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Review: Atlanta Ballet reaches for poetic extremes with latest Modern Choreographic Voices

Nadia Mara solos in Atlanta Ballet's "Seven Sonatas." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Nadia Mara solos in Atlanta Ballet's "Seven Sonatas." (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Nadia Mara solos in Atlanta Ballet’s “Seven Sonatas.” (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin titles his work “Secus,” a Latin word meaning “this and not this, at the same time.” Naharin used the word purely for its sound, but it’s a fitting name for Atlanta Ballet’s Modern Choreographic Voices, a part neoclassical, part contemporary triple bill that ran over the weekend at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Perhaps the company’s most eclectic program yet, it reflects the troupe’s efforts to update its profile without losing its audience for the classics.

The physical demands of Naharin’s Gaga technique and vocabulary are different from demands of neoclassical dancing. Last year, when Atlanta Ballet presented Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” alongside Naharin’s “Minus 16,” dancers proved that one approach could enhance the other. This year, “Secus” and Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” required dancers to reach for greater extremes.

Ratmansky’s neoclassical gem could hardly be more different from “Secus” — in relation to gravity, in aesthetic notion and in attitude. Tara Lee’s “the authors” falls somewhere in between. Each time dancers change styles, they have to renegotiate the body’s limits with new physical demands. Moving between such extremes requires near-superhuman versatility.

So even if Naharin’s Tel Aviv–based Batsheva Dance Company may give “Secus” more in-your-face physical intensity, and American Ballet Theatre — where Ratmansky is artist in residence — may dance his chamber work with greater finesse, the effort required to bring these works into the repertory and present them on the same program should be noted. It pushes dancers to improve and brings works by two of the world’s most influential and respected living choreographers to Atlanta audiences.

Alexei Ratmansky created “Seven Sonatas” in 2009, shortly after he left his post as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet for a position as America Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence. The abstract chamber work interprets seven of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas. With this ballet, Ratmansky delights in subtlety. High lifts are used sparingly; nothing is overblown. Ratmansky illuminates the details of Scarlatti’s music, catching its lilts and cadences with soft suspensions. Intricate footwork, precise and sparklike, is tightly woven with Scarlatti’s virtuoso keyboard patterns.

Brandon Nguyen with Tara Lee in "Seven Sonatas."
Brandon Nguyen with Tara Lee in “Seven Sonatas.”

While referencing its forebears — a pianist on stage recalls Jerome Robbins’ “Other Dances” — we glimpse Paul Taylor’s “Aureole” and “Esplanade,” and there are numerous nods to George Balanchine. Like “Mr. B.,” Ratmansky references the past while making the classical language sing with fresh relevance.

Three couples in simple white joined pianist Barbara Bilach on stage against a cyclorama that changed hues with the music’s moods. Duets conversed and co-mingled with a sense of reverie.

This was tempered by an undercurrent of nervousness, and rightly so, since Atlanta Ballet is the first company outside of ABT to perform this difficult work. Nadia Mara brought a fresh, airy joy to her role with sleek, feminine port de bras. Lee met its challenges with clean-swept lines, complemented by her partner, Brandon Nguyen, one of the company’s promising young male dancers.

Lee’s “the authors” started with a strange knocking — the kind we sometimes hear between sleep and waking, like an inner alarm clock or a signal from the unconscious. The sound invites the audience into a game among five players, as visually cryptic as it is choreographically intriguing.

“The authors” is Lee’s eighth work since she began to choreograph in 2003; Lee developed “the authors” in collaboration with the dancers, videographer Joseph Guay and music editor and rehearsal assistant Jesse Tyler, a company dancer who is out with an injury this season. As one of the company’s most accomplished dancers, Lee has been instrumental in reshaping the company profile over the past four years.

Dark, psychological and at times surreal, “the authors” is partly inspired by the idea that adjusting our focus can reveal larger truths about ourselves, our work and our relationships. The mystery is a written letter — we see word fragments, at first, but can’t decipher what it’s saying.

John Welker and Christine Winkler in "the authors."
John Welker and Christine Winkler in “the authors.”

Guay’s film covered the upper half of the backdrop, casting images of pencil-writing on paper. It zoomed in close — so tight it showed how a pencil point rubs against paper’s rough surface to produce a cursive line. But it was so close it obscured meaning.

It sometimes distracted from Lee’s choreography, which unraveled like calligraphy — a drop and lunge to the side; a sideways dive overhead. Toes traced loops on the floor and in the air. Black doors rolled and rotated around the stage, serving as barriers, frames and, finally, modes of passage.

John Welker, as “the player,” partnered with Christine Winkler, “the mirror,” in tense and ambivalent sequences: he hooked his arm under her shoulder and collarbone as she dove into a penche turn. Welker gripped the elbow of her arm, wrapped behind her back as she pivoted off balance, swinging her leg out like a gate.

At the moment Welker recognized himself as his own enemy. The camera overhead panned out; words became decipherable. Yet at that moment, the paper blistered, smoldered and turned to ash, suggesting that such revelations are as ephemeral as dance, though no less significant.

Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, created “Secus” about nine years ago as the last movement of a three-part, evening-length work titled Three. At that time, he had begun to incorporate his Gaga technique and vocabulary into the company’s daily practice. Emphasizing speed and efficiency as well as dancers’ attunement to their bodies and other dancers, it appears in stark contrast to classicism. To see it follow Ratmansky’s and Lee’s work is at once shocking and liberating.

Staged by Danielle Agami, the work for 16 dancers is the second in a series of three Naharin works Atlanta Ballet has taken on as part of a three-year agreement with the choreographer.

secus
“Secus” featured far-from-traditional movement.

The starkly lit stage burst into activity as 16 dancers plunged into torpedolike lunges and shot up into high, slicing turns. Arms whipped around as spines pulsed with an electronic groove. It was an irrational world, full of non sequiturs. Small, quick gestures were abstracted, their feelings and images unspecific and all the more potent for it.

Near the end, dancers filed forward in three lines, as systematic as an airport security checkpoint. In succession, they gave mischievous peeps of midriffs, then buttocks and, finally, three dancers flashed their pelvic areas (without exposing anything of note). The bare skin did not offend, but rather seemed a metaphor for the different ways we expose ourselves emotionally.

Aggressive, absurd and at times overpowering, Naharin’s world came down in stark contrast to Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Hopefully, the company will continue to explore both realms. But whether poetically precise or boundlessly ecstatic, Atlanta Ballet continues to invite its audience into a wild, multifaceted and ever-changing world.

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