A new story ballet, well told, isn’t easy to find these days.
But choreographer Jorden Morris has come up with a beautiful scheme, setting a tragic love story amid the art, music and indulgence of Belle Epoque Paris. Morris invigorates classical dancing with French can-can and tango in “Moulin Rouge — The Ballet,” the Southeast premiere of which opens Atlanta Ballet’s 81st season Friday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall has long-standing ties with Morris’ home company, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet; he brought Morris’ “The Toy Castle” to Atlanta Ballet in 2005. When McFall heard about Morris’ latest, two years in the making, he flew to Minneapolis for the premiere.
At the end of the evening, McFall said, the audience “exploded. It was a beautiful production. The real strength was that the story was told so effectively.”
Atlanta Ballet is the first U.S. company to perform the evening-length story ballet.
Set in Paris around 1889, during a time of optimism, creative freedom and indulgence, Morris’ story revolves around Nathalie, a street-savvy laundress-turned-cabaret starlet; Matthew, an aspiring painter; and Zidler, the Moulin Rouge proprietor.
“It’s about Paris and these two young people connecting in a world that’s a little over the top, a little abrasive, a little abusive,” Morris explained in a recent lecture at Atlanta’s Alliance Francaise. “Can they find genuine love in a city that’s induced by drugs, alcohol and debauchery? Would these two be able to make it? They get involved in a love triangle and all sorts of bad things happen.”
Inspired by Pierre La Mure’s 1950 novel, “Moulin Rouge,” Morris pays homage to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, casting the artist as mentor to Matthew. He also includes Moulin Rouge leading lady La Goulue and rising star Mome Fromage, who’ve been immortalized in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters.
Costumes draw from the artist’s rich color palette. Lighted scenery — at times opaque, and at other times translucent — depicts the windmill cabaret, the Eiffel Tower and a bridge over the River Seine.
Morris carefully chose 29 music selections by French composers of the era — Jacques Offenbach, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and others — plus songs by Edith Piaf and music played live onstage by a tango quartet.
Through experimentation in the studio, Morris and his dancers blended French cabaret dancing with classical ballet to form “a new dance dialect.” This hybrid style elevates the can-can from heeled shoes to pointe shoes and lengthens the line of the leg. The tip of the shoe’s smaller pivot point allows for sharper, faster kicks and turns, adding spunk and vigor to ballet’s elegant, clean lines.
Recently at Atlanta Ballet’s new headquarters, company artists rehearsed this style with Morris — their dancing wholesome, exuberant, with a dash of coquetry. Like fireworks, four couples burst into a succession of overhead lifts, dropped into fish dives and plunged into the splits. Cymbals clashed as dancers hit high kicks at a rapid clip and whirled through dizzying turns, swishing their skirts and shrieking with delight.
When asked after rehearsal what he’d like for audiences to come away with, Morris said, “I’d like them to feel they’ve either had a snapshot or a glimpse or an emotion or some sense of Paris.
“I’ve tried to make it a very human story that everyone can relate to. I’m sure everyone has had that love triangle at some point, or has been misled by their boss, or given a job for not all the right reasons they’ve been told. I try to make it accessible so that people can say, that happened to me once. ... I think the audience will connect with some part of that human content.”
The season will continue when “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” opens Nov. 27 at the Fox Theatre, followed by “The Sleeping Beauty” in February, “Fusion: Lambarena and a World Premiere” in March and “Ignition: New Choreographic Voices” in May.
Cynthia Bond Perry writes about dance at ArtsCriticATL.com.
“Moulin Rouge — The Ballet.” Atlanta Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday-Oct. 31. $20-$122. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 1-800-982-2787, www.atlantaballet.com .