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Review: Atlanta Ballet’s "Moulin Rouge" captures Paris with brilliance and can-can

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Visually stunning and impeccably costumed, Jorden Morris’ “Moulin Rouge — The Ballet” merges French can-can dancing and sultry tango with a tidy, classical ballet style. The first U.S. company to perform the evening-length story ballet, Atlanta Ballet presented its Southeastern premiere Friday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which runs through October 31. I attended the second evening performance on Saturday.

Choreographer Morris is a good match for Atlanta Ballet, which believes in tapping fresh talent. “Moulin Rouge,” his second full-length work, draws on the troupe’s strengths. Atlanta Ballet’s strong, vigorous classical dancing and generous individual personalities suit the richness and vibrancy of Belle Epoque Paris.

A massive publicity campaign in advance of this weekend’s opening — plus reports of the production’s blockbuster status in Canada — built high expectations. When Christine Winkler became ill on Friday, it was decided that the “C” cast couple, Nadia Mara and Jacob Bush, would dance the lead roles instead of Winkler and husband John Welker. This might have been a star turn for Mara. Instead, it became clear that Morris’ choreography for “Moulin”– in its second, slightly edited staging — relies not just on strong classical technique but also on its lead dancers’ mature acting finesse and charisma. (Atlanta production photos by Charlie McCullers.)

The production’s strength also lay in its design team’s stunning visuals — opulent sets, vivid, meticulously detailed period costumes and lighting that consistently lent color and contrast — saving the story when the choreography’s luster occasionally grew dim, or at least when dramatic expression felt boxed in by a too-strict adherence to the classical dance vocabulary.

But Morris shows great promise in his ability to tell a story within a classical framework. The plot — based on a tragic love triangle among cabaret starlet Natalie, aspiring painter Matthew and Moulin Rouge proprietor Zidler — is patchy in spots but fundamentally clear, with sparkling, meaningful moments and gorgeous dancing, if not always emotionally gripping. At times it seemed that there were more dynamic tensions and expressive gestures in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters than in the square, balanced choreography shown on stage. In subsequent performances, it’s likely that Winkler, and “B” cast lead Tara Lee, both of whom have acted and danced numerous principal roles with the company, will carry the show in a way Mara could not.

Mara has the technique — she nails whip turns on a dime and gives her port de bras a romantic laciness at the edges, like an innocent Giselle or a charming Kitri. She gives the role of Natalie some brilliantly clear moments. But her Natalie seems innocent, naïve and not the ambitious, streetwise launderette I expected.

But as she grew into her role as cabaret starlet, the young dancer’s spark ignited, despite stiff competition from an ensemble of high-kicking can-can ladies whose brilliant, jewel-toned ruffled petticoats stirred the air into a pulsating frenzy to Offenbach’s can-can music.

Rachel Van Buskirk caught the era’s vivacity as Mome Fromage, springing onto pointe with feminine charm and authority. Earthy, flirtatious, she circled the stage in a whirlwind of dazzling turns, ending with a flourishing flip of the leg and toss of the head.

In one of the evening’s most romantic moments, Natalie and Matthew fled from the club to dance a pas de deux on a bridge over the River Seine. To Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” Mara was in her element — sweet, light and pliable. Bush lightly tossed her upward — as she arched, hovering over his head, and descended through a series of risky, swinging lifts. They kissed in the moonlight, elevated on the bridge, showing that true love can never be replicated by the Moulin Rouge’s shallow, flashy imitation.

As Toulouse-Lautrec, Brian Wallenberg in beard, spectacles, top hat and tails held the story together. He seemed to pinpoint the painter’s compassion and humanity, with free, clean arabesque lines.

Rich, too, was the tango café scene led by Anne Tyler Harshbarger and Christian Clark to Astor Piazzola’s syncopated rhythms. They strutted through the tango’s sultry figure-eight patterns with fiery tension. It’s a pity this feeling wasn’t sustained into the story’s near-melodramatic climax. But Natalie’s revulsion for Zidler, contrasted by her protectiveness toward Matthew, came across crystal clear.

The story is thin and could stand a bit of editing: perhaps less easel dancing and suit-fitting with more live music. And perhaps a deeper look into characters — their walks, their gestures — could give rise to more dynamic movement and dramatic tension without leaving classical dancing behind. But with the right acting finesse, “Moulin Rouge” provides an evening of rich, entertaining classical ballet within a vivid, nostalgic re-creation of Paris.

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