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Preview: Modern Choreographic Voices gives Atlanta Ballet permission to get its groove on

Stager Danielle Agami (in yellow) teaches dancer Brandon Nguyen a move while Nadia Mara (left) and Alessa Rogers look on. Photo by Bonnie Moret)
Stager Danielle Agami (in yellow) teaches dancer Brandon Nguyen a move while Nadia Mara (left) and Alessa Rogers look on. Photo by Bonnie Moret)
Stager Danielle Agami (in yellow) teaches dancer Brandon Nguyen a move for “Secus” while Nadia Mara (left) and Alessa Rogers look on. (Photos by Bonnie Moret)

Atlanta Ballet has never looked like this. Seventeen dancers stand apart in the studio; the music starts, and they explode into action. The movement is wild and unpredictable, often off balance with twisted torsos and flying limbs, not a recognizable ballet step in sight. Carried by momentum and sheer force of energy, the dancers move with abandon; it looks like a loosely structured improvisation of free, fast and fluid movement. Amazingly, a second run of the section proves that thesis wrong; it’s nearly identical to the first. The movement, spacing and timing have been meticulously calculated, every moment carefully crafted.

This is Isreali choreographer Ohad Naharin’s “Secus,” created in 2005 for his Tel Aviv–based Batsheva Dance Company as part of the evening-length Three. The piece will receive its Atlanta Ballet premiere as part of the troupe’s annual Modern Choreographic Voices concert March 21–23 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. “Secus” is Atlanta Ballet’s second re-staging of Naharin’s work, following last year’s popular “Minus 16.” Also on the bill this year is “Seven Sonatas” by American Ballet Theatre artist in residence and former Bolshoi Ballet director Alexei Ratmansky and “the authors,” a world premiere by Atlanta Ballet’s own Tara Lee.

The program is intended to introduce audiences to contemporary work by choreographers — both established and emerging — who push boundaries and break genres. Who better to usher Atlanta Ballet into new territory than Naharin, perhaps the world’s best known boundary-pushing choreographer?

All of Naharin’s work is steeped in or created with Gaga, a movement language he developed that focuses on sensation and raw physicality. To be prepared for Naharin’s work, Batsheva dancers take Gaga classes every day, just as Atlanta Ballet dancers take ballet. So when it came time to begin work on “Minus 16,” former Batsheva dancer and stager Danielle Agami gave the company a few Gaga classes to introduce them to the complex movement style.

Nadia Mara is featured in "Secus."
Nadia Mara is featured in “Secus.”

Agami, olive-skinned with cropped hair and huge dark eyes, is the senior manager of Gaga U.S.A.  She teaches Gaga all over the country and sets Naharin’s work for the many companies who perform it. Admittedly, she says, it’s not easy to recreate Naharin’s vision with dancers who aren’t as familiar with Gaga as Batsheva. And when she’s working on a tight schedule (as she always is with commissioned work), Agami doesn’t have time to delve into nuances. But she’s impressed with Atlanta Ballet’s enthusiastic dancers, and after having worked with them last year, she says they now have “little shortcuts” to approach the movement in “Secus.”

“This group is so willing and interested,” she says. “They are about trying a new flavor and trying to change what they know and adopt something new.” In true Gaga-teacher fashion, Agami talks a lot about “groove” in reference to a dancer’s individual style. She says the dancers are “trying on a new groove” to find out how it fits. With time and guidance, the groove will “become relevant and eventually their own.”

Individuality is of the utmost importance in “Secus”; because Batsheva dancers generated the movement in rehearsal, Naharin observed his dancers improvising and creating material from their personal choices. “The dancers were very much in the front row of this creation,” says Agami, who was in the junior company Batsheva Ensemble at the time “Secus” was created. In an open and safe environment, they were encouraged to reveal “their sensuality, their sense of humor, their craziness” through movement.

As a member of Batsheva, Agami performed “Secus” many times and says it often felt like therapy. “You have permission to go on stage and increase the volume on your weaknesses, your fears,” she says. “Every show, you surprise yourself and discover there’s no limit.” Afterward, she says, she felt “super exposed” having “shared a version of the truth with people.”

Dancer/choreographer Tara Lee shows her moves to Alessa Rogers and Jonah Hooper. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Dancer/choreographer Tara Lee shows her moves to Alessa Rogers and Jonah Hooper. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

The work creates a dialogue, “a very open and immediate path” between dancer and audience member, says Agami. But she admits that for those used to more traditional ballets, it might be hard to connect at first.

Conceived by Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall four years ago, Modern Choreographic Voices has become a playground for experimentation. Lee continues to hone her voice, both as a budding choreographer and a seasoned dancer; she is performing in both Naharin’s and Ratmansky’s works. In “Seven Sonatas,” which features three duets set to the music of Domenico Scarlatti, she and the other dancers were asked not to respond to the music, but to create it with their movement.

For both performers and audience, the evening promises a challenge. Follow Agami’s advice for best results: “Melt into it, and let it affect you,” she suggests. “The situation is asking you to take a layer off, then a second, and under the third you might find something you’re afraid of. It’s wild, but we’re all wild. It’s like a mirror for the viewer.”

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