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Review: From Atlanta Ballet, gut-level “Carmina Burana” and a flowing, sense-satisfying “Petal”

Rachel Van Buskirk and Jonah Hooper in "Carmina Burana." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Rachel Van Buskirk and Jonah Hooper in "Carmina Burana."
Rachel Van Buskirk and Jonah Hooper in “Carmina Burana.” (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

Atlanta Ballet’s “Carmina Burana” offered an evening of sensory pleasures, from the vivid, rich hues of Helen Pickett’s “Petal” to the daring imagery and magnificent music of “Carmina Burana,” choreographed by David Bintley, C.B.E.

It’s gratifying to experience Bintley’s masterful storytelling, especially in the United States, where ballet repertoire has been dominated by abstract neoclassicism rooted in George Balanchine’s style, supplemented by an exhausted and limited repertoire of 19th-century warhorses. The need for contemporary story ballets, and the dearth of American choreographers who know how to make them, made last weekend’s North American premiere of Bintley’s “Carmina Burana” a welcome event.

In front of a lively and spirited audience at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Pickett’s “Petal” preceded “Carmina,” creating a program that filled the senses with vivid imagery, pure kinesthesia and richly detailed music.

This second staging of “Petal” was timely, because Pickett is on the cusp of a three-year term as Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer. Created in 2008, “Petal” was premiered by Atlanta Ballet in 2011. An abstract work for four couples, it’s a visual and kinesthetic feast for the senses, reflecting Pickett’s interest in transcending the “fourth wall” through shared visual, aural and proprioceptive experience.

Dancer Nadia Mara’s stirring physicality opened the piece, set to minimalist music by Thomas Montgomery Newman and Philip Glass. Near the edge of the stage, in a wash of daffodil yellow, Mara shifted and stretched through complex leg circles and turns that created ever-changing spirals. It was as if every movement of muscle in her body was palpable and pleasurable.

“Petal” unfolded in a state of flow, through changes of color, groupings and relationships. There was sheer pleasure in partnering — with supported leg beats, circling lifts, playful leg flicks and hippy walks en pointe. Tension and resistance between couples increased as the music grew more urgent. This resolved as the constant lilt quickened near the end, making an experience that had little meaning beyond the immediate and sensory. It will be exciting to watch as Pickett’s work builds in substance and formal sophistication.

“Carmina Burana” is Atlanta Ballet’s first work by Bintley, who is well known in Britain for narrative ballets in the tradition of his mentors, British ballet pioneers Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton.

While Bintley’s style maintained a sense of classical purity and restraint, Philip Prowse’s designs showed none, with bold colors and exaggerated accents that highlighted the anatomy in titillating ways. But Bintley’s storytelling skill was worth enduring this shock-value approach. Marked by an economy of means, the narrative unfolded through a blend of classical line with emotional attunement to impulse, gesture and body shape. The effect was powerfully expressive, elegant and inventive; it brought contemporary relevance to a medieval morality tale.

“Carmina Burana” captures the spirit of the Goliards: clergymen, mostly seminarians, who satirized the Catholic Church from the 11th to 13th centuries. Their bawdy, irreverent poems and texts are said to have been sung during drinking, gambling and other secular pursuits. Composer Carl Orff used those texts as the inspiration for his cantata “Carmina Burana” in 1936.

The Georgia State University Singers, in boxes on either side of the house, were sensitively attuned to all the action, both onstage and in the orchestra pit, where the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra followed guest conductor Beatrice Affron, a veteran of ballet conducting. This gave the production a unified quality that produced a startling, cartoon-like effect even as the audience was surrounded by the full-scale power of Orff’s music.

Heath Gill and Nadia Mara as young lovers in "Carmina Burana."
Heath Gill and Nadia Mara as young lovers in “Carmina Burana.”

From that music, Bintley crafted a story of three seminarians who reject their faith and seek gratification in pursuits of the flesh, from young love followed by rejection (adorably danced by Mara and Heath Gill) to gluttony and brutish escapades into “drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,” including the pursuit of sex with a prostitute, and the resulting spiritual emptiness.

The narrative style posed new challenges for the dancers. The important thing when performing English storytelling, Bintley said recently, is to arrive at a step — or move — with an impulse that’s based on character, situation or style. Some of the dancers seemed to understand this instinctively, with technical aspects so ingrained that they could transcend them into character. Others were still striving to master some of the steeper technical challenges.

Dancer Rachel Van Buskirk has had a coming-out year, with her charismatic emergence as Lucy Westenra in “Dracula” followed by standout performances in last month’s “New Choreographic Voices.” The role of Fortuna, blindfolded in a little black dress and heels, set a higher hurdle. Van Buskirk was almost too warm onstage to convey the character’s cold, seductive power and ruthlessness. But her opening-night performance was solid, clean and charged with potential.

Jesse Tyler nailed his role as the Second Seminarian, which began with his running like a madman, hair flying, as if pursued by a demonic force. He encountered a group of grotesque gluttons, eager to eat a Roast Swan (Tara Lee), who emerged from a covered dish as a fan-dancing showgirl. The Seminarian became savage and devoured her, feathers flying. He then turned full-blown brute, falling in with a bunch of drinking men, punching and kicking his way to self-destruction.

Jonah Hooper, as the Third Seminarian, encountered Van Buskirk as Fortuna, disguised in a slinky red dress and sunglasses, in a den of whores that was all red fog and mirrors. As if looking for love in all the wrong places, he saw the Eternal Woman in Fortuna. Bintley deftly leads us through this illusion and the loss of it. Van Buskirk softy drew Hooper in, gaining his trust through tenderness. Later, she knocked him down only to get him back up again.

As he stood on vertical with arms outstretched horizontally, like a cross, she wrapped her arms around his as if hanging from the cross, then rotated over his shoulder, settling one leg into the crook of his knee, arms extended in a broad, victorious line. She indulged his fantasies, but like a devils’ prostitute, once the illusion was shattered, she took not his money but his soul.

Symbolic imagery pervades the production: the fertility of the sphere; the moral and spiritual uprightness of the cross; the folly of lust, shown by a swollen, broken red heart. It’s a little over the top, but that’s the intention: to grab the audience at a gut level and take it on a perilous journey into the human spirit.

Head over to ArtsATL’s Facebook page to find out why choreographer David Bintley believes that his mentor, Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of Britain’s Royal Ballet, would have liked his “Carmina Burana.”

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