Spoken-word poet’s hip-hop past finds home in Atlanta Ballet project

“Her shoulders open to the possibility there might yet emerge wings.”

So sounds the voice of Marc Bamuthi Joseph as Atlanta Ballet dancers rehearse to an airy waltz that sounds both meandering and mysterious, like a walk in the woods on a hazy summer afternoon. Several women are spaced neatly across the space, softly swaying. They spread their arms behind them, shrug their shoulders and rise into languid arabesques with a tactile, sensual feel. The warm, fragrant air is almost palpable.

As they dance, we hear Joseph’s spoken-word verses, part of a complex love letter to the city of Atlanta.

Joseph will perform his poem as part of “Home in 7,” one of three works the company will present this weekend at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The concert will also feature “Boiling Point” by Darrell Grand Moultrie and the world premiere of “Playground” by Douglas Lee.

Created in collaboration with choreographer Amy Seiwert and musician and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, “Home in 7” frames, through nostalgia and poem, “different pictures of a politically and romantically alive Atlanta,” Joseph explained in an interview. These range from the Atlanta Braves to Southern belles and from Georgia red clay to the mythic Phoenix bird that rises out of its ashes.

First presented in 2011, “Home in 7” is one of the most synergistic collaborations built under artistic director John McFall’s watch, and a prime example of McFall’s efforts to carve out a unique identity for the company by commissioning works that reflect Atlanta’s culture and history.

Joseph explained that the work owes its synergy, in part, to Atlanta Ballet dancers’ versatility, plus a certain “elasticity” that is a part of the hip-hop culture that surrounded Joseph and Roumain as they grew up.

Born in New York City of Haitian parents, Joseph performed on Broadway during his youth and attended private high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When selecting a college, he sought an experience rooted in the African-American tradition. He enrolled in Morehouse College, where he majored in English literature while coming of age in Atlanta, a city he saw as the cultural epicenter and the capital of African America.

At Morehouse, Saul Williams, actor, poet and activist, inspired Joseph to pursue spoken-word poetry, part of a centuries-old oral tradition that came into prominence through the Beat poets of the 1950s and 1960s, Joseph said. The genre subsequently developed within the black poetry movement, then as part of hip-hop culture, and now in poetry slams across the U.S. and beyond.

Joseph acknowledges influence from a number of poets, rappers, artists and activists. But his style aligns most closely with Ntozake Shange, author of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” whose choreopoems reflect a strong link between spoken language and body language. Joseph has performed and toured his style of verse-based dance theater extensively; he currently serves as director of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

In this role, he’s been part of a larger conversation among arts institutions across the country, such as symphony orchestras and ballet companies, seeking to attract new audiences. To this end, Atlanta Ballet has explored ideas and potential projects with Joseph, said Atlanta Ballet President and CEO Arturo Jacobus, though funding has been elusive, to date.

As the American population grows increasingly diverse and minority populations gain education and resources, isolated projects, such as “Home in 7,” may bring in new audiences; but to keep them coming back, Joseph said, arts institutions will have to incorporate different cultural viewpoints into the artistic canon.

“Home in 7” offers a powerful example of how the values of a somewhat marginalized art form can find a home within classical ballet to create a work that’s both timely and relevant across cultures. It’s the kind of work that can continue to keep Atlanta Ballet in step with its changing city.

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