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Catching up with choreographer Lauri Stallings as gloATL prepares for "Halo"

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Following choreographer Lauri Stallings’ career is like watching one of her site-specific works — it’s a challenge just to keep up. During the past year, her Atlanta-based company, gloATL, has cascaded across the Woodruff Arts Center’s piazza, surged through back alleys of the Castleberry Hill warehouse district, ascended to upper levels of the High Museum of Arts’ Robinson Atrium, and coursed down Lenox Square mall’s slick corridors. In “Bloom,” several vignettes even occurred simultaneously in different locations of the mall. But though they weren’t all visible from one vantage point, all were strands of a single work.

Similarly, a stream of new commissions has had Stallings zig-zagging across the map, from River North Dance Chicago’s “Suppose” in February to Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s “On the Porch” in April, from Ballet Augsburg’s “Zoot,” also in April, to Ballet British Columbia’s “Zak,” opening in Vancouver on June 16. (Photos, from various gloATL performances, are courtesy of Lauri Stallings.)

Though these works have drawn from sources ranging from Stallings’ childhood in the Florida tropics to the Apollo 11 space mission, the various commissions are part of an evolving body of work intent on softening barriers — whether physical, social or psychological — in order to foster intimate personal exchange between performers and the public. Through the Gaga movement system, which she learned from its creator, Ohad Naharin, Stallings is building a movement language that taps into deeply personal and fundamentally human modes of expression.

Stallings is now rehearsing with gloATL for the upcoming premiere of “Halo,” June 10-12 at the Duo Multicultural Arts Center in New York City’s East Village. Last summer, the center’s executive and artistic director, Michelangelo Alasa, and dance curator Lisa Rinehart chose Stallings from among 25 choreographers who submitted shorter works. Stallings, along with Keely Garfield and Sidra Bell, received commissions to choreograph for the center’s first series of full-length dance works, to be tailored for its historic theater’s fading grandeur and colorful ambiance.

Traditionally, a theater’s gilded proscenium divides house from stage. But Stallings will stage “Halo” in the round, crossing this boundary between audience and performers. A ring of seats around the space’s perimeter will flow up over the proscenium line to encircle performers, setting dancers and audience on equal ground. Music for “Halo” includes a familiar Albinoni adagio, electronica pieces by Nortec Collective’s Bostich & Fussible, and Nina Simone’s soulful “Wild Is the Wind.” GloATL dancers will wear designer Emilee Cooper’s simple Israeli pants with shirts that can alternately cover or expose skin. Frequent gloATL collaborator Ryan O’Gara will design the lighting.

At the heart of Stallings’ work is her fertile and complex movement language. Working from a classical base and using Gaga technique as the method for exploration, she continues to discover new veins of expression. In rehearsal last week, I watched her teach new phrases to her dancers. Though she seldom repeats the same movement twice, there are patterns and consistencies.

Phrases unwind with a stripped-down, naked honesty. There’s nothing superficial — movement draws its source from deep physical impulses. At times, it seems that a mobile inner eye scans shifting contours of the body’s internal structure — the organs, muscles and bones — opening “pockets of hidden movement,” Stallings explained. Punctuated by weighted drops of the pelvis, dancers move on and off center, often with a fluid, undulating spine.

Movement accents unusual parts of the body: a wrist, an elbow, the top of a shoulder blade. Arms whisk the air around the body as if a draft of air was blowing through them. The legs occasionally sweep through space in broad strokes, and dancers pass through recognizable transitions — a coupé here, a fifth position there.

As with paint layered on a canvas, there’s a sense of depth and texture that draws people in to Stallings’ 360-degree world. Once there, viewers can experience her work at a gut level that’s uncannily self-revealing.

Stallings finds it refreshing to choreograph for the DMAC’s tiny jewel-box space, where viewers won’t miss any parts of the work. The intimate theater makes it possible to explore subtler movements and delve into more intimate emotions. The inherent risk of dancing in large public spaces — risk of being touched, violated — won’t exist here, and the dancers can let down the invisible “cloak,” or “membrane” of protection, that they often create by using a strong internal focus to separate themselves from the public. Because “Halo” will unfold in a safe environment, in close proximity to the audience, even the eyes can soften as dancers let down that last little veil.

“It’s very simple,” Stallings told me. “Maybe folks will be left with the sense that we were at eye level, completely softened … and we can be really human now.”

While in New York, Stallings will choreograph “Both,” a duet for Drew Jacoby and David Hallberg for a premiere at Jacob’s Pillow July 21-25. And on July 23 and 24, gloATL will perform the site-specific “Roem” on the Woodruff Arts Center campus. Next fall, Stallings will create a new work for Kennesaw State University dance majors as the school’s first dance artist in residence.

Under gloATL’s executive director, Bill Kaelin, who’s creating the position, plans are in process for a site-specific work in Atlanta next fall that will be on a larger scale than ever.

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