Cyborg humans, or a cloned super-race, seem unusual subjects for ballet. But choreographer Wayne McGregor doesn’t shy away from such radical ideas.
His relentlessly driving “EDEN/EDEN,” set to music from composer Steve Reich’s video opera “Three Tales,” alludes to this stark, futuristic vision through a rush of images and a movement style that, like most of McGregor’s ground-breaking works, pushes the body past its physical limits.
Starting Atlanta Ballet’s 82nd season in high gear, “EDEN/EDEN” is a bold step. It’s the company’s first truly edgy, kinetic work since it announced plans to update its image about a year ago, intent on shaping a more contemporary profile and attracting audiences with a taste for the avant-garde. But Atlanta Ballet doesn’t plan to leave traditional ballet audiences behind.
Featured alongside “EDEN/EDEN” will be James Kudelka’s “The Four Seasons,” back by popular demand from its initial staging during the company’s 2009-10 season. Kudelka’s spare, elegant work, set to Vivaldi’s concerto by the same title, classically based and subtly infused with modern dance influences, tells a timeless story of Everyman’s journey from youth into old age.
Atlanta Ballet’s season opener runs Oct. 21-23 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall commented that movement styles, music, lighting and projections in each ballet are strikingly different. “But they each, in their way, get inside who we are.”
Kudelka is one of North America’s most respected ballet choreographers, and McGregor is one of today’s most prominent innovators on the international dance scene. His cutting-edge “EDEN/EDEN” may do for Atlanta Ballet a bit of what he’s done for London’s Royal Ballet.
Since he was 22, McGregor has maintained his London-based company, Wayne McGregor/Random Dance, now in residence at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. He’s known for integrating science and technology with choreography, constantly challenging audience expectations.
McGregor’s knack for making contemporary dance look great on classically trained dancers caught the eye of Monica Mason, who, Atlanta Ballet’s ballet mistress Rosemary Miles said, was serving as the Royal Ballet’s artistic director.
Mason appointed McGregor the company’s resident choreographer in 2006, with an eye on appealing to audiences with a taste for innovation, and to bring the tradition-steeped Royal into the 21st century. The partnership has been a success. Last January, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him, which is unusual for anyone who’s in his early 40s, much less an experimental choreographer.
McGregor is modest about the title, and is more interested in pushing the art form forward. He is fascinated by the relationship between science, art and the body, said his assistant, Antoine Vereecken, in an interview at Atlanta Ballet’s headquarters, where he is restaging “EDEN/EDEN.”
“He often says, ‘The human body is the most technologically advanced thing there is,’ ” Vereecken remarked. “I don’t think he believes we’re machines, but he’s fascinated with how you can use the body in extreme ways. He’s interested in seeing how far one can push things.”
McGregor explained in an email how technology is integral to “EDEN/EDEN.”
“All of our experiences of the world are understood through the interface of the body. The dancers are the most technologically literate things on the stage. Filmic elements and digital projection charges the space with a different kind of energy.” Orchestral music and electronic texts create what McGregor described as “a strange alchemy, sometimes dehumanizing the dancers and at other times re-enforcing their humanity.”
McGregor created “EDEN/EDEN” for the Stuttgart Ballet in 2005 and restaged it with the San Francisco Ballet in 2007.
Although he generally works with much larger ballet companies, McGregor agreed to let Atlanta Ballet perform “EDEN/EDEN” with the idea of sharing it with new audiences and dancers. “They have a very interesting range of repertory and strong, creative dancers,” he said of Atlanta Ballet. “I thought ‘EDEN/EDEN’ would be a good contrast to the other work they engage in and a great physical/technical challenge for them.”
Recently, Vereecken rehearsed with Atlanta Ballet dancers, to Reich’s driving, electronic cyber-age rhythm, metered in syncopated sevens and nines.
Dancers Christine Winkler and Harry Yamakawa practiced a duet. He rotated her, balanced en pointe in a Shiva-like pose, arms thrust to the side like blades. Pulling against his grip, she folded into a pike, and one steely leg cut horizontally across the air as she pivoted to arrive at a 6 o’clock extension, which Yamakawa held firmly up against her body. She dived, snakelike, through the opening between them, and pivoted again, her leg still caught in his grasp, held high like a weapon in self-defense.
Vereecken helped the dancers meld through configurations with sharper attack, and to bring an elastic feel to transitions, a sense of fluid resistance, like pulling taffy.
Later, Atlanta Ballet company member Tara Lee reflected on how the experience has challenged and changed her.
“There’s something you feel when you’re being stretched and pushed to the absolute limits of what your body and mind are capable of. It’s extremely liberating. It squashes all the restrictions you place on yourself, because there’s no choice but to go there.” Lee added, “I’ve found a new level of fearlessness.”
Cynthia Bond Perry is dance critic at ArtsCriticATL.com.
Atlanta Ballet. “The Four Seasons” and “EDEN/EDEN.”
8 p.m. Oct. 21-22, 2 p.m. Oct. 22-23. $20-$120.
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta.
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