Choreographer Dwight Rhoden (left foreground) rehearses with Atlanta Ballet dancers Airi Igarashi and Keaton Leier for “Sunrise Divine.” CONTRIBUTED BY ATLANTA BALLET/ KIM KENNEY
Photo: Kim Kenney
Photo: Kim Kenney

‘Heart/Beat’ a jazzy, spiritual production

The tagline for “Heart/Beat,” the Atlanta Ballet’s new mixed program of three works currently on stage at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through Saturday, promises “Gospel, Brubeck, and Rhythms of the City.” That unusual mix doesn’t end up meshing into a perfect show, but it does create a pleasant diversion from the more staid, traditional, romantic fare that ballet companies typically feel compelled to offer around Valentine’s Day, with a wryly funny contemporary work from choreographer Alexander Ekman offering a special, unexpected highlight.

Lar Lubovitch’s 2005 work “Elemental Brubeck,” set to the music of jazz musician Dave Brubeck, opens the program. The costuming and movement evoke Brubeck’s pivotal era, the 1950s and early ’60s, a time not often associated with artistic freedom, but here suggested as a period of pushing boundaries and loosening conventions. On opening night, dancer Bret Coppa featured prominently as a soloist throughout the work, and with rounded, jazzy, easy-going grace, he often brought to mind performances by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire from classic musical films of the era. At several points early in the piece, he seemed to spend as much time, if not more, in the air than on the ground. But in the end, that sense of air-bound weightlessness proved difficult to maintain, and Coppa’s performance ultimately lacked the ease and glib humor that could bring the complexity of the central figure of the piece to life. The central male figure, often dancing with four male-female couples, seemed primed to become an interesting odd man out, perhaps a sort of pied piper or trickster figure, but a strong persona or suggested narrative never emerged. The most important aspect of selling this sort of dance to an audience is for the dancers to appear utterly thrilled and delighted to perform each and every movement; on opening night, dancers Nadia Mara and Anderson Souza seemed to connect most intuitively to that aspect of the work’s success.

The program continues with choreographer Alexander Ekman’s wickedly clever and engaging 2012 work “Tuplet,” easily one of the evening’s highlights. This critic was hardly a fan of Ekman’s famed piece “Cacti,” which the Atlanta Ballet performed last year as part of a March 2019 mixed program, and “Tuplet” contains a few displeasing touches of that work’s constrictive and overly facetious notes of self-reflection. But “Tuplet” delightfully develops into something far more untethered and original. A scene in which dancers perform in squares of light, severely illuminated and darkened in time with percussive bursts of music and sound, bears a passing resemblance to the visual world of “Cacti,” but a more particular sense of humor and invention makes its contours sharper, more crystalline and inviting. Especially memorable is a darkly (almost nightmarishly) funny sequence in which dancers perform seemingly involuntary jerking movements to the sound of names (implicitly, though not actually, their own) spoken on the soundtrack.

The notion behind choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s “Sunrise Divine” holds a lot of promise — and there’s plenty to enjoy in the work — but somehow its execution comes up short of high expectations. The work utilizes an ensemble of eleven Atlanta Ballet dancers and is set to a mix of African American spirituals, gospel numbers, and new compositions performed by the Spelman College Glee Club, the Golden Gate Singers and soloists under the direction of beloved Spelman professor and glee club director Dr. Kevin P. Johnson.

The piece buzzes with spiritual and expressive abundance, but surprisingly the two realms, dance and music, don’t mesh as organically as one would hope. In some ways, the historic references turn out to be too many. The work naturally looks back to one of the 20th-century’s most famous dances, Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” which also set movement to spirituals influenced by the renowned choreographer’s upbringing in small-town Texas. Rhoden, whose career included time as a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, clearly reveres the great work: “Sunshine Divine” even includes a performance of the famous spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which is featured prominently in “Revelations.”

But Ailey’s work conveys both the joy of communal amplification of spiritual revelation and its individuality: the various scenes imply a moving, universal narrative of struggle, suffering and healing. “Sunrise Divine” somehow stays locked in place. Dancers remain too often paired in male-female couples, an arrangement that invariably suggests romantic and erotic coupling, something that seems off when set to the staid dignity of gospel classics like “Steal Away to Jesus.” Indeed, the use of dance couples begins to seem restrictive and repetitive, and a strange dissonance develops between the fine movement and the lovely music: they seem almost to be happening in disparate realms rather than meshing together seamlessly as one would hope. Nonetheless, the work does offer some lovely moments, and the piece comes most alive during a rollicking rendition of “When the Battle is Over” during which the couples break apart, and there’s a thrilling lift of a female dancer by a group of male dancers.

Though it’s not a perfect evening, “Heart/Beat” offers plenty of pleasures. Miles away from “Swan Lake” or “Romeo and Juliet,” its easy-going, jazzy, gospel-inflected slant on ballet still might just make the perfect fit for your Valentine’s weekend date.

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