On Saturday night, dancers Jessica Assef and Moíses Martín, substituting for Emily Carrico and Jacob Bush, paired beautifully in the opening moments of Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, the first work on Atlanta Ballet’s season-closing mixed program Bach to Broadway. The couple exuded a stylish and impassioned but sexless glamor as they moved with meditative precision to a somber passage of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F Minor. The performance highlighted Assef’s ability to form intriguingly distinct straight lines with her body. Especially lovely were moments when she took a position — limbs perfectly straight or else with one leg held aloft forming a crystalline curve — and Martín manipulated her weight, either gliding her across the floor or slowly spinning her body. The focus and use of the length and sharpness of her limbs made for interesting contrasts in moments when she suddenly retracted or folded into his arms.
The duet set the tone for the evening: precise, beautiful, simultaneously intimate and aloof; all of it seems indicative of the company’s new direction under the leadership of artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin who, since taking the helm at the start of the 2016–17 season, has sought to reemphasize the rigorous technical precision of classical ballet after the more contemporary and progressive outlook of John McFall.
Alexandre Barros and Jackie Nash made for a less successful pairing in the same work. Together, they had trouble evoking the lightness, energy and playfulness of the second movement’s faster tempos, so it was especially strange to then see them excel as soloists mere seconds later. Both were great to watch on their own — his quick athleticism and expertly channeled energy, or her carving of lovely, swooping arabesque curves in space — but somehow things felt strangely flat when they partnered.
The second work, Who Cares? with choreography by George Balanchine and music by George Gershwin, was pleasant enough to look at and listen to, but it ultimately didn’t generate much heat or excitement. (The sound of footfalls during a dance can be distracting to me, and I heard them a lot here). Still, moments of synchronous movement from the ensemble, particularly those involving the women, could pop vividly to life, showing off some trippy new technical precision paired with a fun sort of jazzy sassiness, a compelling combination. Soloist Nadia Mara, substituting for Jackie Nash, had a charming stage presence as always, but overall, the work tended to develop a sort of blank, dial-tone quality. Lovely stuff for the most part, but it represented some old-fashioned ideas about “mixing it up” at the ballet, and the whole thing lacked the spark and energy to lift it off the ground. The title Who Cares? should evoke a whimsical, romantic disregard for formality and convention; it shouldn’t serve as an ironic comment about what’s been placed on stage.
Young Russian choreographer Maxim Petrov of the Mariinsky Ballet made an impressive stateside debut with the evening’s final work, Concerto Armonico, though Tatyana Noginova’s outfits for the men bore a distracting resemblance to Spiderman’s costume. It was a striking similarity one tried to dismiss as soon as it was noticed, but it persisted, thanks to a delicate black weblike pattern across the blue and red costumes’ chests. The strange resemblance emerged again during moments when the male dancers crouched down and snuck across stage to quiet, sinister passages of Alexander Tcherepnin’s music (that’s a device that would have read as too interpretive and theatrical even without the costumes).
Still, I admired the use of enormous, brightly painted backdrops by art group bojemoi, Anastasia Travkina and Sergey Zhdanov with their Miró and Rothko-like abstractions, beautifully reflecting or contrasting with the abstract movements and shifting patterns of the dancers. Petrov’s charming sense of mischievous inventiveness was most evident in ensemble arrangements: patterns formed, or almost formed, and then broke apart. A discernible narrative, or relationships between dancers, was suggested — then they would dissipate and change. Irregularity, invention and surprise brought a sense of delight that was missing elsewhere in the program. I especially adored a moment when couples stood perfectly still, their backs to the audience, and men, in turn one by one, did a quick, athletic, almost violent spin before placing one arm gently back around their partner’s waist, a movement that seemed to migrate across the stage from couple to couple with intriguing speed.
In all, one great strength of the evening was its overarching mood, a communal but introspective feeling emphasizing technical proficiency, all of it punctuated by wonderful (but too infrequent) flashes of invention and energy.