From a Shakespearian tragedy to a survival story on the Western frontier to a landmark collaboration between two Atlanta creative figureheads, the 2014 dance scene offered performances as diverse as the city itself. Opinions among ArtsATL dance critics can be equally varied; in recapping the year’s highlights, we’ve shared some of our divergent points of view (in chronological order), plus a few “Bests” on which we pretty much all agree. The dance writers weighing in are dance editor Cynthia Bond Perry, Gillian Anne Renault, Kathleen Wessel, George Staib, Andrew Alexander, Rachael Shaw and Scott Freeman.
Show of the Year: Roméo et Juliette
Atlanta Ballet’s Roméo et Juliette, choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, was not only the company’s best performance of the year, it was one of most visually stunning productions we’ve ever seen. Stark white walls towered above the stage, an abstract castle or balcony but also a symbol of the insurmountable divide between Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Christian Clark and Alessa Rogers in the lead roles delivered grown-up chemistry with a hint of sweet adolescence, and Maillot’s choreography achieved emotional weight without relying on pantomime.
This reimagining of Prokofiev’s Roméo et Juliette shifted the emphasis of the story from the famous lovers to the more peripheral, guilt-ridden friar. It was a concept and production that fit the Atlanta Ballet like a glove. John Welker gave a masterfully brooding, internally tortured performance as the friar. Dressed in sumptuous, metallic fabrics and structured, runway-worthy jackets, the entire company gave inspired, at times heart-wrenching, performances. This was sophisticated romance, abstract enough to feel placeless and timeless, like Shakespeare’s words embodied. For those that missed the show, not to worry. The production returns for a reprise in February. KW and AA
Best Touring Company: Trey McIntyre Project
The company’s final Atlanta performance was bittersweet for Rialto director Leslie Gordon, who first saw TMP perform at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival seven years ago when it was just a summer pick-up troupe. She booked them on the spot and has since presented McIntyre’s company four times, keeping Atlanta abreast as the company went full time and toured nationally and internationally from its home base in Boise, Idaho.
McIntyre’s nine classically trained dancers helped develop a fresh, contemporary repertoire marked by speed, clarity and emotional authenticity to music ranging from pop to classical to New Orleans jazz. But citing burnout last January, McIntyre announced plans to fold the company while still on top of its game. April’s farewell concert included the chillingly macabre, Edward Gorey–inspired The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction and Mercury Half-Life, a turbo-charged vehicle for his dancers set to music by Queen. Fittingly, TMP took its final bow with this program at Jacob’s Pillow last June, and McIntyre is now freelancing, with projects that involve dance, film and photography. It’s likely that other companies will perform his repertoire, but it won’t be the same. CBP
Best Couple: Alessa Rogers and Christian Clark in Roméo et Juliette
The thing about chemistry between two people is that it’s impossible to describe, yet you recognize it immediately when you see it: Bogie and Bacall, Grant and Hepburn, Clooney and Lopez. The screen starts to smolder whenever the two (usually star-crossed) lovers appear together. Alessa Rogers and Christian Clark brought some old-fashioned chemical power to their roles as Juliette and Romeo in February. It represented star-making roles for both as we watch a new generation at Atlanta Ballet preparing to take its place.
Rogers, in her seventh season, fulfilled the promise she showed as Princess Irene in the 2012 world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin and as Ophelia in Hamlet. With expressive acting and crisp, hauntingly evocative dancing, Rogers seized the moment as Juliette and firmly established herself as one of the ballet’s elite dancers. As her Romeo, Clark took similar strides. In his 13th season with Atlanta Ballet, Clark has often worked in the shadow of the company’s top two male dancers: John Welker and Jonah Hooper. With the role of Romeo, Clark showed that his future has arrived. SF
Best Original Choreography: cloth
Conceptual artist and choreographer Lauri Stallings is uncomfortable with the idea of performance and the them-and-us / performer-and-audience dynamic it sets up. She prefers integrating movement into communities and neighborhoods. But when she embraced performance in September with the world premiere of cloth at the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard, we were bowled over. It was a stunning collaboration between her, the dancers of her company glo, and Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Spano played his original piano score, an organic outpouring of sound. Stallings responded to it beautifully, expanding her movement vocabulary with tableaux that rivaled Balanchine for their architectural beauty, and wild rushes of movement that brought to mind river rapids, waving branches, emergence, growth. It was breathtaking. There were dynamic, horizontal leg extensions, a myriad of uplifted gestures and a joyful expansiveness and dynamic range. When he wasn’t at the piano, Spano moved with the dancers, creating a visual representation of a brilliant union between Atlanta’s music and dance scenes. GAR and AA
Comeback of the Year: Peng-Yu Chen
Injuries are often a way of life for professional dancers, who are vastly underappreciated for their athleticism. Peng-Yu Chen was on something of a roll as the 2012–13 season opened with Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker. Peng-Yu’s talent for modern dance had propelled her to be one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2007 when she was with the American Repertory Ballet. Yet with Atlanta Ballet, Peng-Yu had hovered as a middle-tier company member. Then came her captivating performances in Helen Pickett’s Prayer of Touch and Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash in 2012.
Just as Peng-Yu appeared to be finding her groove, her left knee gave out two years ago as she danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The diagnosis was brutal: tears in her anterior cruciate ligament and in the meniscus cartilage. Then in March, Peng-Yu faced tragedy when her mother was killed in an automobile accident in Taiwan. Yet Peng-Yu made her comeback in May, 17 months after her knee injury, with confidence and verve when Atlanta Ballet reprised 1st Flash. She began her first full season back in December, dancing the roles of the Spanish dancer and Snow Queen with her trademark joyful grace. SF
The best of the rest:
Choreographer Waverly Lucas adapted Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West play into a full-scale ballet production, distilling the story of pioneering African Americans in the late 19th century, and placing it on a broad canvas of history, environment and culture. Against a backdrop of archival images from Nicodemus, Kansas, performers of all ages — including dancers, musicians and actors — brought to light the spirit of a near-forgotten Kansas town and showed Ballethnic Dance Company, in its 25th year, to be a vital leader in the arts community. To music by William Grant Still and other composers, as well as narrative by Cleage (and others), issues of love, power, sisterhood and standing up for one’s rights played out, demonstrating its four female leads’ indomitable strength. CBP
Choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano explored “the kiss” in his rapid-fire work El Beso featuring the gob-smackingly athletic and talented dancers of Ballet Hispanico in a performance that was presented in May as part of glo’s 2013–14 Tanz Farm season. From the quick peck to the slow smooch, from the cinematically romantic lip-lock to the humiliatingly awkward failed social greeting, nearly every form of kiss was represented, and they were all touchingly recognizable. There was a delicious vein of wicked humor in the piece’s streamlined depiction of social interaction, but it was ultimately the work’s overarching sense of fun, its celebration and acceptance of all things human, that made us want to plant a big, grateful, sloppy one on each of the dancers’ cheeks. AA
One would be hard pressed to find an Atlanta-based choreographer less afraid to put raw emotion on stage than T. Lang, a dance professor at Spelman College whose company, T. Lang Dance, is building a strong local presence. Shown at the Goat Farm in June, Lang’s hour-long exploration of grief — and the unflagging hope for connection with lost loved ones — inspired some of the most compelling and fiercely expressive dance performances of the season. Lang’s rhythmic, propulsive and technically demanding dance language gave voice to each of her eight dancers’ sorrows, frustrations and faith as they mined their deepest feelings and searched relentlessly for the unreachable. CBP
Choreographers Kelly Bond and Melissa Krodman proved postmodernism isn’t dead with their duet Colony, a minimalist study in repetition produced by the Lucky Penny as part of Theater Emory’s Breaking Ground series. Memorably dressed in high-cut, striped leotards and matching sneakers, the two women turned unison, pedestrian movement into a social study. The audience, free from the confines of chairs, moved around the Schwartz Center’s Theater Lab, their spatial choices integrated into the work’s visual landscape. And though Bond and Krodman never really “danced” in the traditional sense, their highly specific, impeccably synchronized movement was mesmerizing. Be it dance, theater or installation, it was one of the year’s most intellectually satisfying performances. KW
The heralded arrival of Jerusalem’s Vertigo Dance Company was an opportunity for Atlanta audiences to see a more subtle yet equally intense version of Israeli modern dance. With raw physicality and stunning emotional nuance, Reshimo delivered a riveting, cyclical journey through universally relevant material. Taking inspiration from the idea that we leave a lasting imprint on one another, choreographer Noa Wertheim seeded the piece by creating “waves of movement” that gently carried us into the work. GS
Kyle Abraham’s Pavement, presented in November at the Ferst Center for the Arts, tackled relevant and timely issues surrounding the black male’s place in contemporary society, through the interplay of pedestrian movement and highly technical choreography. With dance influences ranging from Martha Graham to Tricia Brown, and from rave culture to hip-hop, topics included oppression, self-hatred and the invisibility of black issues within a white-dominated society. The combination of social commentary and technical prowess made Pavement a dance calendar highlight. RLS
gestures that soon will disappear: 4th BODY, Performance 3
There’s nothing quite like a glo event, and the one at MOCA GA on December 4 was no exception. It was a stunning example of movement, art, photography, a standing and walking audience, paper sculpture and sound all coexisting, each enhancing the other. It began with the dancers, in long black gowns, inhabiting the “white box” of MOCA’s largest gallery, empty of visual art that night. They moved through what glo founder Lauri Stallings calls migrating choirs and anthems, at times in tight blocks, at other times exploding into runs around the space. They led viewers to art exhibits in a second and third gallery, and a space between galleries where Thom Baker’s photography triumphed.
I could never have imagined that watching a group of dancers lie on the floor for 10 minutes, in silence, in front of a painting, could be so thrilling. Stallings’ movement vocabulary is richer and more complex these days and her dancers are iron-strong and laser-focused: Kristina Brown, Maryjane Pennington, Jennifer Cara Clark, Anicka Austin, Fifi Mpezo, Ariel Hart and Nadya Zeitlin all performed brilliantly. Performance 3 was part of a nine-week glo adventure (October 24 through December 20) at MOCA and outdoor sites around the city. I wish I’d seen more of it. GAR
Mouth to Mouth
The year wrapped up with a performance by former Batsheva Dance Company star Danielle Agami’s Los Angeles–based Ate9 Dance Company. Tanz Farm series 2 presented a number of entry points into the Israeli choreographer’s work including two master Gaga classes and the Atlanta premiere of Mouth to Mouth at the Goat Farm Arts Center.
Mouth to Mouth, which featured a cast of eight astonishing dancers including Agami herself, represented the best of the Israeli aesthetic: fast, articulate gestures, high-flying physicality, and a nuanced, nonlinear narrative. And though the work was structurally reminiscent of Ohad Naharin’s work for Batsheva, Agami’s movement invention was as dynamic and explosive as her dancing. Impressive stuff for such a young choreographer and her new company, just named one of Dance Magazine’s 2015 “25 to Watch.” Let’s hope Agami and her company return to Atlanta soon. KW