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Review: Atlanta Ballet triumphs in world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s “Princess and the Goblin”

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Tharp's choreography plays to the strengths of Atlanta Ballet. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
The opportunity to see a world premiere by one of the world’s most renowned choreographers is rare, but the opportunity to see such a world premiere that was created with and closely tailored to the strengths of our own local ballet company is singular. What’s most special about Twyla Tharp’s “The Princess and the Goblin,” on stage at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through February 19, is the masterful way she matches dancers to their parts, drawing out and highlighting all the strengths of Atlanta Ballet.

The ballet, based on a 19th-century children’s novel by George McDonald and set to the music of Franz Schubert, tells the story of Princess Irene, whose vain and negligent father doesn’t realize that the children of the kingdom are being kidnapped by goblins. Irene takes it on herself to venture into the underworld to save them.

The fantasy storyline and Tharp’s celebrity might initially suggest a big, loud, effects-laden production, but those who go to the show looking for Cirque du Soleil-style fireworks or “Lion King” spectacle will be disappointed. The story that “Princess” tells is more subtle and charming. Character and movement take center stage, and Atlanta Ballet and Tharp are ideally matched to bring out both in the new work.

The choreographer says she was attracted to the story because of the independence and efficacy of the heroine, and lead dancer Alessa Rogers has the right combination of purity and determination for the role. Throughout the evening, and especially in the opening scenes, she displays a fleetness and precision that are beautiful to see.

Choosing an adult to play the central child’s part was wise. An adult dancer is capable of taking on far more than a child, and her relationship with the male hero, Curdie (Jacob Bush), takes on a romantic charge that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Bush’s movements perfectly evoke youthful bravado and enthusiasm, and Rogers’ suggest very well the transition from hesitant and meek girl to the budding self-confidence that she will need to make her journey.

John Welker’s costumes for the dual roles of King Papa and King of the Goblins aren’t different enough; for a moment when he first enters as the Goblin King, we think King Papa has arrived to set things right. But what’s amazing is how completely and utterly Welker manages to distinguish the roles. As Irene’s father he has a sort of vain, fluid grace, a king mesmerized by material wealth, not to mention the beauty of the assembled nobles in obeisance. But as the Goblin King, there’s a tensely drawn malice in his every move; the character seems to come from the bones. Adults in the audience will probably relish the vanity and audacity that run through both roles. The similar costumes end up highlighting, rather than diminishing, what Welker has accomplished.

Tharp allows great dancers to create memorable characters. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

Christian Clark and Jesse Tyler take on the comic parts of the goblin guards Helfer and Podge, and they bring wonderful modernity and freshness to what could easily become old-fashioned and unfunny. They produce some great moments of physical comedy that pop off the stage with the dexterity and timing of silent film comedians. What might not be as immediately apparent is how technically and physically demanding their roles are. Fortunately, Clark and Tyler handle both with ease.

Especially memorable is the entrance of the Goblin Queen. With a creeping, animal-like angularity, Tara Lee slinks onto the stage in front of a slow-motion tableau of the goblin army bringing the kidnapped children into the underground kingdom. In a later dance with Welker, there’s an especially lovely little jump that turns into a lift, so precise and fluid that she seems to simply freeze in the air for a moment.

In what is undoubtedly the ballet’s most inventive scene, the goblin women discover pointe shoes. They examine Princess Irene’s feet with a scowling, rapacious curiosity; their objectification of the foot is wonderfully creepy and comic. It’s also the moment when the goblins seem most genuinely horrifying and sinister, and even somewhat touching in that they almost seem not to have realized that their feet are bare until they see shoes. The goblin women have a weird flexibility, fluid and contorted, as they creep in to have a closer look. There’s some wonderfully sly, comic business in showing their attempts at moving around in pointe shoes, wobbling and toppling but still vain and imperious in their newfound power.

The movement sticks mostly to classical ballet, but there are jazzy little pockets and wiggly nuggets sprinkled throughout. The influences are pretty broad — I could have sworn I saw a little bit of “Saturday Night Fever” in there — and they’re always used in the service of character.

The story, unlike, say, “Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella,” is not immediately familiar or instantly recognizable. And unlike “The Nutcracker” or “Giselle,” it’s not simple and pared down or surreally dreamlike.

The narrative involves a lot of specific action. While it’s not terribly complicated, those unfamiliar with the story may have trouble placing some scenes within the narrative framework. Most of the individual moments are solid, almost sculptural, in their clarity, but somehow the ballet has difficulty coalescing into a clean, immediately discernible, satisfying narrative line.

The sets are minimalistic where one wants to see a bit more of the goblin’s lair or King Papa’s castle imagined and brought to the stage. But the lighting is lush and impressive. The costumes have a lucid simplicity, though I wasn’t crazy about the use of modern clothes on the children. Real children on stage can be a bit naturalistic in any case, drawing us out of the mythic and fantastic realm, but the contemporary clothes add something almost jarring.

The use of children in general seems a bit manipulative here — it all has a “children are the future” sentimentality that’s never quite as effective or compelling as Irene’s bravery or the goblins’ nastiness. But the kids are especially cute and they’re called on to do a great deal, which they do with skill, so we go there. And indeed, the audience seemed to truly enjoy seeing them on the stage.

All in all, the strengths of “The Princess and the Goblin” lie exactly where they should, in the ability of great dancers to create clear and memorable characters through the use of beautiful movement.

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