Dance - Hip-hop poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph has words with Atlanta

Spoken word artist’s collab with Atlanta Ballet creates dialogue between city’s past and present

In a rehearsal space at the Atlanta Ballet’s headquarters, the male dancers have become the Atlanta Braves for the moment, re-creating the home team’s fast pitches and outrageous outfield catches in a series of powerful leaps, graceful slides and elegant lifts. Musician DBR soundtracks the movements with a hip-hop beat made by slapping his violin with his bow, while National Poetry Slam champion Marc Bamuthi Joseph pays homage to the baseballers, putting into his rhythmic, percussive flow of words the visual parallel between the team’s legendary pitching styles and the elegant port de bras of ballet dancers: “Always the arms ... man’s arms, soft hands, precise touch, sensitive strike ... .”

It may not be a typical ballet rehearsal, but the Atlanta Ballet isn’t in the midst of preparing a typical show. The work is part of a mixed program by young choreographers called Ignition, which premieres May 13-15 at the Alliance Theatre. “Home in 7,” the piece being rehearsed, puts movement and music to a seven-part poem of the same name by Joseph. From the Atlanta Braves to the drought of 2007, from the red clay of the soil to the “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Home in 7” celebrates the city that — as Joseph puts it — “you don’t necessarily see in the Hartsfield postcard shop.”

“When I think of Atlanta, it’s not just in its solid forms,” says Joseph. “I don’t just think of the people, buildings, cars. Atlanta is a city that’s a lot like Savannah, New Orleans, Philadelphia or D.C. in that its history is both permeable and pervasive. People here are trying to push the culture forward, but at the same time the past is always present in Atlanta.”

Joseph, a New York native, attended Morehouse College from 1993 to 1997. Atlanta had a profound impact on his development as an artist. As the city prepared for the ‘96 Olympic Games and tried to position itself as an international cultural center, Joseph was working his way through college studying English literature and taking the first tentative steps toward becoming a poet. Joseph scribbled his first poems in the margins of his critical essays and textbooks. “I was radically inspired by the intersection of economic growth, black civic leadership and cultural transition in Atlanta,” he says.

But even before Joseph came to Atlanta for school, the city had made a deep impression on the poet. News of the Atlanta child murders hit when Joseph was still a child himself, and it profoundly impacted his image of the city of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. The murdered and disappeared African-American youth who were victimized during the late ’70s and early ’80s became the subject of one section of “Home in 7.” “I wanted to revisit that history,” says Joseph. “To name it, to articulate an identity around the faceless.” As he writes in the section titled “Atlanta Child,” “how soon we forget/you’d never guess it by the silence.”

The performance piece “Home in 7” originally came together after choreographer, and friend of Joseph’s, Amy Seiwert proposed the idea of choreographing to Joseph’s poetry to Atlanta Ballet director John McFall. McFall, who’s overseen recent boundary-breaking collaborations with artists such as OutKast’s Big Boi and the Indigo Girls, says he chose the piece immediately because he was excited by its potential to engage the community. “Commenting on our relationships, our challenges, our aspirations, and everything else is central to what the arts are about,” says McFall. “It’s really about engagement, examining what it is that defines who we are and, more importantly, who we want to become as a community.”

Shaping the movement for “Home in 7” presented an interesting challenge for Seiwert. “‘Home in 7’ is different from other work I’ve done in that I’m working with the cadence of poetry rather than the cadence of music,” she says. “Poetry and music both have a rhythmical structure and a rise and fall, but the words influence the movement completely. It wasn’t just making something that fit rhythmically with his voice, it was finding what intention of the words I wanted to bring through.”

Joseph, who is Haitian-American, had long been interested in collaborating with the Haitian-American violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, also known as DBR, and brought him on board as composer. “Marc is a very musical artist,” says DBR. “He is a musician really, so it was very easy to set his work to music. The way the words unfold in stanza forms and versed lines lends itself well to a musical setting.” DBR sought to match the rhythm and tone of each section, and his score varies with the words, from strong hip-hop beats in some parts to more sustained, arrhythmic and even classical strains in others.

“You don’t always associate hip-hop rhythms with ballet dancing, but it’s 2011,” says DBR, who will perform live alongside Joseph. “Frankly, one of the things that makes the Atlanta Ballet such a unique company is that they’re willing to try new things.”

Joseph agrees: “The Atlanta Ballet is inspired and vivacious and invested and open,” he says. “They’re a world-class company. I’m not sure how many companies would respond to a text in this way.”

“Home in 7” ultimately celebrates Atlanta’s “penchant for physical and civic resurrection,” says Joseph, giving voice to that constant, if often unheard, dialogue between past and present. “History is made faceless as the next generation loses a connection,” he says. “I’m interested in facilitating that conversation between the solid forms of today and the city’s ghosts.”