Review: Splendid elements of ‘Moulin Rouge’ don’t add up to a classic

Near the end of Jorden Morris’ “Moulin Rouge — The Ballet,” the ingenue Nathalie leaves her young lover Matthew for her boss, Zidler, owner of the notorious Parisian cabaret. Nathalie believes she can only save her lover’s life by sacrificing her own happiness. But Matthew, disguised as a waiter, secretly enters Zidler’s glitzy domain, hoping to rescue her.

The three are caught in a classic love triangle, and it’s not going to end well.

Suddenly, it’s showtime. Though consumed by jealousy, Zidler puts on a slick facade as host and emcee. He grabs Nathalie’s arm and promenades around the cabaret, greeting guests and summoning the nightly high-kicking, skirt-swishing can-can show. We realize the dancing girls and chorus boys cannot imitate true love, and the show is nothing more than escapist entertainment.

Like these nightly revues, Morris’ ballet, which runs through Saturday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, is thrilling entertainment. Unlike these shows, Morris tells a clear-cut story in the form and style of classical ballet. But no matter how sincerely dancers portray their characters’ emotions, no matter how many times they spin on a dime, no matter how seamlessly they blend technical feats with heartfelt emotion, “Moulin Rouge” lives up to its namesake as a charming period piece with great dancing and sensational appeal, but little depth beneath its surface.

Whether the ballet comes off as a respectful nod to classicism, or a string of clichés, depends on how deeply performers invest in their roles. A less capable cast might not have carried it off, but Atlanta Ballet’s leads outdid themselves last Friday evening, with technical and dramatic powers that created a lush sense of tragedy.

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Since Atlanta Ballet produced “Moulin Rouge” in 2010, the company’s repertoire has expanded significantly, and dancers now seem more at home with Morris’ style, carrying its vertical aplomb with a new-found sense of breath and freedom.

As Nathalie, Nadia Mara has come into her own as one of the company’s outstanding female dancers. With clear and effervescent technique and a magnetic stage presence, Mara plays a fetching female lead with soft vulnerability and a delicate sense of poetry.

Dancing as Matthew, Christian Clark takes bounding leaps and head-spinning pirouettes that sing with emotion. On a bridge over the river Seine, Clark and Mara dance a breathlessly romantic duet as Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” bathes the scene in silken lyricism.

A tireless ensemble fills street and dance hall settings with energy, while Anne Armit’s boldly colored period costumes invite audiences into each scene; Andrew Beck’s set designs and Pierre Lavoie’s lighting create brilliant hues and textures, recalling the city’s romance and the era’s energetic spirit.

Music, a soundtrack comprising about 33 pieces by more than a dozen composers — some of the era, others not — seems to break up the ballet’s overall consistency, to a diffuse effect. And this may be the primary reason why the vibrant, classically styled “Moulin Rouge” is not likely to become a classic.

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