Atlanta Ballet takes on dance that ‘gets under your skin’

Artistic director John McFall believed his classically trained Atlanta Ballet dancers were ready for the demanding contemporary choreography of Ohad Naharin.

The question was, would the white-hot Israeli choreographer share McFall’s leap of faith?

McFall’s gambit to get Naharin’s work to Atlanta was not an outrageous one, just gutsy, especially since McFall wanted to strike a three-year partnership with the choreographer as part of a plan to build the company’s artistry and brand as one that embraces bold, athletic dance. A troupe, in other words, that could possibly attract new, younger audiences while not alienating the loyal, white-haired one.

After all, McFall has staged a modern program practically every season since becoming only the third artistic leader of the historic ballet company in 1994, including collaborations with OutKast’s Big Boi, the Indigo Girls and, just last season, Twyla Tharp. To better market these fresh moves, the company committed to billing one of its annual programs as “New Choreographic Voices” starting with the 2010-11 season.

Naharin’s “Minus 16” will be the focal point of the third “New Choreographic Voices” program this weekend at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. But the production wasn’t a given when the Israeli choreographer sent his repetiteur (or ballet coach), Danielle Agami, to Atlanta in August 2011 to determine if the Atlantans could speak his particular movement language.

The artistic director of Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company since 1990, Naharin is known for creating “gaga,” a dance style that combines liquid beauty with explosive bursts. Dancing his choreography, performers at times move as if almost to defy the existence of their spines. While Atlanta Ballet has shown ability beyond the world of pointe shoes and Mouse Kings, it’s never tackled anything quite like gaga.

Agami acknowledges that it was “very possible” that she would find McFall’s company to not be a fit. The first day, the mirrors were curtained in black, a move to make the dancers, who repeatedly check and correct their own form throughout a typical ballet rehearsal, to self-judge less and free themselves more.

“But from the moment I entered the studio, it was clear that they are young, eager and wanting to learn,” Agami said.

That openness was the main thing she was seeking. “The only thing that can determine if something is possible or not is the atmosphere in the room,” Agami said. “The rest is just hard work.”

Christine Winkler, the longtime Atlanta Ballet dancer who is serving as rehearsal assistant on “Minus 16” while pregnant, spoke to what’s so different — and difficult — about gaga.

“There’s a quickness, there’s also an accuracy that’s needed,” she said. “Then there’s also a softness in the body that we’re not used to using as much, in the center, in the core. There’s a looseness in the hips and the spine. It’s (a more) organic kind of way of moving.”

McFall had traveled to Tel Aviv in 2010 for the annual International Exposure festival seeking choreographic spark to bring back to Atlanta.

“Everything is stirred up (there), so there’s always a lot of passion,” he said. “It’s really not entertainment. It’s about people expressing their experiences and their innermost feelings.”

Impressed by many of the younger choreographers, some of them who came up through Naharin’s company, McFall was most wowed by the master.

“Ohad just kind of stands alone,” he said.

Naharin’s choreography “is not polite. It is gritty and gets under your skin.”

Engaging Atlanta audiences with contemporary dance is a matter in which the company is deeply invested.

Using the 2,700-seat Cobb Energy Centre as its main home, Atlanta Ballet booked the 700-seat Alliance Theatre for “New Choreographic Voices” in its first two seasons. It drew OK: Audiences averaged a little more than 70 percent capacity. This year, the Alliance wasn’t available, so the four performances of “Minus 16” — along with the world premiere of Gina Patterson’s “I Am” and a reprise of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” — will be presented at the expansive Cobb Energy Centre.

To try to help build interest and fill seats, Atlanta Ballet formed a committee last summer led by board member Jonathan Regenstein to reach out to the Atlanta Jewish community, partnering with groups including the Israeli Consulate, the William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum and synagogues.

It also is trying to grab the attention of young Atlanta professionals in different ways, such as a series of 16-second “Minus 16” dancer videos on its Facebook page. To position the performances as an event, it’s orchestrating a “Single in the City” preshow cocktails event on Friday at nearby Cinco Mexican Cantina, and a DJ will play music in the lobby before the evening shows and their intermissions.

Ballet leaders hope that the Naharin buzz will build over the partnership’s three years — a commitment for which McFall and executive director Arturo Jacobus went to bat with its board.

“It was critical,” McFall said of the length of the collaboration. “We don’t just want to taste it, we want to go there.”

Jacobus applauds the board for supporting “this somewhat risky, but exciting, strategy” of working with choreographers outside the classical realm.

“I do believe that Atlanta is ready for this and that … we will begin to see the results at the box office,” he said.

“Besides, a steady diet of ‘safe’ programs will eventually bore the audiences. We want to excite them.”

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