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Review: gloATL premieres "Chapter III: This Is a World"

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When dancemaker Lauri Stallings came out for her bow last night, things felt different — she looked relaxed, centered, confident and at home. It was the premiere of “Chapter III, This Is a World,” in gloATL’s new home, Goodson Yard, at the cotton mill turned artists’ community known as the Goat Farm.

A warm, rosy evening sunlight shined through huge warehouse doors onto a newly built dance floor. Among the audience seated on all four sides of the stage, the pre-show murmur of scintillating conversations hushed. (Performance photos by Thom Baker.)

Dancer Mary Jane Pennington stood behind a microphone stand, her brief tunic with ruffles in shades of coral (designed by Tian Justman) playing off the old warehouse’s faded red-brick interior. She unfolded a piece of paper, looked at it, looked up and tried to speak. Her head made tiny shifts; with miniscule movements, she scanned her body’s interior as her fingers and toes quivered.

It was that awkward moment everyone has felt — being watched, searching for words, unable to utter what has to be said. “Chapter III, This Is a World,” which runs through Sunday, explores that moment before a thought is put into words, before it’s codified, categorized, verbalized, the moment when it’s still a vague, unformed blur — fragile, elusive, yet full of power and life.

There’s a romantic strain in Stallings’ choreography, a little like the ballet “La Sylphide,” where James pursues a sylph who’s impossible to pin down. As soon as the impulse, or idea, takes physical form, some of that power is diminished. But the alchemy that Stallings is finding in her work — what is pushing her artistry to a new level of maturity — is a clear understanding of form, the relation of all parts to a satisfying whole. Of all the works gloATL has shown in Atlanta, “Chapter III” is the most fulfilling to watch. It shows that the troupe continues to establish a strong and vital presence in Atlanta, not just in innovation but in structural integrity.

Before Stallings settled on Goodson Yard, her site-specific works often left viewers unsatisfied due to incomplete views. Movement often wrapped itself around architecture. In the new location, there’s nowhere to hide — no fountains, no building faces. Viewed from all sides, her choreography has to stand on its own. Rather than string together an outpouring of ideas, there’s welcome repetition and a willingness to look deeply at just a few ideas from many angles.

The new work, lasting just under 90 minutes, progressed seamlessly through nine sections. Max Richter’s music, utterly magical, had its own unearthly yet physical vibration. It seemed to search those infinitely small spaces, those unlikely and subtle rivers and streams that, on a map, don’t adhere to straight lines but follow the landscape’s natural contours. Tiny movements traveled through the body sphere on unlikely pathways, off the vertical, off the pure diagonal. Gestures paused somewhere between naturalistic beginnings and ends. Weight shifts hobbled around the hip’s natural motion; jumps and turns sprang from parallel positions with the feet just outside the hips, giving a feeling of awkward grace.

From the beginning, the dancers searched the inner realm of sensations and emotions, creeping along the floor, its center marked by a simple vase of flowers. Sharp, percussive actions, like artillery, and rhythmic stomping and authoritative snapping contrasted the blurriness with clear-cut structure.

Stallings explored the artists’ vulnerability and the intense discomfort felt and seen in “The spot,” where dancers exposed their upper bodies (bathed in Bruce Harlan’s red lighting), suggesting a kind of voyeurism surrounding dance that can’t be denied.

Later, in “This Changes Everything,” a small audience was invited in and gathered for a performance within the performance. Although I doubt that the ever-elegant, genteel perfectionist Bill “Bojangles” Robinson ever danced with such broad side-kicks and flexed feet, it was a nice touch.

A final solo by Nicole Johnson recapped the statement on the artist’s search — like that person standing behind the microphone searching for words. The artist, alone and vulnerable, puts herself out there, searching for something to say. It’s awkward, clumsy and difficult, at times precariously off-balance, but the artist inches slowly toward the answer. For Stallings, it seems, that unutterable answer lies in the satisfying sense of form, to be felt and experienced in “Chapter III, This Is a World,” which is likely to leave audiences humming “Mr. Bojangles.”

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