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Atlanta Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Concerto Armonico, a world premiere by the Mariinsky Theatre’s Maxim Petrov (Photo by Kim Kenney)

Atlanta Ballet closes season with George Balanchine set to the music of Gershwin

Baroque, the American Songbook and a harmonica concerto will color the musical palette for the mixed-repertory Atlanta Ballet season finale Bach to Broadway, running May 11–13 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Featuring live accompaniment by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, the program will include Who Cares?, the George Balanchine favorite set to music by George Gershwin; 7 for Eight, set to Bach keyboard concertos and choreographed by San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson; and Concerto Armonico, a world premiere by the Mariinsky Theatre’s Maxim Petrov, performed to Alexander Tcherepnin’s 1953 composition “Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra.”

Debuted by New York City Ballet in 1970, Who Cares? pays homage to the Big Apple and golden age of Broadway in an upbeat dance interpretation of Hershy Kay’s orchestrations of Gershwin’s greatest hits. Atlanta Ballet artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin describes it as crowd-pleaser that “plays on the jazziness of the music.”

Imperial Ballet-trained Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg and grew up during the final years of pre-revolutionary Russia. After living and working in Europe for several years, he settled in the United States, where he cofounded New York City Ballet in 1948. Though his life and choreography were filled with nostalgia for the homeland of his youth, he also embraced his adopted country and its culture, creating works infused with the energy of New York City as well as celebrations of Americana, such as John Philip Sousa marches (Stars and Stripes, 1958) and the Old West as depicted in Westerns (Western Symphony, 1954).

Who Cares? is one of Balanchine’s most memorable American-themed works, yet, as ArtsATL dance editor Cynthia Bond Perry has noted, it also harks back to his early days as a choreographer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, when Gershwin was popular in Europe. While Balanchine was choreographing movies and Broadway shows in the United States, he started working with Gershwin on Samuel Goldwyn’s Follies in 1937, but the collaboration was cut short when the composer succumbed to a brain tumor. Years later, Balanchine chose 16 of Gershwin’s songs from a book the composer had given him.

The 16 pieces featured in Who Cares? include favorites such as “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable  You,” “’S Wonderful,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm.”

“As with all Balanchine choreography, I think the most enjoyable thing with Who Cares? is the musicality of the piece,” says former New York City Ballet principal dancer and repetiteur Judith Fugate, who set the work on Atlanta Ballet. “He loved jazz, and that is demonstrated clearly with rhythmic changes and syncopation throughout.”

Fugate, who danced two of the three female solos in Who Cares? during her career, says that each role is difficult in its own way. “The first female soloist is required to show off her jumping ability with some very challenging passages — all the while with a charming personality,” she says. “The second female’s solo is longer than the others and very quick, so lightness and agility are key. The third female soloist has multiple turning sequences, so feeling secure in that technical aspect is super important. Finally, the man’s role is challenging because he has three totally different duets to perform as well as a solo and finale. Normally, the male only has one major duet in a ballet.”

Nedvigin, who danced in Tomasson’s 7 for Eight (2004) during his time with San Francisco Ballet, describes the work as a “beautiful piece that offers the company a challenge because each movement embodies a different mood that the dancers must capture.” This abstract, neoclassical work will be danced to excerpts of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1, Keyboard Concerto No. 4, Keyboard Concerto No. 5 and Concerto for 4 Harpsichords.

In Concerto Armonico, Nedvigin says that Petrov “has incorporated his signature style into the work in addition to some of the more traditional ballet steps, such as using day-to-day gestures to add a humoristic note to his creation.”

Looking back on Atlanta Ballet’s 2017–18 season, the second year of Nedvigin’s tenure marked a period of beginnings, endings and reconnections for the company — the final run of John McFall’s Nutcracker and the introduction of Atlanta Ballet’s second company, Atlanta Ballet 2; the company’s debut of Yuri Possokhov’s Don Quixote and the return of  choreographer Tara Lee, former company member and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre cofounder.

Looking toward next season, the company will usher in world premieres of Possokhov’s Nutcracker and a new work by Liam Scarlett as well as continuing its trajectory of incorporating more classical works into its repertory such as a full-length production of the romantic era’s La Sylphide.