Morris elevated their high kicks onto pointe. It’s less risqué than the era’s true can-can, and more balletic. Still, it doesn’t come close to the fairy-tale tutus and pink tights of a classical “Sleeping Beauty” (which Atlanta Ballet will perform next February). The only visions of fairies in “Moulin Rouge” are absinthe-induced.

The story is fairly simple, based on a tragic love triangle among Nathalie, a young cabaret starlet, Matthew, an aspiring painter, and Zidler, the Moulin Rouge proprietor. Other characters are based on real historical personalities, such as painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, leading lady La Goulue and rising star Mome Fromage.

All told (including its home performance run and touring), last year’s RWB production of “Moulin Rouge” topped “Peter Pan” at the box office, grossing more than any other ballet the company has produced. If popularity is any indicator of how it will fare in October, “Moulin Rouge” may be a blockbuster for Atlanta Ballet, on par with Michael Pink’s “Dracula.”

Here’s the 2010-11 season lineup to date:

Oct. 22-31: “Moulin Rouge – the Ballet” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Choreography by Jorden Morris.

Nov. 27-Dec. 26: “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” at the Fox Theatre. Choreography by John McFall.

Feb. 11-13: “The Sleeping Beauty” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Choreography by John McFall.

March 25-27: “Fusion: Lambarena and a World Premiere” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Choreography by Val Caniparoli and Christopher Hampson.

May 13-15: “Ignition: New Choreographic Voices” at the Alliance Stage. Choreography by Gina Patterson, Bennyroyce Royon, Amy Seiwart and others TBA.

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