Analysis: Gennadi Nedvigin could bring core changes in culture, artistic vision at Atlanta Ballet

Atlanta Ballet’s 2016-17 season promises to be one of the company’s most interesting ones, both onstage and off.

The season will be transitional as Gennadi Nedvigin grows into his new role as artistic director. In addition to Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, the lineup will feature two bold narrative works of the McFall era; Nedvigin’s two mixed bills reflect a more conservative tack.

In this case, “conservative” means works that revolve more closely around a classical pole — less risky, and more in line with the repertory Nedvigin performed with San Francisco Ballet. If less audacious than John McFall’s curated works, Nedvigin’s choices will offer a sense of history that’s been missed in recent years — the progression from 19th century classicism to 20th century neoclassicism to contemporary ballet — more specifically, today’s choreographers who are discovering new ways to extend the classical language.

It will be disappointing if this is the last season we’ll experience the risk-taking of recent years’ programming. For many fans, the company’s focus on the cutting edge has produced some of the its most exciting works. In many people’s minds, risk-taking has become synonymous with Atlanta Ballet.

Nedvigin brings classical training and finesse to Atlanta Ballet. (Photo by Erik Tomasson)
Nedvigin brings classical training and finesse to Atlanta Ballet. (Photo by Erik Tomasson)

But with or without risk, the quality of dancing is likely to only go up. As ArtsATL‘s Gillian Renault pointed out, Nedvigin is a top-notch teacher and coach. Critics and mentors have admired the purity of Nedvigin’s technique, which he owes largely to his training at the Bolshoi Ballet School. He has adhered to those principles throughout his career, while expanding his vocabulary of ballet styles and languages through San Francisco Ballet’s varied repertoire.

If dancers are receptive to his teaching, they’ll dance stronger, faster and higher — hopefully with some degree of the finesse Nedvigin possesses. Dancers are likely to develop more articulate lines and more nuanced musicality, even as they continue to move audiences with their warm and authentic onstage expressiveness.

I’m eagerly anticipating the revival David Bintley’s Carmina Burana, a graphic novel-style morality tale set to Carl Orff’s well-known cantata. It’s likely dancers will bring more clarity to Bintley’s driving musicality; more power to the score. As for the passion and drama, it’s already there. I imagine they’ll express it with even more fullness and intensity.

Of Nedvigin’s selections, one of the most opportune is Liam Scarlett’s Vespertine. Scarlett is a wunderkind in the ballet world who’s finding his place among today’s most sought-after choreographers. Nedvigin’s use of the word “genius” to describe him is apt — due in part to Scarlett’s astute musicality, innate sense of drama and deft facility with both abstract and narrative forms. He moves large groups of dancers across the stage like ocean tides; his partnering is surprising and inventive.

Since Scarlett was appointed artist in residence at the Royal Ballet in 2012, he has created more than 16 works. Vespertine hovers in the middle of the list and is the second of about three works he’s made for the Norwegian National Ballet. As one of his lesser-known works, it’ll make a good starter for Atlanta Ballet and may open the splendid possibility that Atlanta Ballet could dance more Scarlett ballets in the future.

Nedvigin’s vision is as conscious of the past as it is the future. His choice to re-stage sections from Marius Petipa’s Paquita is an interesting one. Most dancers learn variations from the 1880 ballet in school; these solos and duets are also frequently seen in ballet competitions and galas across the globe. Whether or not Nedvigin’s respect for history can translate through dancers to audiences will be a question. Regardless of audience tastes, seeing such classics only deepens people’s understanding of what came after them.

Under McFall, Atlanta has had no formal star system; that could change under Nedvigin. (Atlanta Ballet photos by Charlie McCullers)
Under McFall, Atlanta has had no formal star system; Nedvigin says he may change that dynamic. (Atlanta Ballet photos by Charlie McCullers)

Indeed, a look at Petipa’s pure classicism will enrich audiences’ understanding of George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante — what Balanchine called, “everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes.” Maria Tallchief, on whom Balanchine created the leading role in 1956, said it was characterized by “an expansive Russian romanticism.” It’s a prime example of Balanchine’s brilliant comprehension of music and his ability to manipulate and extend and the classical vocabulary.

Jiri Kylian emerged during the late 1970s and 1980s, bringing a European style of Expressionism to New York at a time when formalism dominated the scene. New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff described Kylian’s deeply sourced, original style as “a highly physical fusion of ballet technique with the idiomatic freedom of modern dance.” Petite Mort received its 1991 premiere with Nederlands Dans Theater under Kylian’s direction. Kylian has influenced scores of choreographers, including Jorma Elo and Alexander Ekman, whose work Atlanta Ballet has produced in recent years. Atlanta Ballet’s first Jiri Kylian work, Petite Mort reveals a lot about where contemporary dance is today.

Nedvigin’s choice to turn an eye on the past brings up the question — what is a ballet company’s role in its home city? This repertory — part of a long term goal to bring Atlanta Ballet to the world’s stages — places more focus on history than what we’ve seen in recent years. Whether the company will keep its fans of modern dance and contemporary work, and whether or not it will commission works relevant to Atlanta, is another question.

Hopefully, the company will continue to show edgy works like Bintley’s Carmina and Helen Pickett’s Camino Real. Without that push to create, to forge its own identity, Atlanta Ballet could easily begin to look like a smaller version of San Francisco Ballet.

Rachael Van Buskirk in Carmina Burana, which will be re-staged next season.
Rachel Van Buskirk in Carmina Burana, which will be re-staged next season.

It is the company’s culture that inspires many guest artists who come here to create or stage works. The openness, warmth and intelligence of the dancers — their receptiveness and untiring work ethic — are part of the attraction that convinced Nedvigin to leave San Francisco for the directorship here. But the very thing that inspired Nedvigin may be at stake under his direction.

For the past 20-plus years, John McFall has cultivated a noncompetitive environment that fosters creativity at every level. Like Robert Joffrey, who founded a company based on an “all star, no star” system, McFall did away with hierarchy and instead, leveled the playing field, valuing each individual dancer’s gifts. It’s seen as an egalitarian, or democratic, way of organizing a company and one that has promoted in Atlanta camaraderie over competition among the dancers.

For all but one year of his ballet education and career, Nedvigin has worked within a hierarchical system — first, at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow, Russia (the Soviet Union until 1991), and later, with San Francisco, which maintains a hierarchy of corps de ballet, soloists, principal dancers, etc. that is similar to the large companies in Europe. When asked if he would implement a ranking system, Nedvigin said he hasn’t decided yet — he wants to get to know the company better over the next year.

But he did offer this view: Some dancers naturally rise to the top, and earn the majority of lead roles. If there is no ranking system, how is their status known to the public? “Okay, within the company, we know,” he said. “But the audience doesn’t.”

Allen Nelson, chairman of Atlanta Ballet’s board of trustees, said that Nedvigin “understands our company and the uniqueness of its culture,” and a major part of that culture is the company’s structure as an ensemble.

“The richness of experience Gennadi brings to the table is less informed by his career in a hierarchy, and more informed by his experience with the finest organizations, finest choreographers, finest dancers,” Nelson said.

Nedvigin’s choice of repertory confirms this, and next season will offer extraordinary works — and a historic lens for seeing them more clearly. Whether or not the company will maintain its identity as an organization committed to creative risk-taking, and to creating works with relevance to its home city’s culture, remains to be seen.

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