Dance - Atlanta Ballet kicks off spring and summer the right way

Three very different fan favorites come to life with ‘Modern Choreographic Voices’

It’s always an interesting decision when trying to introduce a ballet virgin to the art, whether it’s a more classic narrative or a program with modern works. The first path provides more comfort for some viewers as they should be familiar with the general plot, and there are guaranteed to be quite a few dazzling moments that are undeniably impressive even to a first-timer. But more contemporary pieces, like those presented in Atlanta Ballet’s The Best of Modern Choreographic Voices program this past weekend, have the advantage of being less predictable and often more interesting for someone who might find an entire evening of classical ballet intimidating.

Longtime fans and newcomers alike both were thrilled by this selection of three favorites from recent years of Atlanta Ballet’s modern works programs. The evening ranged from the uber-classical “Seven Sonatas” by American Ballet Theatre (ABT)’s Alexei Ratmansky to the fun and thrilling ride of Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.” Sandwiched in the middle was Gina Patterson’s lush “Quietly Walking,” and each piece offered a very different audience experience.

“Seven Sonatas” was a beautifully executed piece of classical ballet, with each of the six dancers taking care to extend movements through their fingertips. ABT’s ballet mistress Nancy Raffa staged the work for Atlanta Ballet and described it as “one of Alexei’s jewel boxes,” an extremely detailed piece that, while abstract, still makes a definite emotional impact. Rachel Van Buskirk was particularly adept in the role originated by ABT’s popular star Xiomara Reyes — there was a similar lightness, quickness, and cheeky joyfulness to her attack. The accompaniment by a single pianist provided a strong thread supporting the piece, and the dancers were obviously up for the challenge of this technically demanding work.

“Quietly Walking” is an exploration of the relationship between man and nature, which is a lofty topic for a ballet, but it is presented in a manner that is refreshingly not too heavy-handed. The visual impact of the sets and costumes was striking, as the main corps of dancers donned unisex, earthy tunics that were eventually torn away into sleeveless shirts and shorts that allowed their sinewy legs to almost become one with the stark background of a long tree branch. In contrast to this group were three taller female dancers garbed in bright, lively green romantic tutus that almost appeared to glow with a persistent vitality. Again, even without a structured narrative, it would be difficult for any viewer, experienced or not, to remain unmoved by the continual swirling tension of this work.

Finally, “Minus 16” is Israeli choreographer Naharin’s fascinating and fun contemporary piece. One particularly memorable sequence features the company seated on chairs in a large semicircle, bodies rippling in a repeated wave of motion that ends in one dancer throwing himself to the floor, with the combination of movements building to become increasingly complicated and the dancers removing items of clothing. You don’t have to be an avid dance fan to be drawn in by the precision and hard-flung control of this piece, which proves that you don’t need the fireworks of fouettés to captivate an audience. In the conclusion, the dancers walk through the audience and select members to join them onstage in a silly, exuberant finale. This work leaves everyone in the building wanting to dance, and that may be the ultimate sign of a successful performance.

Atlanta Ballet’s next performances will feature three premieres on their MAYhem program, May 15 to 17, and their Wabi Sabi group will appear at venues such as the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta Botanical Garden throughout the summer. There’s no need to feel intimidated if you’ve never seen a ballet performance, as these more modern pieces will take you on a journey through different styles and emotions, even without the basis of a familiar narrative. If your only memories of dance performances are your sister’s endless recitals or boring Nutcracker showcases, then programs like MCV and next month’s MAYhem provide a great way to re-introduce yourself to the art form from an adult, contemporary perspective.