MAYhem, beyond a clever play on the month, is a fitting description for last weekend’s Atlanta Ballet season closer. The title calls to mind a kind of lawlessness that could be fertile ground for risky, innovative ideas. And indeed the three works on the bill — John McFall’s “Three,” Helen Pickett’s “The Exiled,” and Jorma Elo’s “1st Flash” — are ambitious. But the word also evokes chaos and disorder, the results of an experiment gone off track.
“The Exiled” falls somewhere in between. Pickett, Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer, tackled existentialism and morality with her new narrative ballet, which included spoken text she wrote in collaboration with the dancers. On opening night at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, dancers Nadia Mara and Christian Clark debuted their first speaking roles as “The Reckoners,” a pair of vigilantes who choose three criminals and serve justice as they see fit. As the three prisoners, John Welker, Rachel Van Buskirk and Alessa Rogers were like rats in a too-small cage: they fight, they seduce, they try to escape without success, and eventually they fall into a sort of crazed acceptance.
Pickett clearly delineates characters and story through movement. The three prisoners were named and assigned crimes (pension-stealing coward, serial cheater, and mindless murderer). But the end result didn’t address broader questions, as Pickett intended, on the ambiguous nature of good and evil. Simply, “The Exiled” came off as three people held captive by two sadistic torturers.
Incorporating dialogue into a ballet is tricky business. First, dancers generally aren’t trained actors, or their mastery of movement far outweighs their ability to speak effectively on stage. Second, the line between “dance” and “play” is blurred, and this can confuse audiences.
Kudos to Mara and Clark for their inspired, deliciously sinister performance, but I found the text distracting and almost unnecessary. With arms as expressive as a conductor’s, Mara languidly orchestrated the action from afar. Clark exercised his control with equal pleasure but more violence as he yanked Welker away from a romantic moment with Rogers. Unlike classical ballet vocabulary, Pickett’s movement showed the effort, and we understood these characters from what they do, not what they say. The set — a “room” with a white sectional couch and a decorative pedestal behind a Plexiglas wall — created a fascinating, if slightly soap opera-ish, world where both people and movement are confined.
Given the subject matter, be it Pickett’s direction or the dancers’ interpretations, the movement in “The Exiled” didn’t feel wild enough. The dancers thrashed a little too softly, and hit the wall with a little too much hesitation.
In comparison, Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s “1st Flash” showcased the company’s powerful physicality; it was the evening’s highlight and a refreshing return to the beauty of pure movement. Mara, who danced a physically demanding lead role after performing Pickett’s half-hour work, was breathtaking, fast and flawless.
The piece also featured the stage return of dancer Peng-Yu Chen, who suffered a career-threatening torn ACL and meniscus in her knee during the 2012 run of Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker. Peng-Yu’s performance was inspired. The piece required so many quick changes of direction and off-center balances — legs reaching far beyond her center — and she danced as though she’d never had an injury. She was radiant.
Elo is a master of choreographic structure and transitions, each section brilliantly nuanced the music of Jean Sibelius through both movement and spatial patterns. In one section, the dancers appeared in a diagonal line, then floated through slow arm gestures as one broke into a fast, angular phrase. Partnering moments popped up out of nowhere, and every action had a reaction. “1st Flash” ended with one such duet, each partner slicing the air around the other even after the music had ended; it’s clear that the movement had weight and a life beyond.
In contrast to Elo’s non-narrative form, McFall’s work explored dream states with a cast of bizarre characters and fragmented tableaus. As “Three” unfolded so did the layers of consciousness, represented by three streamerlike curtains that lifted one at a time to reveal a deeper stage. Just like dreams, the work was episodic, often confusing and disconnected. Many characters entered the stage from the empty orchestra pit, and the cyclical nature of their appearance was reminiscent of dreams, where anachronisms abound and people show up in unexpected scenarios.
Young fellowship dancer Stephanie Hall literally shined as the Dreamer of Mind and Intelligence and proved herself worthy of more meaty roles. Dressed in a shimmering metallic bodysuit and black headpiece, eyes wide in a frozen stare, she was unnervingly robotic but also slinky and sinewy as a cat.
Another standout was apprentice Kiara Felder as one of eight masked dancers who represent the Dream/Subconscious. Felder is fiery and precise, and her duet with equally fiery company member Heath McGill was a highlight. By placing the student dancers alongside full company members, McFall — the ballet’s artistic director — rightly demonstrates his trust in the future generation. Atlanta Ballet is in good hands.