Atlanta Ballet’s ‘Moulin Rouge’ shows light and dark sides of Paris

Looking in on a rehearsal for “Moulin Rouge — The Ballet” is like stepping into the past — Paris, circa 1890. Atlanta Ballet dancers practice whip turns and partnering phrases; one sews pointe shoes while another does push-ups and bicep curls. It’s a circuslike scene that could have happened on any afternoon at the storied cabaret.

Even as four musicians move among French cafe scenery playing “La Vie en Rose,” there’s tension in the room — not because of the roles dancers are rehearsing. They are waiting to find out who their next artistic director will be after John McFall departs at season’s end.

Choreographer Jorden Morris, dressed neatly in black, directs musicians and dancers with calm authority. Emotions are running high as they prepare for the show, which will run Feb. 5-13 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, and Morris’ style is just what they need to channel nervous energy into their work.

To a piquant tango, Rachel Van Buskirk dances alternately with each of three men. Arms interlocked, their sharp, stabbing steps weave in and out of one another’s paths. Her coy advances meet the men’s barely contained aggression.

Such pulls between love and manipulative power are at the heart of “Moulin Rouge,” a story of a young woman caught in a love triangle, torn between a budding romance and her ambition for the stage. Paris made an ideal setting for the tragedy, Morris said of the City of Lights. “As beautiful as it could be, that flip side of darkness was just around the next corner.”

The contrast appears in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and paintings, where dancers’ bold-colored shapes stand out against dark, sometimes blurred figures, reflecting the Moulin Rouge’s bright exuberance and the seediness that went with it.

In this venue known for novelty, shock value and the bizarre, wildly experimental acts featured everything from women dancing with miniature ponies to Italian clowns and Arabian dancers. People sometimes performed inside a giant elephant that was built in the garden outside, Morris said. Shows often rose to a raucous high-kicking, skirt-swishing can-can finale.

The style was more risque than classical ballet, and Morris’ adaptation has been called too polite, and not sleazy enough. But Morris prefers suggestion to graphic depiction, keeping the ballet “intelligently tasteful.”

He’d like to create a different, darker “Moulin Rouge,” but for now, he’ll have to settle for the production’s popular success. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which first commissioned the production for a 2009 premiere, has performed it in cities across North America and Europe, Morris said. “Moulin Rouge” was made into a Canadian film production that featured Atlanta Ballet’s Christian Clark, and two U.S. ballet companies have produced the work, including Atlanta Ballet.

Since Morris last staged “Moulin Rouge” with Atlanta Ballet in 2010, the company has undergone a strategic plan to raise its profile through a top-notch international repertoire, and it shows, Morris said. The technical level is higher, he said, and dancers who were up-and-coming five years ago have “arrived beautifully.”

“They’re more versatile; there’s a nice cohesiveness to the team,” he said. “It’s a well-running machine, but it’s the positive energy and the willingness to be open and take direction.”

Atlanta Ballet’s search committee currently plans to announce a new artistic director in late winter or early spring.

“I hope they’ll make the right choice,” Morris said, “because I’d love to keep what’s happening here, and continue to develop and grow. I’d hate to see it take a left turn. I think it’s on a really good trajectory at the moment.”

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