Sunday, April 3, 2011

Rite in all ways

Atlanta Ballet presented a program titled “Fusion” at the Cobb Energy Center.  The works included “Petal”, choreographed by Helen Pickett, with music by Thomas Newman and Philip Glass.  The music was recorded, which always give me pause, but the sound system at Cobb is fairly good.  The Newman music was from the film “The Little Children” and the Glass piece was from his music for “L’Enfants Terrible”.  The program failed to list who the musicians on the recorded pieces were, which seems like a big oversight.  “Petals” was performed by eight dancers, all of whom were quite good.  The tallest of the male dancers was outstanding, but I can’t determine who he is based on the photos provided in the program.  I liked “Petals” a great deal, in part, because Glass’ music is beautiful with great lyrical themes embedded inside of the minimalist hypnotic runs.  I also liked “Petals” because it had no discernable program.  I am partial to contemporary dance because it can be like music made physical.  Dancers dance to the music that has been transformed from the ephemeral to the physical by the choreographer. 

The second piece on the program was a reimagining of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The choreography was by Christopher Hampson.  Stravinksy’s music was a milestone in the history of music.  It is full of complex rhythms, dissonances, and surprises.  For me, it is thoroughly enjoyable but I know to others it is too far afield from melody and ¾ time that it is grinding for them to sit through.  I think there was more than a bit of this when I attended.  Two women in front of me said that they had never heard the music before and they didn’t like it.  This resistance to the new (even though it is over 100-years old) may have contributed to the tepid reception for the piece by the audience.  Atlanta audiences are so prone to standing ovations that I was surprised that this wonderful dance piece received no curtain calls and no standing O. 

For me this is a very difficult piece to write about because my reaction to it was so personal.  The brotherly love, conflict and growth in the first half of the piece can’t be too far away from the experience of many male siblings.  The only scenic feature on the stage was a wall which slanted from the floor and rose to a height of maybe 10 feet.  It reminded of the Warped Wall on the TV show “Ninja Warrior,” only without the top overhang.  The dancers used this wall in aborted efforts to escape their situation, but to no avail.  The Older Brother was danced by John Welker and the Younger brother was portrayed by Jared Tan.  Toward the end of the first section a young woman (danced by Christine Walker) appears at the top of the wall, first showing only her head then rising to full height.  She represented Faith and how it touched the lives of the brothers. 
The second half of the piece began with Mr. Tan sitting in front of a scrim upon which were projected grotesque images, including a pyramid seemingly made of human skulls.  When the scrim lifted, it was clear that Mr. Tan was a prisoner, being guarded by a soldier (John Welker again), dressed in camouflage pants.  As the scene progresses Tan is stripped to his underwear and become increasingly brutalized by the soldier. For me, this was almost painful piece to watch.  The horror, fear, and dread of someone in that situation were brought to life so vividly by Hampson’s choreography.  Tan’s physicality, and vulnerability made this scene palpable for me.  This is just about the only performance that brought a tear to my eye.  It was so dark and so sad.  Again, appearing on top of the wall, Ms. Winkler now appeared as Death.  Increasingly she became engaged with Tan, almost in a flirtatious dance, until she seemed like a welcome friend to the Younger Brother.  In the end, in fact, she took care of his longing. 

The savagery of Stravinsky’s music underlined the hard-edged message of this piece.  Tan, Welker, and Walker all deserve great praise for their work.  Tan, who is in his first year with the ballet, brought the required strength and vulnerability to his part.  Both he and Welker handled the wall- scaling skillfully.  For me, this was a powerful and haunting piece.  This made the lackluster reception by the audience all the more perplexing to me, but it is not, of course, the first time that a premiere of a great work is met with indifference or even hostility. 

The last piece of the program was titled “Lambarena” choreographed by Val Caniparoli.  The music is a mash up of classical ballet, African dance, and the music of J. S. Bach.  This piece has received widespread acclaim and was danced with energy and skill by the performers.  I am not a big fan of such mash-ups because one is left with something less the best of the pieces components.  I must also say that I was still lost in “The Rite” and had a difficult time focusing on “Lambarena.” 

As I mention the Cobb sound system was quite good.  In fact, the recording of the Rite had some wonderful woodwind playing that was superbly recorded.  The recording itself did deserve some mention.  

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