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Review: From the chaotic to the sublime, gloATL fills Atlanta landscapes with dance

(Photo by Thom Baker)

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It’s a tenuous idea that public art can play host to intimate human exchange; intimacy relies on the ephemeral qualities of risk, trust and mutual respect.

“Liquid Culture,” gloATL’s series of experimental and site-specific performances this month, put its dancers (as last summer) in the midst of Atlanta’s landscape. These works invite the audience members into them on the assumption that they’ll respect the artists and one another. Whether the work becomes sublime, comical or chaotic is largely up to the audience.

GloATL company members and students appeared at four “utopia stations” — with contemporary music ensemble Sonic Generator at Colony Square, at MARTA’s Lindbergh station, in Little Five Points and finally, this past Friday and Saturday nights, with members of the Atlanta Opera at Sol LeWitt’s sculpture “54 Columns” at Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive.

At each of these events, audience members often moved freely among the performers. At times, staged vignettes appeared, either set in the round or by using the existing environment — a sidewalk in front of a church’s grand entrance, an open plaza or a hill sloping toward the street — as if they were proscenium stages. They were everyday places delightfully re-imagined as performance venues.

But to perform in these settings, as gloATL does, requires a sustained level of concentration and an uncanny, “inside-out” sense of vulnerability. Dancer Nicole Johnson opened the series, appearing on a broad sidewalk at 15th and Peachtree streets. She stood, focused and still, in a strapless black dress. Her head tilted to one side as she pulled her elbow out in the opposite direction, exposing the front of her shoulder and collarbone. She reached up with her other hand and clasped the top edge of her dress as if about to peel it away. It seemed a metaphor for peeling away superficial layers in order for people to engage more deeply with the performance and one another.

This quality of open intensity, along with highly skilled dancing, has attracted an increasing number of photographers. At Lindbergh station, a dedicated few braved the hot, humid performance during rush hour. Many, it seemed, came for the photo op; cameras outnumbered the dancers. This eagerness to snap the perfect picture was an intrusion that seemed to override gloATL founder and choreographer Lauri Stallings’ intention of fostering shared human experience.

It becomes impossible to experience these works fully — it’s a challenge simply to navigate the spaces and crowds in order to find and see the performers. At “54 Columns,” pulls between transcendent moments and periods of struggle added substantive tension to the whole experience for the audience.

Within the hour-long work, beautifully staged in and around LeWitt’s Minimalist installation of cinder-block towers, this struggle seemed to reflect the ideas at the work’s heart — a 16th-century view that humans exist in the middle of a Great Chain of Existence, like a ladder, with the simplest life forms at its base and angels at its top. With that idea came the belief that a harmonious union among music, poetry and dance could elevate humans one rung up the ladder. This ideal fusion of art forms, tied together by the laws of prosody, gave rise to ballet and opera.

Stallings’ choreography grew from ways of moving — from sharp, awkward and angular shapes, through fluid and visceral movements, on to free runs through the expanse of the towers, softly lit in lilac-lavender.

Clad in white, the dancers moved with knees slightly bent, spines not held erect, but springy, resilient and responsive. With hands linked to shoulders, elbows entwined, arms wrapped in embraces, they responded to one another’s impulses like links in a chain. Twisting, turning body shapes flowed with a sense of weight and resistance. One would reach upward, supported by the others, but would then tumble over their shoulders.

The Atlanta Opera’s Elizabeth Claxton, Megan Mashburn, Tim Miller and Heather Witt moved in and around the site, as much a part of the choreography as the dancers. They had a way of standing unnoticed in the crowd, then bursting into the most exquisite sounds. One might be a few feet away, yet their melodious voices seemed to be everywhere.

During one vignette — a highlight — Mashburn and Witt sang “Flower Duet” from “Lakme.” Lilting notes soared through the evening air. Earthbound, the dancers caught its fluttering qualities, their group forms rippling like spiraling chains or living garlands. Music, poetry and dance came together, the sum far greater than its parts, in one of the evening’s most transcendent moments.

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