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Atlanta Ballet's Jackie Nash dances in "Heart/Beat."
Atlanta Ballet's dress rehearsal of Heart/Beat at CPAC 2020.

Review: Atlanta Ballet reaches for diverse voices with mixed results in “Heart/Beat”

The syncopated rhythms of African American social dances, sacred music and American jazz are threaded throughout Heart/Beat: Gospel, Brubeck and Rhythms of the City, Atlanta Ballet’s most recent effort to connect with the city’s large community of African Americans.

The works range from Lar Lubovitch’s uplifting Elemental Brubeck to Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet, a quirkily surreal exploration of rhythm, to Dwight Rhoden’s over-the-top Sunrise Divine — a world premiere in collaboration with Spelman College’s Kevin P. Johnson. They showcase with varying degrees of choreographic success the significant impact that African American culture has had on American society. 

Heart/Beat: Gospel, Brubeck and Rhythms of the City runs through Sunday, February 16 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. 

In a video on African American social dances shown during a pre-show lecture opening night, choreographer Camille A. Brown spoke of the origins of African American social dances (and music) as a way to cope with the dehumanizing aspects of being enslaved — to maintain cultural traditions and retain a sense of freedom while captive. Composer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagan said that African American spirituals gave people a sense of hope and reaffirmed the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from them — the soul, and a sense of personhood.

Perhaps those values are why such African American social dances as the Lindy hop and its adaptation into the jitterbug resonated with young white Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, blurring boundaries between racially segregated social groups, while jazz music and dance filled concert halls, theaters and movie musicals. 

Atlanta Ballet's "Heart/Beat" featured Keaton Leier and Sujin Han.
Keaton Leier and Sujin Han in “Elemental Brubeck.” (Photo by Kevin Garrett)

This movement inspired Lar Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck, a lush music visualization that blends midcentury social dances like the jitterbug and boogie-woogie with Dave Brubeck’s jazz and classical American jazz dance. Lubovitch folds these elements together brilliantly with a keen sense of rhythm, momentum and the shape of a phrase.

In this vision, dancers cascade across the stage, forming virtual waterwheels that glide on serpentine pathways then dissolve into eddies, curling into waltz-steps that spark new impulses.

The spirit is felt in breadth and dimension of Jackie Nash’s back, and the way she carves voluminous spirals in the air, her wit and compassion pouring outward through her limbs in coyly elegant brushstrokes. And in red-clad Bret Coppa’s solos, his hip rolls and jazz kicks recall the smooth style of Jack Cole, father of American theatrical jazz dance. 

Dancers’ lifts evolve organically within the piece’s swirling form, as with Sujin Han’s horizontal dive across Keaton Leier’s chest, which sends the couple spinning. Later in their duet, she takes the movement to the next level, gliding over Leier’s shoulder. A final lift caps the sequence with Han’s full revolution on Leier’s shoulders and fan kick at the top of the lift. Lubovitch’s sophisticated craft sets a high bar for the evening’s subsequent works. 

Rhythm again is a driving force in Tuplet. As with Ekman’s Cacti, which Atlanta Ballet has produced twice, Tuplet features Ekman’s acute sense of comic timing in an edgy European contemporary style.

Recalling Cacti, six squares of down light defines the front of the stage while rectangular film projections appear behind — a close-up of people’s mouths articulating rhythmic syllables, and a pair of hands, in front of a bare navel, tapping rhythms.

Dancers pat out rhythms on the floor and on their bodies. Against a white cyclorama, a black-silhouetted solo male figure seemingly improvises to vocalized rhythmic syllables — his hip and shoulder isolations sending his body into torques and twists. Short vignettes offer jokes and punch lines — Miguel Montoya dances a few ballet steps and is then shot down to a voice-over “Thank you” and quick blackout. A nod to Cuban drumming sends the mind musing on the rhythms of life. 

Though Tuplet doesn’t carry the weight that Cacti did, it showcases the contemporary dance chops of Nash, Montoya and Nadia Mara, among its entire accomplished cast. 

Rhythm is a driving force in Alexander Ekman’s “Tuplet.” (Photo by Kim Kenney)

The intent behind Sunrise Divine — a collaboration between choreographer Dwight Rhoden and composer Kevin P. Johnson, music director of the Spelman College Glee Club, which is performed alongside the Golden Gate Singers and notable soloists — is to attract more African Americans to the ballet. And it seems to have succeeded. The ballet’s audience — usually predominantly white — was more racially balanced than usual on this night. Unfortunately, Rhoden’s hard-driving vocabulary rarely finds a groove with Johnson’s score of African American spirituals, jubilee and gospel music, except through dancer Jordan Leeper, whose visceral and soulful performance is the choreography’s saving grace. 

While Christine Darch’s purple-fading-to-orange costumes add vibrancy, the visual stage environment does little to further the cause of racial unity. The singers, all in black concert dress, are elevated several heads above the dancers and in back of them, and framed by a black background. That creates a visual barrier that runs horizontally across the back of the space, separating the singers from the dancers onstage below them. Stark white light exaggerates dancers’ lighter skin tones, while muted light over the singers push them further into the background. 

Johnson’s score unfurls with a sense of grace and spirituality that Rhoden’s full-throttle, in-your-face choreography seldom matches. All too often, six to eight couples move in near-unison onstage, chopping the space with maximum-thrust leg extensions, high-speed promenades and spread-eagle lifts. 

The loose-limbed, sinuous Leeper seems the only dancer who fully understands the spirituals’ layers of meaning as they’ve been sung through history from the time of enslavement through Emancipation, and from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights Movement. Leeper’s dancing resonates with those energies, whether in the passion of his gestures, the resilience of his jumps or his torso-rippling spiral turns.  

Many of the company dancers are young and classically trained. And many of them grew up in other countries, so they have even less connection to African American history and culture. The choreography doesn’t help. During the quiet conclusion of the song “Steal Away,” several men hoist a female dancer into a back-walkover lift — a technical feat that seems more about grabbing the audience’s attention than interpreting the spiritual. 

Set to a gospel rendition of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, the finale’s recap of multiple couples doing rock ballet-style échappés and spread-eagle lifts evokes a kind of cognitive dissonance. Despite that, Leeper infuses the work with deep connection to culture and ancestral history — a spiritually driven yet freely individual affirmation of faith, humanity and the spirit of community.