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Komansé Dance Theater

Year in Review: Outdoor spaces, film gave dance new life in a challenging year

From storefront windows used as giant dance movie screens to a DIY dance festival in a church parking lot, Atlanta dance artists found new ways to adapt to the pandemic, deal with personal loss and sort out complex social issues that have surfaced.

The year also saw new partnerships and collaborations. DanceATL, a support organization for the local dance community, gained traction with its online publication Promenade. Several of its writers partnered with ArtsATL for this Year in Review as part of an initiative to bring new voices to the table and help nurture future dance critics. DanceATL writers Robin Wharton, Ashley Gibson and Julie Baggenstoss joined ArtsATL senior editor Gillian Anne Renault and editor-at-large Cynthia Bond Perry in writing this year’s dance highlights, both live and on film. Please welcome their contributions, and visit DanceATL’s Applause Board for more dance community news.

Here are a few of 2021’s standout dance events, listed chronologically.

Silver Linings

Pleiades Dances, Claudia Schreier’s work for 12 dancers set to Takashi Yoshimatsu’s wildly knotty and impressionistic piano compositions, was the highlight of Atlanta Ballet’s Silver Linings performances on the outdoor Georgia Tech Skyline stage in May. Conventional toe work took a back seat as speed and dynamic changes in direction brought the music, and the dancers, alive. Also notable in Atlanta Ballet’s performances on the Skyline stage, and online earlier in the year, were new works created by company dancers Anderson Souza, Bret Coppa, Carraig New, Darian Kane, Keaton Leier and Sergio Masero. It was a masterful way of giving these dancers an opportunity to flex their choreographic muscles, and the dancers an opportunity to perform new work when guest choreographers were unable to travel. — GAR

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Dancers wore masks as a Covid precaution in Angela Harris’ ballet “Our Concerto,” performed on the outdoor stage at Georgia Tech. (Photo by Richard Calmes)

Dance Canvas

Dance Canvas’ annual showcase of work by emerging, Atlanta-based choreographers skipped a year in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the 2021 version, presented on Georgia Tech’s Skyline Series stage in May, more than made up for it. Tap, ballet and contemporary dance were all represented, demonstrating the depth and diversity of Atlanta’s dance community. The fierce, all-female Tap Rebels, the city’s first professional tap company, showed that the art form can have an exciting, activist edge and still honor its history. Choreographer-composer Xavier Lewis, dance-makers Patsy Collins, Catherine Messina, Dana Woodruff and Dance Canvas executive artistic director Angela Harris all presented work that reminded us how dance has elevated our spirits in these disconcerting times. — GAR 

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Bach in Motion

Staibdance and the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra collaborated in June, bringing Bach and dance together at Ambient+Studio with Bach in Motion. The five dancers embodied the music in brilliantly diverse ways, from baroque dancer Paige Whitley-Baugauss to the three dynamic members of contemporary Atlanta ensemble Staibdance (Patsy Collins, James La Russa and Laura Morton.) Dancer-choreographer Julia Bengtsson’s deeply felt solo combined baroque and contemporary vocabulary. It was a standout not only because of the quality of the performance — the Bach suites were thrilling in the hands and strings of associate concertmaster Evan Few and artistic director and concertmaster Julie Andrijeski — but also because it brought together two arts organizations we don’t normally see on the same stage together. — GAR

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Our Hair Feels Like Flower Petals 

In June, rising Atlanta choreographer Jessica Bertram and her cast of four women crafted a bold work that glistened with a fiery yet delicate feminine power. Through symbolism and a keen sense of form, Bertram transformed The Movement Lab into a sacred space for sharing the astounding resilience of the Black woman in modern times. Throughout Our Hair Feels Like Flower Petals, dancers expressed a multitude of emotions through the motif of a raised fist. At times, the gesture was playful and inquisitive, as when dancers softly bumped their fists against the sides of their own heads. Often, the dancer’s fist morphed into a symbol of fight and drive, as when shot from behind a dancer’s back like a bow and arrow, or firmly held above the shoulder, with a slight quiver. Such movements dripped with a sense of realism and rawness that successfully drove Bertram’s concept home. — AG

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(MC)2 — Moving Culture, Moving Community

It was a long time coming, but in June Atlanta finally got its first multicultural dance festival, thanks to George Staib of staibdance. The two-night event at Windmill Arts Center featured 10 local companies in an explosion of diverse cultural expressions. They performed dance and music (much of it live) from China, the African continent, southern and northern India, Spain, Mexico and the United States. As the world was reeling from the pandemic, and travel was dicey, (MC)2 brought the world to us through ethnic dance ensembles that don’t often perform outside their own communities. They not only improved our cultural competency, they expanded our concept of dance in Atlanta. — GAR

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Beacon Dance
Beacon Dance in a playful moment (Photo by Dean Hess)

Cartography of Association

Eight adults of all ages, accompanied by a musician and a spoken-word artist, danced as if playing games at a child’s birthday party, asking the audience to consider how we include or exclude other people in everyday life. It was part of Beacon Dance’s Cartography of Association, presented at the B-Complex in June. Though performers awed the audience with refined, intentional movement, they made the contemporary work approachable by sharing the fun of rolling, jumping and running. They revived childhood memories, including the tinge of losing a game of musical chairs or being left out in the school gym when kickball team captains picked their team members one by one. The work proved that, when aimed at tender recesses of the soul, the simplest of movements can provoke deep introspection about the choices we make and the effect we have on those around us. — JGB

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1221 in Prefixed RE:

ALA Dance, one of Atlanta’s newest dance companies, brought a striking level of professionalism and seasoned artistry to its debut concert, Prefixed RE: in July. Artistic director Atarius Armstrong’s 1221, a heart-wrenching duet performed by Leah Kelly and Kaleb Mitchell, explored topical themes like social protests and the pandemic, as well as the personal loss of Armstrong’s father earlier in the year. Set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the choreography reflected its weighted subject matter and shed light on the Black community’s endurance and triumph over trauma.

At one point, Kelly linked her body to Mitchell’s as they leaned into each other for comfort. Facing away from Mitchell in a cantilever lift, Kelly encircled his torso with her legs and as Mitchell hinged forward, Kelly arched her back upward with the elegance of a swan. She then released her arms as if swimming through time and space in a powerful depiction of companionship and healing. — AG 

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Permanent 

In partnership with the High Museum of Art, Komansé Dance Theater and the African Diaspora Art Museum of Atlanta debuted Permanent, an exciting collaboration that takes art “off the wall” to build community and inspire conversation around the work of African and African-American artists.

Propelled by the wave of activism that followed the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, Permanent offered a compelling model for resource sharing among museums and performing artists. Several live dance performances and a film premiere re-situated Radcliffe Bailey’s painting EW, SN (in July) and Dawoud Bey’s photograph A Couple in Prospect Park (in October) into interactive contexts that centered the artworks in the history and culture of the African diaspora. The events showcased Komansé artistic director Raianna Brown’s signature style and captivating performances from the dancers. The film premiere of Permanent: A Couple in Prospect Park (being together) is set for January 7, 2022. — RSW

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Giselle

This intimate version of the 19th century romantic ballet Giselle marked The Georgia Ballet’s first live performance in the theater since the pandemic began. In September, the picturesque production reflected courage and compassion in the leadership of Daet Rodriguez and Margit Peguero. The married couple has clearly transformed this small but dedicated company into a warmly cohesive group whose shared passion for the art form is palpably uplifting. Both Peguero and Rodriguez trained in Cuba under the influence of prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso, and today’s Georgia Ballet reflects a similarly appealing blend of clean technique, passionate lyricism and emotionally honest characterizations marked by warmth and spontaneity. As Giselle, Kelsey Stanhope imbued every gesture with a sense of enchantment. Joan Zamora, who was featured in the 2011 documentary First Position, has matured into a handsome Albrecht who bounded across the stage with a power and athleticism that the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre could barely contain. — CBP

Georgia Ballet, Giselle

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Soaring High: For the Joy of It

During her 25 years as artistic director of Giwayen Mata, Omelika Kuumba led the all-female African dance and drumming group to national prominence. She stepped down from that role in 2018, but with sold-out performances under the Alliance Theatre’s tent last April and at the Windmill Arts Center in September, Kuumba showed that she is seemingly not retired, but rather, re-born.

Kuumba has long embodied the life-affirming essence inherent in African music and dance. She brought this experience to bear in new compositions that blended Kuumba’s original lyrics with traditional West African rhythms and songs merged with elements of house, reggae, neojazz and contemporary soul. Dancer Rashida Abdullah threaded West African dances throughout the program while an ensemble of musicians and vocalists supported each other like a tight-knit family. After a sobering tribute to Black individuals killed by police, followed by a soaring call-and-response affirmation, the program topped out when Kuumba played an ecstatic drum solo that suspended the moment in sonorous and intoxicating joy. A virtual performance of Soaring High will be available online December 24 through January 2, 2022, and Kuumba plans to reprise her live show as part of a concert album release party at the Fulton County Southwest Arts Center in May 2022. — CBP

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Roam

After a difficult year, Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre made a triumphant return to live performance in October with Roam, an evening-length work set on an outdoor stage in Serenbe’s Wildflower Meadow. Terminus’ expanded company included new members Ashley Eleby and Jackie Nash, both of whom demonstrated flawless, fluid technique, unique musicality and magnetic stage presence. Nash and Eleby joined Terminus veterans Heath Gill and Christian Clark in a memorable pas de quatre exploring the strength individuals draw from the collective group. They held elongated balances and leaned into poses in which multiple dancers shared a single center of gravity.

Choreographed by Gill, Tara Lee and Rachel Van Buskirk, Roam synthesized existential longing and playful joie de vivre to immerse audiences in a lush wilderness of delights. Throughout, dancers’ movements expressed emotional contrasts and contradictions, holding joyful absorption in the present in careful tension with nostalgia for moments that have slipped away. — RSW

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Bandaloop

Laws of gravity were flipped on their sides with the world premiere of FIELD, a vertical dance piece performed by the Oakland-based company Bandaloop on a multi-story Ponce de Leon Avenue building alongside the BeltLine. Presented in October by Flux Projects, the work set its sights on textiles, pointing out both the age-old roles fabrics have played in human cultures, and the ecological and social impacts of today’s globalized textile industry. ImmerseATL dancers performed high up on the building terraces as Bandaloop artist-acrobats scaled the building façade. Suspended horizontally by climbing ropes, they sprung outward from the building, their brightly colored clothes swirling around them, and turned seemingly weightless somersaults, creating the impression that anything is possible. — CP

Together: Yingge and Hip-Hop Unite 

The pungent colors and kinetic energy of synchronized fireworks were on display in the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s Together: Yingge and Hip-Hop Unite, presented last October at Gas South Theater in Duluth. The series of works representing folk and classical dances of the Far East invited reflection during the closing piece, Together. Inspired by a dream of defeating universal threats, it was a collaboration between the company’s co-artistic director Kerry Lee and hip-hop artist A.J. Paug. In the work, Chinese and hip-hop dancers borrowed jumps and sharp arm thrusts from one another’s art forms to portray the moment when rivals stop fighting one another to join forces against a common enemy. In this case, the heroes of the dance were facing the pandemic and waves of racism that lashed at Atlanta’s African-American and Asian communities during the past year. — JGB

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A turn to film

Lyrik London
A compelling scene from Lyrik London’s film “Black Boi Majik”

Many Atlanta companies and dance makers turned to film as a “safe” venue during Covid and honed their skills creating work expressly for the camera. Waverly T. Lucas II’s Jazzing: Memoirs in Jazz was an ambitious collaboration between Ballethnic Dance Company, the Breman Museum and Jewish photographer Herb Snitzer, whose photos of jazz greats like Nina Simone inspired the work. ArtsATL reviewer George Staib described Lyrik London’s highly personal Black Boi Majik as “a feast for the eyes.” Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s The Poet was notable for its combination of theater and movement and the tender, heartfelt way it dealt with the theme of dementia. Atlanta Ballet dancer Darian Kane joined Artists Climate Collective Art to Action movement and created All Eyes Forward to bring attention to climate change. While not every dance film could be considered an award winner, each of them encouraged viewers to observe and enjoy dance anew, when in-person concerts were few and far between. — GAR

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REEL Art: Video Technology + Installation Art

Core Dance’s REEL Art film series proved to be a clever way to bring movement-based art into the public square. Core Dance began using its storefront windows as a platform for film installations in 2020 and launched a series of newly commissioned screendance works last fall. Original films by Christian Meyer and Felipe Barral have since glowed on Decatur Square, inviting passersby to watch, interact and move along with dance artists on screen. (Full disclosure: Barral is an occasional contributor to ArtsATL.) After more than a year of seeing colleagues, family and friends as heads in boxes during online meetings, these giant screens served as a reminder that we can — and are — moving in the safe spaces that we find, both indoors and outside.

Each installment in the series opens with a reception and streams Fridays through Sundays from dusk to midnight. Barral’s V I T A continues through December 30. Watch for upcoming film premieres by Adam Larsen, Jennifer Scully-Thurston and Douglas Rosenberg this spring. — RSW and JGB

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