Year in review: 2015 highlighted by exquisite moments in dance that re-defined boundaries

Jonah Bokaer’s Why Patterns. (Photo by Robert Benschop)
Jonah Bokaer’s Why Patterns. (Photo by Robert Benschop)
Jonathan Alsberry and Daniel Gwirtzman (right) appeared last May in The Oracle. Photo by Anna Kuzmina. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company)
Jonathan Alsberry and Daniel Gwirtzman (right) appeared last May in The Oracle. (Photo by Anna Kuzmina)

In the past as we’ve looked back on the year’s bests, we’ve focused on full-length productions. But this year, we’ve decided to include shorter works, individual performances and magical moments on stage that continue to resonate. We’ve written about a few moments that moved us in the hope that readers, whether or not they agree, will continue to seek their own revelations through dance in the coming year.

ArtsATL dance writers Cynthia Bond Perry, Gillian Anne Renault, George Staib, Kathleen Wessel, Scott Freeman, Andrew Alexander and Rachael Shaw, single out some of Atlanta’s most striking dance moments.

Choreographer Bill T. Jones
Choreographer Bill T. Jones

Body Against Body 

In February, a contingent of superb dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed Body Against Body, an evening of Jones’ early duets, at the Emory University Dance Studio in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Jones is best known for big theatrical works that take on highly charged subjects such as AIDS and race, but on this occasion we got to see unadorned movement in an intimate, unadorned space. Highly structured, athletic and deeply relational, the pieces were a great reminder of Jones’ choreographic bones. –GAR

Why Patterns

Choreographer Jonah Bokaer and visual artist Daniel Arsham have collaborated consistently and productively throughout their careers, but seldom as playfully as in Why Patterns, which had its Atlanta premiere at the Ferst Center for the Performing Arts in February. The work features four dancers — two male, two female, all dressed in white — who perform with 5,000 ping-pong balls that descend suddenly and cacophonously onto the stage from above the proscenium in a series of three floods. 

Jonah Bokaer’s Why Patterns. (Photo by Robert Benschop)
Jonah Bokaer’s Why Patterns and the zen of ping-pong balls. (Photo by Robert Benschop)

The sound and image of those descents were unforgettable, of course. But it was the slow, meditative clearing that left the deepest impression, as the dancers methodically guided the balls into little gullies using various methods that adhered to a vaguely discernible, dreamlike set of rules. Strange, absurd, simultaneously playful and deadly serious, contained and unpredictable, the work was easily one of the artistic highlights of 2015. –AA

Camino Real

Years from now, when people wax nostalgic about this “golden age” that we’ve witnessed at Atlanta Ballet over the past few years, it is likely that the world premiere production of Camino Real will be viewed as an apex of the era. The production, conceived by resident choreographer Helen Pickett and based on the Tennessee Williams play, was high ambition fully realized.

Christian Clark as Casanova and Nadia Mara as Marguerite in Camino Real. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Christian Clark as Casanova and Nadia Mara as Marguerite in Camino Real. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

The ballet commissioned a massive and amazingly intricate set, along with an original score by British composer Peter Salem. Williams’ vision was a Groundhog Day-like purgatory from which there was no escape. The play was brought to life as a ballet by Pickett’s wonderful esthetic, and the company dancers who seized their roles with gusto. Especially memorable were Heath Gill as Kilroy the boxing champ, Tara Lee as the sexy and unfulfilled Esmeralda and Nadia Mara as the perpetually tormented Marguerite.

With the retirement of artistic director John McFall at the end of this season, it remains to be seen whether Atlanta Ballet will continue its ambitious push. But Camino Real served as a showcase for what this company has become under McFall’s leadership, and what it can continue to be. –SF

Up Right: Atlanta

In April, before Williams Sonoma and the bike valet moved into the new Ponce City Market, Chicago-based performance artist Nick Cave took over the cavernous, unoccupied space with his unique movement and art show choreographed by Atlanta’s own T. Lang. Cave, who studied dance with Alvin Ailey, was joined by several local performers — including ArtsATL’s Andrew Alexander. One group of performers ceremoniously dressed others, one dazzling and eccentric layer at a time, in Cave’s unique body suits. Others dipped, turned and paraded in fabulous, fun swirls of raffia — pink, lime green, blazing yellow and more, set against the building’s hardscape of brick, steel and glass. Brought to us by Flux Projects, it was a brilliant use of a temporarily empty space that is now forever full. –GAR


Fly on a Wall Dance Collective premiered this surprising, witty and provocative trio at Synchronicity Theatre in April. Boldly diving into a vaudevillian world of smarmy, honey-voiced radio hosts, the work was commendable for its innovative use of space and friendly, satisfyingly sarcastic take on audience interaction. Dancer Nicole Johnson’s gender-bending machismo scintillated, and Sean Hilton and Nathan Griswold’s sleazy take on romance amused. “Byte” coupled a nod to bygone days of late night radio talk shows with clever movement invention; it crystallized this young group’s rightful place in the Atlanta dance scene. –KW & GS

Ship of Fools 

Sascha Engel (left) and Anat Grigorio in Ship of Fools. (Photo by Gadi Dagon)
Sascha Engel (left) and Anat Grigorio in Ship of Fools. (Photo by Gadi Dagon)

In its third season, the Goat Farm’s Tanz Farm series presented the American premiere of Ship of Fools, a politically charged part-dance, part-theater performance by Israeli artists Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor. Dancers Sascha Engel, Anat Grigorio and Uri Shafir — all original cast members since its debut in 2011 — delved deep into the work’s many nuances and quirky character shifts, delivering an evening packed with memorable moments and surprising images. Shafir’s guitar, first the musical accompaniment to a group sing-along, then an imagined gun trained at the audience, sticks with me still. –KW

The Oracle

The phrase, “angels in the architecture,” written by Paul Simon, has been ringing in my mind since last May’s Modern Atlanta Dance Festival, when Daniel Gwirtzman and three of his New York-based company members debuted part of this larger work. Choreographed by Gwirtzman, a dance professor at Kennesaw State University, the quartet offered fresh perspective on modern dance’s formal values with sparkling sweep and joyful physicality.

At its heart, The Oracle was about the intersection of people. Like moving armatures, dancers gave form to space with mathematical elegance and human warmth. Their outstretched limbs arced and criss-crossed as they leaned in and sprang off of one another, weaving ever-changing configurations in a vision that vibrated on a frequency of harmony and brilliance. –CBP

Prelude to To͞o

Aerial artist extraordinaire Meaghan Muller dazzled in 2013 with the Cirque du Soleil dimensions of NoNet at the Goat Farm. It took two years for Muller to get another production off the ground, but Prelude to Too was worth the wait. The show was produced last May in the most unique of spaces: the abandoned Rhodes Theatre in Midtown. The atmosphere for Prelude To Too was sweaty and sticky (the building had no electricity, much less air conditioning), but that only added to the piece’s haunting charm.

Muller, a former Cirque performer, was breathtaking on the cerceau, a three-foot-wide, 22-pound steel hoop, and trapeze. She was joined by improv actors from Dad’s Garage and veteran Atlanta Ballet company dancer John Welker, who took a childlike glee in working the trapeze. He and Muller also performed a dance duet that was filled with humor and pathos as they portrayed a longtime couple who love one another, but perhaps also know one another a little too well. The combination of humor, drama and the Cirque-like movement — along with compelling information on the history of the Rhodes — made for a memorable performance that leaves me eager to see what Muller has on tap. –SF

Husband and wife team Fabien Prioville and Azusa Seyama began the piece dressed as loving polar bears. (Photo by Arno Hunter Myers)
Husband and wife team Fabien Prioville and Azusa Seyama began Time for Us dressed as loving polar bears. (Photo by Arno Hunter Myers)

Time for Us

Azusa Seyama, a dancer with the late Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, delivered a tour de force performance in Time for Us, a duet she choreographed with her husband Fabien Prioville. Presented for the first time in the United States at Tanz Farm in October, the work was as much a comment on the couple’s off-stage relationship as it was a universal reflection on the moment when two people first meet. Seyama transitioned swiftly and effortlessly between ferocious full-bodied physicality, to tell-all, subtle glances. Of note was a solo restricted to a small area of the stage, where Seyama’s movement — thrashing, yet razor sharp in detail — surged beyond Goodson Yard’s brick walls. The Bausch legacy is alive and well, and in Seyama’s body has found a home that honors the tradition even as it pushes it forward. –GS

New Moon

New Moon, choreographed and performed by Erik Thurmond in December and presented by Dashboard, was a simple yet profound nod to transformation and renewal — a fitting event for Mammal Gallery to host, one of several new art venues and mixed-use spaces that have emerged in the oft-neglected South Broad Street area.

Erik Thurmond in New Moon.
Erik Thurmond in New Moon.

New Moon also represented a subtle shift in Thurmond’s work away from the pretense of presentation and a humble invitation to his inner world. The piece began with familiar, codified dance movements; Thurmond’s hair covered and obscured his face. As this section ended, he sat in a chair while a female audience member carefully combed his hair into a ponytail, cutting it with brilliant gold scissors, and then carefully shaving the rest. As she returned to the audience, Thurmond brushed his sweaty face with both hands, slowly standing and repeating this singular movement. With each repetition, his brushing became freer, more expansive, until, by the end, he joyously threw his arms open wide, as if to say, “Here I am. Vulnerable and new.” –RLS 

Search Engine 

When I arrived to see glo’s work Search Engine at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in early December, I was told at the front desk that members of the dance company might be found anywhere on the property, but that they were most likely somewhere around the courtyard or else in the “Secret Garden.” Since the work is durational — I believe Search Engine even had dancers taking turns sleeping inside the work — the pieces can spread over a large area and last for many hours at a time, even extend over several days and nights. 

glo's Search Engine made the performance a matter of perspective. (Photo by Thom Baker)
glo’s Search Engine made the performance a matter of perspective. (Photo by Thom Baker)

When I found the dancers, they were in the courtyard as predicted, four of them, elegantly dressed in gowns of funereal black. The place was empty except for me and them. It was so quiet that I could hear nothing but the rhythmic screeching and clacking of trains somewhere not too far off, a plaintive and evocative soundtrack if there ever was one. The west-facing courtyard gave expansive views of the cresting and undulating clouds of an impossibly gorgeous sunset. 

Watching the silent dancers drift around the space was like happening upon a herd of deer that had decided not to run away from my presence: I was simply free to look and look and look. The Secret Garden, the famous story, tells of a garden that’s locked away because its owner associates it with the absurdly unjust and senseless death of his beloved wife, and I began thinking about the recent, absurdly unjust and senseless death of a dear friend. Of course, I’d been thinking of little else lately, but for a time, the feeling seemed governable, a mix of sad and peaceful, unclouded by anxiety, anger or self-regard. 

I watched for ages, and only slowly did I realize that the “Secret Garden” was a tiny, enclosed, tucked away space off the courtyard. A small audience was there, also silently watching the durational work, but from a different vantage point. When a dancer entered my performance, she was exiting theirs. If she left my show, she entered theirs. I returned later that night to watch more of the performance in the garden, but as lovely as it was, it couldn’t compare to my first solitary encounter with the work. –AA 

Related posts