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As John Welker's Gutman orchestrates the action, Tara Lee's Esmeralda spins a seductive dance. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Review: Atlanta Ballet’s Helen Pickett creates stunningly original achievement with “Camino Real”

As John Welker's Gutman orchestrates the action, Tara Lee's Esmeralda spins a seductive dance. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
As John Welker’s Gutman orchestrates the action, Tara Lee’s Esmeralda spins a seductive dance. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

God bless all con men and hustlers and pitch-men who hawk their hearts on the street . . .”

In Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, the gypsy girl Esmeralda says her prayers, summing up the playwright’s contemplation of love, mortality and what desperate circumstances can drive people to do. And how a spark of courage can change a community that’s lost hope.

Last Friday, when the scrim dropped and lights went black on the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s dance theater adaptation of Camino Real, there was a startled hush in the Cobb Energy Centre house. With that reaction came a palpable sense that, although it was puzzling at times, they knew they had witnessed an extraordinary creative achievement. 

Helen Pickett (Photo by Tatiana Wills)
Helen Pickett (Photo by Tatiana Wills)

Pickett had debuted her first full-length work, a daunting challenge with dramatic narrative based on a difficult play. A well-tuned collaboration between Pickett, composer Peter Salem, set designers David Finn and Emma Kingsbury, and costume designer Sandra Woodall, Camino is one of the most unusual and original dance collaborations the company has ever produced. 

With Camino, Atlanta Ballet had not just broken the fourth wall; dancers had successfully broken the speaking wall, extending their range into a form of dance theater that’s rare for an American ballet company. It’s the latest forward stride in a series of works by Pickett, intent on making that “leap of faith” across the footlights. 

Pickett — Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer since 2012 — has shown Atlantans the sense-stirring pleasure of pure movement with Petal; the phenomenon of human attraction and avoidance in Prayer of Touch; and the dark side of vigilante justice with The Exiled, the company’s first crack at dancing with speaking parts. With Camino Real, Pickett has taken another great leap into unknown territory and the result is stunning. 

Pickett’s Camino Real is a surreal, dark-tinged world so intricately detailed that it’s sometimes disorienting. Like an intense roller coaster ride filled with sporadic, jerkily urgent twists and turns, the unstoppable action carries on, by turns wrenching, riveting and redemptive. It’s as if we’re invited into the playwright’s mind — a shadowy world tangled with the machinations of power over the powerless, of love and possessiveness and what confinement does to the human spirit. 

Heath Gill as Kilroy.
Heath Gill as Kilroy.

Pickett has distilled Williams’ play into two love stories that unwind under a larger struggle between powers of good and evil. The story drops its hero Kilroy, a former light heavyweight boxing champion, into a kind of purgatory, or waiting station for lost souls, that divests its tenants of money, dignity and, finally, life. 

Kingsbury’s and Finn’s set was as detailed as Pickett’s choreography, and reinforces Williams’ line, “There are no birds in this country except wild birds that are tamed and kept in cages.”

A wiry, transparent construction created a dark, complicated framework, divided in the middle by a steep, narrow stairway. The elegant Siete Mares Hotel stood to the audience right, its rear wall a grid made of steel reinforcing bar.

On the left was the Ritz Men Only, a “fleabag flophouse” built of twisted steel bars torn askew. It stood near the Gypsy and the Loan Shark’s establishment, part of an economy rigged to squeeze every penny out of its people. 

Music, choreography and emotion were as intertwined as the characters, whose fraught stories unfolded through strains drifting in and out as in a dream. Performed by the Atlanta Ballet orchestra under conductor Ari Pelto, Peter Salem’s score evoked a circus; the hypnotic Gypsy, with violin melodies both plaintive and seductive; a toreador’s horn; the indefatigable Klezmer; and an after-hours vaudeville show. Kilroy’s sparkling minimalist theme was light shining in darkness.

Indeed darkness dominated, from the first dim glimpses inside the Camino Real. As Gutman, the Siete Mares Hotel proprietor, John Welker appeared on his balcony. Bare-chested, in a vaguely Spanish black and silver-studded jacket and pants that costume designer Sandra Woodall based on a matador’s uniform, he puffed leisurely on a cigar, turned mildly interested toward the audience, and flicked his ash with disdain. From start to finish, Gutman orchestrated the nerve-frayed community like the ringmaster of a sinister circus. 

The set, designed by David Finn and Emma Kingsbury, was one of the stars of the production.
The set, designed by David Finn and Emma Kingsbury, was one of the stars of the production.

Gutman seemed to have every town inhabitant on a string and compelled to further his agenda. One power source lay in three ghoulish Cleaners (Peng-Yu Chen, Jacob Bush and Rachel Van Buskirk), who lurked nearby when someone was dying. A shrill, unearthly pipe tune warned of their approach; they hooded, dumped and wheeled away corpses in their garbage can with modern efficiency and wraithlike speed. 

As Kilroy, gold-sheened boxing champ, Heath Gill took a boxer’s graceful weaving steps and punches into pyrotechnic turns and leaps, performed with heart-pounding vigor. It seemed there were deeper emotions to mine, as Kilroy gradually comprehended his impending death. But Gill emboldened his character with confidence and purity of spirit. 

Nadia Mara gave one of her most moving performances to date as Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan who made the mistake of falling in love. A free spirit whose wings have been clipped, she had nowhere else to turn but into the arms of her lover, Jacques Casanova. From the moment she appeared hovering over Casanova, to her drug-induced vision, to her frustrated attempts to escape, Mara danced and acted with heartbreaking intensity.

Christian Clark and Nadia Mara as Casanova and Marguerite.
Christian Clark and Nadia Mara as Casanova and Marguerite.

Christian Clark gave the mauve-suited Casanova a sleek masculine grace, with a hint of the flamenco in his elegant leg gestures. A character with light and dark sides, he thwarted Marguerite’s attempts to flee, but was always there to comfort her in her anguish and despair. 

Tara Lee was Esmeralda — vibrant, tragic and beautiful in emerald green. Captive of her Gypsy mother and madam, Esmeralda saw freedom in the former boxing champ, and realized both of them were caught in Gutman’s power machinations. She twisted and soared through a final, smoldering duet with Kilroy, equally sensual and sublime.

Camino Real is Pickett’s first full-length work and one of her first experiments with narrative and text. As with many choreographers new to story, there were occasionally more layers of action than the eye could absorb. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself watching action on one side the stage, missing crucial moments elsewhere. 

But though a few kinks needed ironing, Camino Real left me feeling as if ballet’s expressive reach had just been extended. It’s no one thing, but the piece’s combined elements create a dark-tinged reality where we find ourselves face to face with our demons.

Whether we wrestle them down or die fighting, Camino Real shows us that compassion can bloom in the cruelest of places.