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Atlanta Ballet packs its bags for China, with seven November performances set for Beijing

Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper in the May performance of "Madame Butterfly." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper in the May performance of "Madame Butterfly." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper in "Madame Butterfly." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper in the May performance of “Madame Butterfly” that was seen by a delegation from the National Ballet of China. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

Atlanta Ballet is launching its 2013-14 season with a two-week trip to China, its first international tour in more than 10 years. Artistic Director John McFall said the company will be the only American ensemble to perform in China’s inaugural “International Ballet Season,” hosted by the National Ballet of China.

Eleven other companies from around the world are slated to participate, including the Russian State Ballet, the Korean National Ballet, L’Ecole-Atelier Rudra-Béjart from Switzerland and several Chinese companies.

“Atlanta Ballet Presents Dance From America” will be performed November 1-9 at various venues in Beijing. It comprises a quadruple bill: the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s patriotic “Stars & Stripes,” with music by John Philip Sousa; Christopher Wheeldon’s neo-classical “Rush”; the wedding night pas de deux from Stanton Welch’s “Madame Butterfly”; and “Prayer of Touch” by Atlanta Ballet Resident Choreographer Helen Pickett.

A delegation from the National Ballet of China visited Atlanta in May and watched the performance of “Prayer of Touch” and “Madame Butterfly” at the Cobb Energy Performance Arts Centre. One member of the delegation was particularly interested in Tara Lee, one of Atlanta Ballet’s marquee dancers, who is of Chinese descent. “Is that Tara Lee?” she whispered to McFall twice when female dancers came onstage. When Lee finally made her entrance, McFall leaned over and said, “That is Tara Lee.”

Atlanta Ballet will perform a demanding seven times in six days, and most of the repertoire will be new to Chinese audiences. “Ballet is relatively new in China, and because of that, audiences there are more familiar with the traditional ballets,” McFall said. “This mixed bill should be very interesting for them.”

The Chinese engagement will be the company’s first foreign presentation since it performed McFall’s “Peter Pan” in London in 1999, as part of the Royal Festival Hall’s millennium celebration. In Atlanta Ballet’s current five-year plan, adopted in 2010, international touring was identified as a vital component of the company’s future growth.

The ballet’s connection with China began two years ago, when McFall was invited to set his full-length “Don Quixote” on the Tianjin Ballet, in the city of Tianjin. While there, he met representatives from the National Ballet of China and offered three dancers from the Beijing Dance Academy a year-long scholarship to train with Atlanta Ballet.

Jonah Hooper and Nadia Mara in Helen Pickett's "Prayer of Touch."
Jonah Hooper and Nadia Mara in Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch.”

Here at home, the troupe will kick off its 2013-14 season with “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” at the Fox Theatre December 6-29, with illusionist Drew Thomas making his company debut as Drosselmeyer. Thomas created the illusions for the ballet last season.

February 7-15 at the Cobb Energy Centre will see the company premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Maillot is choreographer-director at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo and is one of several international choreographers to be featured in Atlanta Ballet’s new season.

The “Modern Choreographic Voices” mixed bill, March 21-23, will feature Ohad Naharin’s “Secus,” the second in a three-work, three-year partnership with the prolific Israeli choreographer; a world premiere choreographed by Tara Lee; and the Atlanta Ballet premiere of “Seven Sonatas” by Alexei Ratmansky. Originally from Russia, Ratmansky is artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre and one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers. April 11-13 the company will perform Stephen Mills’ daring “Hamlet” for the first time. Leading the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra in the Philip Glass score will be Beatrice Jona Affron, music director and conductor of the Pennsylvania Ballet. Affron brilliantly conducted “Carmina Burana” for Atlanta Ballet last season.

The May 16-18 “MAYhem” program will feature a world premiere by Pickett, inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” Pickett’s full-length ballet “Camino Real,” originally announced as part of the 2013-14 season, has been postponed until 2014-15. Also on the “MAYhem” bill is a world premiere by McFall and Jorma Elo’s “First Flash,” a technically challenging, avant-garde work set to Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor and first performed by Atlanta Ballet in March 2012.

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