New York-based choreographer Christian Holder had accepted a proposal to create a new ballet from Atlanta Ballet’s Artistic Director John McFall and was searching a website, skimming through titles for appropriate music when he discovered the 18th century John Marriot hymn, “Let There Be Light.” He had just reviewed a tape of his 3-day workshop with Atlanta Ballet dancers, and had in hand a cd of representative gospel music compiled for him by New Birth Missionary Baptist Church music director Kevin Bond.
“Bond recognized it immediately as the lyric for the Negro National Anthem,” Holder continues. “I’d never heard [it], but in fact it turned out to be thematically almost a blueprint for the ballet I was trying to create.”
Holder was looking for music that would be “all-inclusive, that the audience could relate to,” and that would also bring out the varied qualities he had discovered in the dancers. “It’s a classically trained company, but culturally it’s completely mixed,” he says. There are dancers from Mongolia and South America, all over the world. “I knew that to reveal these dancers strengths, I wanted a broad human story, but something that heals, something that transcends our human plight,” Holder explains. “Let there Be Light” is essentially a prayer for “the light of the gospel to shine into the darkest areas of the human void, into hate, into turbulence, into times like our own. It is a prayer for peace.”
This ballet, Transcendence, has its world premiere at The Fox Theatre April 24–27 and may be one of the most unusual and innovative collaborations of its kind in Atlanta Ballet’s history, indeed in the history of dance. About a community in turmoil redeemed by a spiritual messenger, Transcendence is not a story ballet in a traditional sense. Made up of series of episodes held together by the presence of a single character, it contains narrative elements like adversity followed by triumph, and struggle leading to redemption. The idea is to illustrate the place of the artist in the universe. “After 911, people drew together, and all of the gatherings were around music and dance,” says Holder. “This is because music and dance heal. The essence of art is to communicate [that healing, because] the artist is the line between the human and the divine.”
“At first I thought ‘Let There Be Light’ would be recited over the music. We were in a production meeting at a hotel in New York, and I started to read it aloud. ‘Oh, I know this,’ said Bond.” By now Holder had chosen the sequence of songs and had a treatment for the ballet. “It turns out, Bond knew the pieces I’d chosen and felt they would work for New Birth’s voices, that the choir could take these things and make them their own.” The challenge then was for the dancers who would rehearse to the choir’s recordings, but perform at the Fox to live music that to some degree spontaneous. As such, each performance is a unique work of art that come into being at the moment it is performed and can never be repeated in exactly the same way. “The truth of the gesture can change from performance to performance,” Holder says.
When ballet directors choose choreographers, they consider the history, the ingredients, the chemistry an individual can bring to a project. In this case, having selected the music, although not in comprehensive way – McFall didn’t want to inhibit the artistry of his team, Holder, Bond, and composer Paul Chihara who brought the various elements of the piece together musically – he looked at Holder’s international experience. “ Holder has a spectral overview. He doesn’t have the limits some people might. I watched him for years in performance and then when he started to make ballets. Given his body of work, I was curious about how he would approach this music and our mission” to develop a dance that could convey “the spiritual resonance we find in this region.” Likewise, the New Birth Baptist Missionary Choir, whose contemporary sound, with the rhythms and cadence of traditional gospel music but plugged in to the various new technologies for conveying it, including electronics and computer imaging, celebrates Atlanta’s spirituality. This music, McFall explains, is like the city itself, “enjoying a respect for tradition without being cemented in the past.”
Transcendence combines the talents of Atlanta Ballet, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church choir and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra—more than 200 artists sharing the stage for the first time ever—in a performance that mixes ballet, African-American religious music, Anglican prayer, Japanese drumming, contemporary dance, Bach and the blues. It is part of an ongoing effort by Atlanta Ballet to incorporate innovative, collaborative productions, as evidenced by the September 2001 concert with the Indigo Girls and last fall’s Ramblin’ Suite with The Red Clay Ramblers.
“We’re not a museum,” says McFall. “The well-spring of the creative mission at ballet is to collaborate with the community of artists we find in Atlanta,” in the hope that by mixing the ballet form with a variety of genres “we discover ourselves as we enrich the city.” Transcendence meets this goal as a “new work that represent our time, what Atlanta is today,” he continues. “The New Hope is one of many congregations in Atlanta that propels people in our community. It speaks to our present with vivid, emotionally charged music, and has been a clear choice in fulfilling our passion to express ourselves, with our artistic colleagues in the community, through collaboration.”
The blend of forms, sometimes called fusion or multimedia ballet is increasingly popular across the country. It has fueled the creation of regional companies like Complexions, in New York, Alonzo King’s LINES, in Oakland, California and Ballethnic here in Atlanta. Its concepts are also the basis for a broad spectrum of inventive ballets that employ video and computer-generated images and backdrops, ethnic and tribal music from around the world, and a wealth of critical stances from every field that offer new interpretations of old stories and ideas. A source of this dance style’s popularity may be the joy, novelty and challenge dancers and choreographers feel in putting together what seem to be oppositions.
Holder was intrigued by the opportunity to reach audiences who might not necessarily attend ballets, and to do so with music and with a company he fell in love with. John McFall, in allowing Holder 5 months to work on the project gave him “a rare combination of security and freedom.” Certainly dance set to religious music has been done before. McFall’s own Requiem (also on the program at the Fox) is an example, as are the various Carmina Buranas done around the country. Transcendence is distinguished musically from others by the progression Holder terms “generational layering.” From Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major through spirituals and soul music to Bond’s own ”Bless the Lord,” whose technological currency and urban funk Holder describes as “in the moment,” the audience has a unique view of the richness and nobility of dance and history.
Holder grew up in Trinidad and London in a family of artists, writers and musicians and enjoyed a successful career as leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, where for many years he was the only black artist. He has choreographed and designed costumes for Washington Ballet, Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, Ballet Théâtre de Bordeaux, and American Ballet Theatre, and taught ballet for Steps on Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. In June 2001, Holder choreographed the San Francisco Opera’s production of Aida. But he has found tremendous pleasure in working with Atlanta’s premier dance company, a group he found to be “beautifully trained and artistically astute.”
Dancer and Atlanta native Emily Cook, who trained at Rotaru and Atlanta’s Center for Dance Education has found mastering Holder’s hybrid approach and cultural bilingualism rewarding. “Christian’s style is very fluent, very organic. Movement from one sequence to another just feels natural. I love dancing classical pieces, but when the performance has a deeper meaning, when it’s not just dance for dance’s sake, you reach another level of passion.”