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Review: Atlanta Ballet’s electrifying double bill of "EDEN/EDEN," "Four Seasons"

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If Atlanta Ballet’s programming of “The Four Seasons” with “EDEN/EDEN” was planned as a strategy to attract audiences for both traditional and contemporary dance, Friday evening’s program revealed much more.

Clearly the troupe is expanding its artistic range. James Kudelka’s “The Four Seasons” offered up the company’s classical, lyric, human side, showing a man’s journey through the cycles of life. The piece unfolded with subtle beauty, breadth, volume and depth, if a little predictably, as Vivaldi’s music illuminated an ordered universe, where life and mortality are governed by natural forces. Coupled with “The Four Seasons,” the second piece, Wayne McGregor’s “EDEN/EDEN,” gained potency, showing a frightening vision of a future where humans use (or abuse?) science and technology to intervene with the natural cycles of life. This is a path we’re already on.

This electrically charged, visually mesmerizing, kinetically intense and thought-provoking work revealed a leaner, meaner Atlanta Ballet; it felt historic and groundbreaking for the company. The show runs for just four performances, concluding with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, October 23. Do not miss it. For tickets, click here.

John Welker and Christine Winkler in "The Four Seasons." (Photo by K. Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet)

The combination of traditional ballet fans and a curious, younger crowd brought a sophisticated ambiance to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Perhaps McGregor’s “rock star” status among choreographers attracted them. (McGregor is artistic director of Random Dance in London and resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet.) Or perhaps it was Kudelka’s longstanding reputation. Whatever the draw, the house appeared well filled.

Restaged from its U.S. premiere in 2010, “The Four Seasons” set the tone — a nod to the company’s traditions. Kudelka’s classically based vocabulary welcomed modern dance’s sense of volume, momentum and breadth. This added texture and shape to the work’s baroque coils and twists, creating a three-dimensional use of space that some younger company members have yet to fully discover. The Atlanta Ballet Orchestra was supportive throughout, conducted by Martin West.

Christine Winkler and lead dancer John Welker’s “Summer” duet highlighted their rare partnership as the company’s most accomplished dancers, who happen to be married to each other. This may explain the unusual degree of shared trust, subtle communication and risk between them, apparent as Winkler approached seductively, leaned onto her pointe and suddenly spun through an arpeggio of pirouettes, then paused cat-like, lit in pale green against a fiery-colored background. Then, as if seized by violent passion, Welker forcefully manipulated her over his shoulder, flipped her upside down, wrapped her around his back and sent her into a spiral descent around his leg to the floor.

Tara Lee dazzled in “Autumn,” and Jesse Tyler was in his natural element dancing Kudelka’s brisk, vigorous style. In “Winter,” Naomi Dixon Clark, a veteran of many Atlanta Ballet principal roles, now mostly retired, was the irrepressible star. She shone as she comforted an aging Welker and guided him gently into death. “The Four Seasons” is a gorgeous work.

Atlanta Ballet performs Wayne MacGregor's "EDEN/EDEN," a beautiful dystopia of our making. ("EDEN/EDEN" photos by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet)

But the thriller of the evening was “EDEN/EDEN.” In contrast to “The Four Seasons,” “EDEN/EDEN’s” world was strikingly different from what we expect on a ballet stage. More often than not, today’s ballets offer an escape from today’s reality, which is dominated by rampant technology, computers and astonishing medical breakthroughs. But McGregor confronts this reality head on with a vision of the near future that is at once terrifying and irresistibly captivating. He choreographed Steve Reich’s video opera “Three Tales,” in which the third act (titled “Dolly”) depicts a world inhabited by clones and artificially intelligent beings of our creation.

“I don’t think robots are going to take over from us, because there isn’t going to be an ‘us,’ ” says Rodney Brooks, a professor of artificial intelligence at MIT, one of more than a dozen scientists, philosophers and researchers whose voices are heard over Reich’s driving Minimalist electronic score. Their questions about the techniques, theories, ethics and implications of cloning and artificial intelligence are overlaid with references to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the Bible’s Book of Genesis and occasional sterile, flat singing by Kismet, a robot built by MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal, designed to learn the same social interaction skills that infants learn.

The most telling and engaging aspect were the parts that took the dancers to physical extremes. It started in the opening solo, by a bold, fearless Tara Lee, as genetics experts explained how Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was created. Bald and genderless in Ursula Bombshell’s costumes, her muscular body appeared as if genetically engineered and thus physically perfect (though we know that this illusion is won through toil and sweat). A man, also an idealized specimen, rose from a trap door; she gave him life as a mostly barren Tree of Knowledge lowered down. With mechanistic regularity, more clones appeared under Charles Balfour’s clinical white light. This was part of McGregor’s intent: “to create a new Garden of Eden — cloned.”

Reich’s electronic music sped along, jarringly, like pistons incessantly moving up and down or like pulsating electronic circuitry, suggesting a society racing along, organized by the unceasing on/off workings of a computer that processes everything in binary code, powered by a flow of electric current. This was accompanied by Ravi Deepres’ projections: white flashes across a scrim, like electrical impulses speeding through brain synapses.

With driving, mechanistic regularity, the dancers lunged and then perched up on pointe. Legs whipped into vertical extensions; torsos undulated as if electric currents raced up and down their spines. Bodies twisted into oddly unnatural postures. They were tossed and lifted and spun around, arriving in balances in extreme extensions with robotic precision. Astounding. What was required of the dancers to create this superhuman illusion?

At first they appeared as clones, then later moved jerkily as if their bodies had become engineered by more and more technology — like humans evolving into cyborgs. Finally, we heard scientist Breazeal ask the robot Kismet, “Maybe you’ll play with your yellow toy?” Lee, on the floor, twitched and writhed mechanically, like some sort of cyborg infant, creeping inevitably toward the Tree.

For those who like to be enthralled with art that poses tough questions, breaks down preconceptions and stretches a company’s artistic range, “EDEN/EDEN” will be talked about for seasons to come.

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