The genuine warmth and down-to-earth honesty of the Atlanta Ballet dancers came to the fore in Thursday evening’s Wabi Sabi concert, performed at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Although ballet traditionally relies on artifice to transport audiences to a fantasy realm, the dancers made the transition from proscenium stage to natural outdoor setting with apparent ease.
Pointe work was out of the question on the uneven ground, and classical jumps and turns difficult. But nature’s dance floor gave the contemporary works a grounded quality, anchored in technique so deeply ingrained that it seemed as natural as rolling in the grass.
It’s been nine months since the Botanical Garden debut of Wabi Sabi, an off-season chamber group founded in 2011 to create a venue for emerging choreographers. This time, Wabi Sabi founder John Welker broadened the roster to include out-of-town choreographers Jimmy Orrante, Rachelle Scott and former Atlanta Ballet dancer Nathan Griswold. The evening also marked Jacob Bush’s final performance with Atlanta Ballet. He will join Griswold as a member of Ballett Augsburg in Germany next season.
Welker, dressed in jeans and a Wabi Sabi T-shirt, set the evening’s casual, informal tone on the garden’s Great Lawn. The light softened as the balmy evening cooled.
Benny Goodman’s big-band jazz inspired “Sing Sing Sing,” Orrante’s work for three couples. Hints of swing dancing mixed with virtuosic spins and spunky footwork. Split leaps sprang cat-like out of the ground. Rachel Van Buskirk stretched into long, taut extensions that picked up on the sultry notes from trumpet and clarinet. Partnered with Miguel Montoya, her eyes blazed as she took command of the wide-open space with crisp speed and coy magnetism.
That was followed by “Phusis,” choreographed by Atlanta Ballet dancer Jonah Hooper. It juxtaposed a soft, lyrical pas de deux with an ebullient pair who came together in a tango of long-limbed motion.
The audience then moved to the Rose Garden for two of the evening’s most interesting works, each also choreographed by dancers from Atlanta Ballet.
The question “What is your state?” set in motion “Mind Myself,” a riveting duet by Tara Lee. The word “state” didn’t refer to Georgia but to dancer Jesse Tyler’s state of mind. “I’m depressed,” he replied, with a forced grin. Then he doubled over with laughter, fists clenched. Heath Gill, a sort of best friend, archrival and alter ego, began a touch-and-go game of camaraderie, one-upmanship and deception. The two exchanged shoves and supports, ducking each other’s kicks, to the driving pulse of “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies. They scuffled, then tumbled to the ground and rolled into an arm-wrestling position. Suddenly left alone, Tyler scrambled into a seated meditation pose, his face wrenched with angst. Then, to a Mendelssohn piano solo, he staggered, struggling to regain balance. He eventually realized that the questioning voice wasn’t from Gill but from within his own mind.
A tangle of pathos and humor that was often hysterically funny, “Mind Myself” didn’t miss a beat. And Lee surpassed herself.
“Whispers,” Peng-Yu Chen’s bold, romantic and lyrical pas de deux, was another highlight. It was exquisitely danced by Yoomi Kim, in a brief white tunic, and Bush, bald and bare-chested under an anonymous grey business suit. Peng’s work seemed to reflect a European sensibility, influenced perhaps by Jorma Elo, but in the best possible way. Sudden flashes of movement played against long, drawn-out phrases as balletic lines and sweeping shapes blended with small, more personal gestures. Peng’s sense of timing with Rachmaninoff’s music seemed innate, and this made “Whispers” an enchanting piece.
The earth seemed to send electric charges through the dancers in “Source,” a well-crafted quintet by Juilliard graduate Rachelle Scott. Set on the Great Lawn to an atmospheric electronic score, the five dancers, dressed in earth tones, crawled, crept and scrambled across the grass. They lunged, slid and flicked their legs. Like dust devils, they spun out of the ground as if animated and bound by the earth’s energy.
Aptly, Griswold’s “Two and a Half Songs” closed the program. With dancers clad in calico dresses and loose shirts and trousers, the piece hinted at the simplicity of idealized Appalachian life. Danced with obvious pleasure to singer-songwriter Andrew Bird’s gentle voice, cryptic lyrics and carefree guitar melodies, the piece for three couples summed up the evening’s spirit: inspired and disciplined, with unfettered joy.