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Review: “Love Stories” marks eloquent conclusion to Atlanta Ballet’s unforgettable season

Brandon Nguyen and Tara Lee in "Requiem for a Rose." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Brandon Nguyen and Tara Lee in "Requiem for a Rose." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Brandon Nguyen and Tara Lee in “Requiem for a Rose.” (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

Atlanta Ballet brings to a close its exciting 2012-13 season this weekend with “Love Stories,” a mixed bill playing through this (Sunday) afternoon at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

The four ballets, two of them company premieres, investigate love in all its iterations, from heart-pounding passion to fleeting connections to playful couplings and the slippery nature of romance. It’s a perfect way to end a season that has ignited another love: ours for Atlanta Ballet and its hard-working dancers as they continue to expand their unique talents and technique.

In shaping the company’s new identity, Artistic Director John McFall has wisely looked to Europe, a hotbed of innovative free-lance choreographers. One of them is Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose “Requiem for a Rose” had its Atlanta Ballet premiere on Friday. It imagines 12 dancers as a bouquet of red roses and is set to the achingly romantic adagio from Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major.

“Requiem” doesn’t commit to the full flowering of love; instead it deftly explores a series of romantic births and deaths. It begins with a 13th dancer (fellowship student Kelsey Ebersold) alone onstage in nude-colored leotard, her long hair flowing, clutching a red rose in her mouth. To a heartbeat soundscape (by Almar Kok), she moves through fluid curves and arches, interspersed with angular arms and hands. Is this the awkward complexity of romance?

When the 12 “roses” emerge, the men and women alike are dressed in shiny red calf-length skirts that open out, undulate and curve like petals as they turn. Lopez Ochoa’s movement vocabulary is surprisingly conventional, but these costumes (by Lez Brotherson, who also designed the sets and costumes for Atlanta Ballet’s “Dracula”) bring a freshness to familiar steps, especially for the male dancers. Big, manly barrel turns, seen in countless ballets, take on a wonderful gender-neutral quality when performed in these opulent skirts.

Domenico Luciano as the White Swan.
Domenico Luciano as the White Swan.

Savvy audiences can often predict when a choreographer is moving dancers from, say, a diagonal line into a circle. But Lopez Ochoa gives us gentle lifts that spring unexpectedly from dense groupings and seamless transitions that emerge from nowhere and everywhere at once.

The piece, however, ends on a jarring note. As the Schubert adagio ends, an aluminum foil-like wall is lowered onto the stage. It’s just high enough to block out the row of dancers in the back. It suddenly falls forward with a crash, revealing an empty stage. The opening heartbeat begins again as Ebersold enters, leading the dancers in a slow, rhythmic walk along this fallen set piece. It’s an odd and distracting bit of stage business that mars an otherwise lovely work.

The second company premiere is the white swan pas de deux from Matthew Bourne’s radical, mostly male and Tony Award-winning “Swan Lake.” It’s performed here by guest artists Domenico Luciano and Dominic Walsh of Houston’s Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre.

In the traditional Marius Petipa-Lev Ivanov “Swan Lake,” set to the familiar Tchaikovsky score, the white swan pas de deux is a romantic conversation between a privileged, love-struck prince and a pathetic, quivering swan-woman who is twice captive — first by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart, whose spell imprisons her as a swan by day and a woman at night, and second by her yearning for the prince.

In Bourne’s interpretation of this same musical passage, a hapless prince (Walsh) is approached by a supremely confident swan (Luciano). Anything but quivering, this is a large, wild, predatory creature, equally seductive and menacing. The prince is smitten to the point that he mirrors the swan’s movements, finally curling around the man-bird’s body as if trying to become one with it. The impact of this pas de deux hinges less on the fact that both dancers are male — although when the ballet premiered in England in 1995 that was indeed a novelty — than on the power of seduction to both comfort and control.

Resident choreographer Helen Pickett is a perfect match for the Atlanta Ballet dancers. Her “Prayer of Touch,” first seen in last season’s “New Choreographic Voices,” encourages their personalities to shine: Nadia Mara is all crisp playfulness; Rachel Van Buskirk exhibits robust daring and drive; Jackie Nash gives us glamorous warmth; Tara Lee is all contained, pristine beauty. Jared Tan’s explosive leaps catch your eye every time, but each of the male dancers — Christian Clark, Jonah Hooper, Jesse Tyler and John Welker — brings unique technical strengths to the piece.

John Welker and Tara Lee in "Prayer of Touch."
John Welker and Tara Lee in “Prayer of Touch.”

One of the beauties of “Prayer of Touch” is the way Pickett approaches the score: Mendelssohn’s popular and much-loved Violin Concerto in E minor. She is utterly unafraid of it, fully inhabiting its romantic thrust in unexpected and witty ways. The dancers connect with one another physically and emotionally on many levels — with a foot on another’s thigh, a hand pressed against another’s forehead, in bounding and busy groups and fleeting pas de deux, and in one gorgeous and tender moment when Van Buskirk, her back to the audience, holds the hand of her seated male partner (Tyler) only to walk away in a tender goodbye, unnoticed by the restless crowd around them.

Rounding out the program is the wedding night pas de deux from Stanton Welch’s full-length “Madame Butterfly” (first performed by Atlanta Ballet in 2002), with Tara Lee as the geisha Cio Cio San and Jonah Hooper as her lover, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. Set to music by Puccini, the climactic lifts, ecstatic backbends, passionate runs across the stage and breathless, dramatic coupling bring to mind Kenneth McMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Manon.” As much as I love McMillan, his style as rendered here by Welch looks overheated and heavy-handed compared with the youthful, free-flowing groove of Pickett and Lopez Ochoa.

For all the company’s joyful, full-throttle performances and technical fluency, there was evidence of an end-of-season weariness: a flubbed lift here, an unsteady turn there. The dancers have done a brilliant job of digesting this demanding new repertoire. Now they are ready for a well-deserved break.

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