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big featuring the Atlanta Ballet with Big Boi.

Big Boi Ballet

by Philip Auslander

Although ballet is stereotyped as a traditionalist, “high-art” form, modern choreographers have long engaged with social dance and popular music, including rock, jazz, and theatre music. Beginning in the 1930s, New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine frequently used jazz and popular music and, in 1999, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary with a program that included pieces choreographed to Duke Ellington and a score commissioned from Wynton Marsalis (which had premiered in 1993) alongside a new production of Swan Lake. In the current ballet season (2007-8), Ballet Memphis danced to the music of Eric Clapton, Radiohead, and INXS, while the National Ballet of Canada presented Rooster, incorporating music by the Rolling Stones. Decadence Theatre, an all-female dance company based in Brooklyn, NY, has been doing productions that meld hip-hop music and dance moves with ballet and other forms of theatrical dance for about five years.


big, the Atlanta Ballet’s recent collaboration with Antwan Patton, known as the rapper Big Boi, half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop duo OutKast, exemplifies the ballet world’s ongoing engagement with popular music and culture. For me, the interest of such cultural encounters lies neither in the mere fact that they happen nor primarily in what they may mean for the political economy of the arts (e.g., the possibility that big will attract a younger, more racially diverse audience to the ballet) but in the opportunities they provide to consider the terms under which such encounters take place. When ballet meets popular music, on whose turf do they meet? What rules govern such meetings, and who sets them?


It is worth noting, for example, that prior to Marsalis, the New York City Ballet did not work very much with jazz musicians but drew on music in the orchestral tradition that was influenced by jazz, composed by Igor Stravinsky, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Morton Gould, and Aaron Copland, among others. During its 50th anniversary celebration, the New York City Ballet danced to symphonic arrangements of Ellington rather than big band versions; even Marsalis’s piece is scored for an orchestra rather than a jazz group. This, along with the other examples, suggests that when jazz encounters ballet, it does so on ballet’s terms, in the sense that jazz must be accommodated to the orchestral idiom. This is not necessarily a one-way street, culturally speaking. The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri is not alone in describing jazz as “America’s classical music,” a claim that is surely reinforced by the assimilation of jazz to the traditions of symphony and ballet.


Rock music, it seems, is a somewhat different story. Bringing rock onto the dance stage, Ballet Memphis and the National Ballet of Canada used recordings by Clapton, the Stones, and others rather than orchestral arrangements of their music. This implicitly respects the way rock culture is built around recordings, the way it is difficult to distinguish the musical work from specific performances of it by particular artists. A dance choreographed to the music of the Rolling Stones invokes the Stones as performers and personalities as much as it does their music, even in their physical absence. Because rock cannot be assimilated to the symphonic tradition as jazz apparently can, ballet must meet it at least half way.


One distinctive feature of big, choreographed by Lauri Stallings and presented April 10-13, 2008, was that Big Boi and other singers and rappers from his Purple Ribbon record label not only leant their voices the Atlanta Ballet but also shared the stage with the dancers (the production also featured a live band). Despite their mutual presence, the dancers and musicians did not interact very much, but seemed to occupy parallel planes that occasionally intersected. The rappers and singers moved, for the most part, like rappers and singers—they did not perform ballet. Likewise, the choreography was ballet, often by way of Broadway—there were moments that evoked Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse and a rather explicit, umbrella-waving homage to Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” The simultaneous presence of these very different styles on the same stage underlined the specificities of each vocabulary of movement. The conventions of hip-hop performance--the pacing, strutting, and gesticulation--were framed by contrast with the very different conventions of ballet. In one wonderful moment, Big Boi worked his way purposefully from upstage right to upstage left and back again during a romantic duet danced downstage. His presence was entirely extraneous to the dancing taking place in front of him, yet made perfect sense in the context of the production. This was cultural encounter and collaboration as juxtaposition rather than synthesis.


There were ways in which the deployment of elements in big reflected the heterodox construction of hip-hop itself. Just as hip-hop incorporates live playing and a wide range of recorded sources, sometimes including jazz, classical music, and opera, and layers them one upon another, so big was constructed in layers. The corps de ballet was often choreographed to the beat rather than the singer’s melody or the rapper’s rhythm, replicating the division of labor in the music. At some moments, computerized lighting generated a rhythmic visual pulse constituting yet another track that functioned independently of, yet in synch with, the other things going on.


In big, hip-hop met ballet on ballet’s turf—the event took place at the spectacular Fox Theatre in Atlanta, a venue devoted mostly to musical theatre, mainstream popular music, and dance, and was part of the Atlanta Ballet’s subscription season. But as I have suggested here, the performance itself strategically redefined the stage of the Fox as much as possible as a culturally neutral space in which each form could speak in its own language and acknowledge the other without having to surrender territory to it. These made the moments of intersection all the more poignant, as when a dancer leapt suddenly into Big Boi’s arms, incorporating him into the dance for a moment, or when the Afro-Futurist pop diva Janelle Monáe appeared in a NASA-silver tutu and executed some ballet steps while belting out her song “Sincerely Jane.”


And it must be said that the finale, in which Big Boi and company raised the roof and brought down the house with everyone on stage, was much more like the closing moment of a hip-hop concert than a ballet.

Philip Auslander is a professor at Georgia Tech.

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