At the apex of Woodruff Park’s water wall, Toni Doctor Jenkins stood, as if perched on a ship’s prow, tiny lights glowing from her soft white tutu, her bare shoulders impervious to the biting November wind. The gloATL dancer softly spread her arms high like wings and looked out across a sea of people, with thousands of heads backlit in bluish teal. Rapper Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, looking every bit the star in a red fur-lined coat, dark glasses and porkpie hat, watched quietly from farther up the concrete wall, letting the massive crowd fall under Jenkins’ gentle spell.
“Hinterland” cast a spell. The one-night-only, site-specific collaboration between Atlanta- based choreographer Lauri Stallings and Big Boi (above), produced by Kelly Nelson’s Luminocity Atlanta, proved that ballet, hip-hop and a sad little park in downtown Atlanta can join together in harmony, even as the roving audience’s disparate points of view were often crushed together, much like the park’s surrounding buildings. The weird angles and patchwork of architectural styles seem at odds with one another, but they were somehow brought together by Adam Larsen’s projections, which covered surrounding buildings and walls with moving patterns and color — concentric circles burst outward, spirals and wheels in red and white, purple and green. Even the trees appeared to be part of this spinning video landscape. (Photos by Pierre Ruhe.)
At moments, Big Boi’s presence and music — songs from his new album, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” — became so powerful that Stallings’ dancers seemed like his backup crew. (That’s what happened the last time the celebrated Outkast rapper and gloATL teamed up, for Atlanta Ballet’s “big.”)
But the earthy power of Stallings’ inspired vision, and Big Boi’s willingness to weave his music into this world, ultimately joined ballet and hip-hop as equal partners, revealing a deeper commonality. Of course, that’s based on my perspective. Like the rest of the crowd — I’d guess five thousand people — I struggled to see parts of the work, missed some altogether, but found full views of “Hinterland’s” beginning and end. Catching only parts of the show or feeling confused about what was happening — then witnessing an arresting moment of dance-music-spectacle up close — seemed to be part of Stallings’ conception.
At the project’s onset, her choice of location — the benchless park known primarily for its homeless population — was met with cynicism, even downright hostility. Few could have imagined the experience of being packed together with people from across Atlanta’s extremely wide demographic spectrum. Once the event started, most people seemed in the mood to experience new things and celebrate, with open minds.
April McCoy’s costumes for the dancers combined many colors, patterns and textures — it looked as though she never used the same fabric twice. Mary Remy’s opening dance solo, perched on the curb across from the Rialto Center for the Arts, had her legs folded under a short hoop skirt of jewel-toned teals, rusts and deep purples. One side of her top looked like African print, the other like sequined angora. She timidly looked out at the buildings, taxicabs and other vehicles passing the Rialto marquee as if seeing these things for the first time, like a bird lost from her flock. A stranger, unaware of the performance, strode by, improvising his own def poem.
Then they appeared en masse — the Hinterpeople, as if from another world but made visible in human form, uncloaked, advancing boldly down Forsyth Street, turning into an alley and marching past Broad Street’s two-story storefronts to the band Beirut’s mournful “Gulag Orkestar,” to the rhythm of an earthy drum, brass and tambourine. With broad, open strides they shook their upper bodies, arms and fists in the air as if in protest. Strangely familiar folk steps evoked a life force that seemed to rise up out of the earth — the enduring, collective strength of a people.
They crossed Peachtree Street to face a throng of waiting spectators, stood still in a clump for a moment to face the sculpture “Phoenix Rising From the Ashes,” then divided, sending two streams into the crowd. At this point, “Hinterland” became a struggle, simply to find the dance and see it.
A tall, stilted puppet, whose head was a smiley-faced paper lantern, led a child by the hand down a walkway. Another stilted puppet danced under the trees — beaked like a pterodactyl, but white and ghostlike, with beady blue LED lights for eyes.
I was pressed into a massive crowd surrounding the 50-foot dining room table. Unmoving, the crowd waited for Big Boi to appear. Their shouts drowned out his singing when he finally appeared, strutting down the tabletop as he sang “General Patton” and “Night Night,” with several dozen dancers seated at the table in a choreographed meal. The performance was exhilarating.
Through a series of vignettes — such as Haleigh Brooks’ and Calvin Gentry’s loose-limbed, puppet-like duet to the Wurlitzer Band’s carousel rendition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” — blue smoke billowed out of the “cake,” a dry fountain where Big Boi sang “Fo Yo Sorrows” while dancers pulsed to its beat. These ballet-rap set pieces elevated the evening from wild spectacle to high art Atlanta style.
Moments later, the crowd swarmed across Auburn Avenue to the next station and “Hinterland/Animal Kingdom,” stopping at the base of steps. The paved terrace became an outdoor stage with the water wall as its backdrop. Dancers atop the wall slowly climbed down ladders spaced across the wall’s concrete panels, then sat still on platforms jutting forward from the ladders as if they were part of the wall, as Ryan O’Gara’s lights on them changed hues.
Sigur Ros’ “Ba Ba” played — quiet, light, expectant, as if something magical was about to happen. Then Jenkins appeared in her soft white tutu, impervious to the November chill, and she commanded an entire city space with her gentle presence.
Big Boi took back our attention with his rhythmic “The Train, Part 2” and unified the crowd. But the power of the Hinterpeople dancing below — more than a dozen gloATL dancers — met him as equals as their bodies burst with energy. They hopped and shook, raising arms with gathering force, striding forward, stepping back, legs sweeping through the air. Thousands seemed taken by Big Boi’s rhythms as the Hinterpeople raised and lowered one leg after another, as if they’d been doing this dance for a thousand years, a rhythm of the people, timeless.