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The year in review: Atlanta dance goes “Off the EDGE” with innovation, new voices

Atlanta Ballet's Christine Winkler in Twyla Tharp's "Princess and the Goblin.
Atlanta Ballet's Christine Winkler in Twyla Tharp's "Princess and the Goblin.
Christine Winkler of Atlanta Ballet in Twyla Tharp’s “The Princess and the Goblin.” (Photo by K. Kenney)

On the Atlanta dance scene, 2012 was another year filled with new creations, innovative initiatives, fresh voices and a few departures. Herewith, ArtsATL dance critics Cynthia Bond Perry, Andrew Alexander and Kathleen Wessel join forces to revisit the outstanding local performances of the year and recap other noteworthy local dance news.

NOTABLE ATLANTA DANCE PERFORMANCES OF 2012 . . . 

The first-ever “Off the EDGE,” Atlanta’s new biennial dance festival, was as memorable for its main event — two nights of fantastic performances on the Rialto main stage by distinguished visiting artists including Gallim Dance, zoe/juniper, Lar Lubovitch and BODYTRAFFIC — as it was for the accompanying free-to-the-public works in Woodruff Park and especially for mask-donning Rina Schenfeld. The Israeli dance legend closed the festival the final night at the Goat Farm Arts Center with a performance that seemed to encapsulate and share a lifetime’s worth of wisdom in every move.

Noted choreographer Twyla Tharp came to Atlanta to develop a new full-length story ballet, only the second in her long and storied career. Titled “The Princess and the Goblin,” it was a danced adaptation of George MacDonald’s classic late-Victorian children’s novel. The storyline wavered somewhat, but if there was ever any doubt that Tharp can create dance of stunning, eye-popping clarity and beauty, or that Atlanta Ballet is full of dancers capable of meeting the challenge of working with the famously demanding choreographer, the amazing work that it did on “Princess” put such doubts to rest once and for all.

D’AIR Aerial Dance Theatre’s Fareedah Aleem and Justin Evans in “Shadows of Doubt.” (Photo by Keiko Guest)

Hang a swath of fabric or a rope from the ceiling, and the laws of gravity change. When two people hang vertically from a flying trapeze, a handhold or foothold could mean the difference between flight and fall. Relationships — say, who’s on top or who gives support — have new meaning. With “Shadows of Doubt,” the D’AIR Aerial Dance Theatre bypassed mere circus stunts and explored psychological states, in a lighthearted way, through the risky metaphors inherent in aerial dance movement. Embellished with classic jazz dance styles and smart references to vaudeville, “Shadows” proved to be the company’s most sophisticated showing in the past few years.

Though she is better known as dancer, Atlanta Ballet veteran Tara Lee proved herself a choreographer to watch with the debut of her “Pavo” in May. Her hallmark sensuality as a performer was evident in much of the movement she created in the ambitious collaboration with composer Nickitas Demos. (Ironically, Lee was the only new choreographer on the shared “New Choreographic Voices” bill presented by Atlanta Ballet.) Her piece, with its detailed quickness and innovative partnering, was a bold departure from convention.

If Lee left any loose ends in “Pavo,” her duet “Mind Myself,” presented by Wabi Sabi in June, offered a complete package that kept its audience riveted. The frenetic rhythms of alternative rock band the Pixies drove a convoluted narrative in which dancer Jesse Tyler appeared to be in the throes of an identity crisis. His tormenter, Heath Gill, shifted among roles as friend, rival and alter ego. The same night, Peng-Yu Chen, another Atlanta Ballet dancer, made her Wabi Sabi choreographic debut with “Whispers.” Danced by Yoomi Kim and Jacob Bush, this richly varied pas de deux seemed guided by an innate sensitivity to Rachmaninoff’s music.

Atlanta Ballet’s Tara Lee took off her dancing shoes to choreograph two shows. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

With the help of one of the year’s most widespread and ambitious marketing campaigns, choreographer T. Lang packed the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard with her June production of “Mother/Mutha.” Coupled with a compelling movement vocabulary and volatile subject matter, the evening-length work was an effective conversation starter. Lang’s work is likely to gain visibility; the Spelman College professor was recently invited to teach technique and composition at the American Dance Festival, a distinction in the contemporary dance field.

GloATL returned to its summer series of outdoor public performances titled “Liquid Culture” for the second time this summer, revisiting in reverse order the sites it utilized in 2011. Far from feeling like a retread, the work revealed more of the company’s varied and fascinating moods: elegant and daring weaving in and out of traffic in formal dress to the music of Sonic Generator at 15th and Peachtree streets; zany with a touch of bawdiness in the shop windows of Little Five Points; and, best of all, radiantly mystical wandering through Sol LeWitt’s Stonehenge-like “54 Columns” with singers from the Atlanta Opera on the final, beautiful night.

“Threshold,” choreographed by Blake Beckham. (Photo by BobbiJo Brooks)

In choreographer Blake Beckham’s “Threshold,” dancers Alisa Mittin, Claire Molla and Alex Abarca gave tour-de-force performances in an intimate, visceral and surreal work staged within a magnificent and beautifully proportioned cardboard house. The collaboration among the Lucky Penny, Georgia Tech, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects and a host of other artists and volunteers earned the Lucky Penny recognition in the form of a $30,000 multi-year grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Tanz Farm Series 2, an evening of three original dance works and live experimental music, capped the first half of the inaugural Tanz Farm initiative. It showed not only the city’s need for a place for experimentation in dance, similar to New York Live Arts (formerly Dance Theater Workshop), but that the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard, though not perfect, might provide such a place. Seattle-based zoe/juniper’s installation “No one to witness and adjust: study #3” seemed to capture shifting impressions within the old warehouse that seemed otherworldly yet earthy, mystical yet personal. And Staibdance, removed from its more insular space at Emory University, performed George Staib’s “Crevasse” with a newfound urgency and intensity. Set within the building’s vast, exposed-brick interior, it was the group’s most satisfying work in recent memory.

Perhaps the most profound gift that Tanz Farm has offered to the community, so far, has been to present Sidra Bell Dance New York. Bell’s dancers brought a concentration of immediacy and edge to her new work, “Nudity.” The quintet created a personal yet formally conceived world where imperfections help define human beauty.

. . . AND OTHER ATLANTA DANCE NEWS

Atlanta Ballet wrapped up an extraordinary season of offerings by respected and sought-after choreographers, including James Kudelka, Wayne McGregor, Twyla Tharp, Jorma Elo and Christopher Wheeldon. In January, the 82-year-old company received a $2 million grant from the Goizueta Foundation, and in March it announced that it had exceeded its capital campaign fund-raising goal. Last month, the ebullient Helen Pickett was made resident choreographer.

GloATL dug deeper into its home at the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard. After a successful campaign, the group announced that it had exceeded its $50,000 fund-raising goal and begun plans to provide its five core dancers with health care benefits, a sign that the three-year-old troupe is establishing a more permanent presence in the community. In August, GloATL founder Lauri Stallings and the Goat Farm announced Tanz Farm, an ambitious nine-month contemporary performance initiative, now in full swing (see above).

Juel Lane (Photo by Richard Calmes)

Dancer and choreographer Juel D. Lane made a splash on the local scene with “Moments of Dis,” Atlanta Ballet’s first-ever mainstage commission from a locally based independent choreographer. But Lane won’t remain “local” for long: he’s moving back to New York in late December, where he’ll continue to work with Camille A. Brown and Dancers, among other pursuits. Lane’s ties with Atlanta remain strong; he’ll present his first solo dance concert on April 26 at the Southwest Arts Center. Another feather in Lane’s cap: Dance Magazine has just featured him among its 2013 “25 to Watch.”

Allyne D. Gartrell, a native of Atlanta who has worked extensively with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Dallas Black Dance Theatre, left Dallas in 2010 and has since returned to his native city and formed a company called the Atlanta Dance Connection. A well-known and admired teacher, Gartrell has attracted a group of enthusiastic and technically solid young dancers who are as comfortable dancing Horton-based modern as they are performing Gartrell’s joyous blend of classic jazz, hip-hop and various African forms. They’ll perform at the Southwest Arts Center February 15-17.

Angela Harris, executive artistic director of Dance Canvas, continued her grass-roots work to build audiences to nurture the next generation of choreographers. After Harris received the 2011 Emerging Leader Award from Americans for the Arts, Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs presented her with the 2012 Emerging Artist Award in Dance. Her fifth annual performance series, featuring works by emerging choreographers in a variety of styles, will be staged January 18 and 19 at the 14th Street Playhouse.

Zoetic Dance Ensemble set the bar in last May’s Modern Atlanta Dance Festival. And in an open rehearsal showing in September, the troupe showed visible strides in technical strength and cohesiveness. ChristinaNoel Reaves, a Zoetic alum who’s now based in New York, is infusing the repertoire with fresh ideas, including vocal work influenced partly by Reaves’ work with composer and performance artist Meredith Monk. Reaves’ “Rapture of the Heroine” will receive its premiere at the Southwest Arts Center in March.

CORE Performance Company experienced major turnover in the summer and fall as five dancers departed. A new set of dancers has joined the Decatur-based troupe, including the captivating Rose Shields. CORE also recently announced that it had received a $20,000 grant from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. It will perform “Secret” February 1-3 at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. Choreographer Amanda K. Miller, a former William Forsythe dancer, is creating a new work with the company that is set for a premiere at Goodson Yard in May, the fourth installment of the inaugural Tanz Farm series.

As for former CORE dancers, look for more site-specific works from Blake Dalton’s company Crossover Movement Arts. Alisa Mittin, Alex Abarca and Erik Thurmond, a new dancer in town, will join New York choreographer Sean Curran and his associate artistic director, Betsy Coker Giron, in a site-specific installation March 1 at Georgia Tech.

After a poignant farewell concert followed by “The Nutcracker,” Georgia Ballet Artistic Director Gina Hyatt-Mazon has left to join Hamburg Ballet’s artistic staff. Ballet Master Janusz Mazon, Hyatt-Mazon’s husband, will join her at the end of the academic year. Georgia Ballet’s search for a new artistic director is still on.

And last month, out of the blue, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation awarded multi-year grants totaling $30,000 each to five Atlanta arts organizations, two of them devoted mainly to dance: Dashboard Co-op, Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, gloATL, Living Walls and the Lucky Penny.

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