Atlanta Ballet to tempt fate in ‘Carmina Burana’

Atlanta Ballet dancers Rachel Van Buskirk and Jonah Hooper in “Carmina Burana.” CONTRIBUTED BY Charlie McCullers
Atlanta Ballet dancers Rachel Van Buskirk and Jonah Hooper in “Carmina Burana.” CONTRIBUTED BY Charlie McCullers

Atlanta will get another chance to find out just how cruel fate can be when the Atlanta Ballet reprises its production of “Carmina Burana.” The work sets contemporary ballet choreographer David Bintley’s movement to the thunderous drama of Carl Orff’s famous 1935 choral masterpiece.

Bintley’s dance tells the story of three seminarians who are led away from their faith and into the dangers of dalliance and temptation. Principal dancer Rachel Van Buskirk, who plays the lead role of Fortune, the supernatural force that leads the young men to their destruction, says the unusual part is one of her favorites.

“She is, in essence, fortune, fate, destiny,” she says of her role. “In some ways, she’s a character, but she is more of an abstract symbol of strong female power and sexuality.”

The renowned English choreographer David Bintley originally created his "Carmina Burana" in 1995 for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and the Atlanta Ballet first performed it in 2013. The company worked with Bintley to prepare the work then, and he'll return to Atlanta shortly before opening night to fine-tune aspects of the piece after the dancers' many weeks of refamiliarizing themselves with their roles in the studio.

David Bintley's Carmina Burana 2017 30 Second Spot-HD

“He’s amazing to work with,” says Van Buskirk about the famed choreographer, who was officially made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England in 2001 for his services to dance. “He’s very passionate, but he watches so keenly and takes in so many details. He’s very specific when he speaks. You know exactly what kind of nuance he’s looking for. Each little movement really adds to the story he’s trying to tell. He’s got a great eye.”

Bintley’s movement, which fuses elements of classical ballet with his own more contemporary personal style, can be difficult, Van Buskirk says.

“What I find the most challenging is some of the partnering. These lifts we’re doing are on crazy angles, or we’re using our lats to support our legs. It’s very intricate, difficult partnering work.”

Just as crucial to the show as the intricate dance is the music.

Deanna Joseph, associate professor and director of choral activities at Georgia State University, is preparing two of the university’s choruses, the Georgia State University Singers and the Master Singers, to perform the work with the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra.

“It’s always exciting to be part of putting together a famous work of art,” says Joseph. “Even if people don’t know ’Carmina Burana’ in its entirety, they definitely know the opening and closing chorus because it’s been used so many times in movies and commercials.”

Preparing choral music for dance requires the singers to “sing the piece at a tempo appropriate to the dancers, so that everything lines up,” says Van Buskirk.

Part of what makes that especially challenging is the fact that the text in this case, based on 24 poems from the medieval collection “Carmina Burana,” uses a mix of Latin, Middle High German and Old Provençal. Pronunciation is difficult and even contentious: various musicians and academics have taken vastly different positions on how things should be pronounced, differences that often play out on recordings and performances of the work.

“We’re doing the pronunciation a la Robert Shaw,” Joseph says. The GSU professor says she came across a “Carmina Burana” pronunciation sheet created by the legendary choral director and Atlanta Symphony conductor years ago.

Although the Atlanta Ballet has performed "Carmina Burana" before, this production nonetheless still marks a significant first. Outside of the annual production of "The Nutcracker," this is the first full production the company has staged without its longtime artistic director John McFall, who had occupied the top position since 1994. McFall officially retired at the end of the 2015-16 season. His replacement, Gennadi Nedvigin, formerly a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, took the helm as the 2016-17 season began.

Van Buskirk says that so far the day-to-day work of preparing this particular piece in the studio under ballet mistress Dale Shields hasn’t felt that different, mostly because the majority of dancers are returning to roles they’ve performed before.

It’s in class and in learning some other upcoming works, such as selections from the classic “Paquita” slated for March performances, that the differences in vision between the two artistic directors are starting to show, she says.

“Our dancing and technical execution will definitely be strengthened,” says Buskirk. “(Gennadi has) had an amazing career, amazing training, and he’s really giving that back to us. In classes, I feel stronger … The amount of detail he can share with us in a work like ‘Paquita’ speaks volumes to the vision and the guidance we’re going to have from him moving forward.”

Still, for now, “Carmina Burana” and its story of the cruelty of fate remain the focus. “The music is so beautiful,” says Van Buskirk. “You marry that with the physicality of dancing, and it’s a universal story, everyone can identify with. David has done a brilliant job telling that story.”

DANCE PREVIEW

"Carmina Burana." Presented by the Atlanta Ballet. Feb. 3-11. $20-$128. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 770-916-2800. www.atlantaballet.com.