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ALA Dance makes debut into Atlanta arts scene

By: Ashley Gibson

Photos credit: Ann Mancuso

How do we respond to overwhelming chaos and grief? How do we learn to adjust and move forward when there is no guarantee that the future is brighter? In his latest artistic endeavor, Atarius Armstrong tackled the cyclical nature of grief in his own way.

Throughout the past year, Armstrong has grappled with the loss of his father and wrestled with racial inequality further heightened by the murder of George Floyd. He channeled the chaos he felt into the formation of Atlanta’s newest movement company, ALA Dance. With a performance at the Fall for Fall Dance Festival already under its wing, ALA Dance premiered its own debut show, titled Prefixed RE:, with three performances July 16-18.

The emotion behind this performance was palpable from start to finish. Vibrant music pulsed through the air with bursts of explosive energy as guests filtered into the space. Dance artists glided regally down the ramp at the right side of the B Complex, each clad in a tight black top and flowing sheer skirt. A clump of dancers flooded the stage at the onset of “Mr. Princess,” crowding around dancer Patsy Collins. The work, carried by a series of sustained lifts and sharp hand gestures, started the show off on a strong note. True to the company’s artistic statement, the movement style proved to be a fusion of contemporary dance, acrobatics, and so much more.

All five dancers loomed along the back of the stage, forming a horizontal line. The dancers tore at their skirts fiercely as they jumped from foot to foot in a series of shallow lunges. There was a newfound duality to each movement. The sheer speed and razor-sharp intention behind the choreography eclipsed those previous softer moments. An internal battle raged onward, as the dancers appeared caught in between, stuck between two realities. With each lunge, the dancers inched forward repetitively until, at last, they stopped along the front of the stage and carried us into the next movement of the work.

“Come Back,” choreographed by guest artist and recent Kennesaw State alumna Dominique Kinsey, brought audience members into a carefully crafted world. Each movement felt like a call to break away and start fresh. The movement vocabulary carried a silky and streamlined air interrupted by sudden claps with arms opening wide to break apart overhead.

The duet between Kaleb Mitchell and Leah Kelly, “1221,” was truly stunning. Seated low on their knees, the two reached out to hold hands as voice clips spoke of the murder of George Floyd and the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Mitchell and Kelly’s hands slid apart as they traced an arc overhead with their eyes. They searched the skies relentlessly, fixated on something unknown circling above them.

When Mitchell fell out of sync, Kelly physically redirected his gaze by taking his head in her hands. He continued in sync with her once more until his head and neck dropped toward Kelly as if from exhaustion. Kelly swooped in, catching him by the side of the face. She then softly cradled him, swinging him from palm to palm as they worked their way up to standing.

The partner work, beautifully trusting and surefooted, stole my breath. It was exceedingly well-rehearsed, and the choreography by Armstrong accentuated the dancers’ skill. Mitchell supported his partner, her legs crossed at her ankles and reaching around his stomach. She flew above him in a prolonged snapshot of sprouting grace and power. She arched her back behind him, releasing her arms to float and articulate through the air.

Atlanta Dance Collective presented a section of “Exhale” prior to its premiere the following weekend July 24-25. This work brought with it a beautiful surrealness. Being the first work after intermission, the sun started to go down during this piece, and the stage lights illuminated the dancers and the space brilliantly. The strobing lights and the color changes during the mini solos were superbly executed. The frantic, pulsing energy of the dancers and the original score by Xavier Lewis shimmered.

In unison, the group shuffled around the stage on their toes with fingers rapidly typing ahead of them. Their heads looked robotically in all different directions as if under some sort of mind control or otherwise distracted from the present. The through-line of this excerpt of “Exhale” was extremely well-crafted. The movement was original and thoroughly compelling alongside the original score. “Exhale” made a great addition to this show.

The final piece by ALA Dance, “wave… or What I Would’ve Liked to Tell You,” shifted like desert sand across the stage. Dancer Patsy Collins set the tone as the other dancers fell into sync, copying her movement a few seconds later. They dropped and rolled rapidly back and forth with a very light connection to the ground. Collins paused and watched them like she was inspecting the group.

This piece grew into a wave of walking and then running from side to side with dancers sporadically breaking off and falling back in line. The dancers built a strong sense of community. Collins and Pritz branched off in a short but powerful duet as Collins crouched down to nestle her face in the vertical space between Pritz’s open palms. The ending scene gave the sense that Collins and the rest of the community were trying to find closure in a situation. The lights faded as a sense of finality and power in community swept the space.

All in all, Prefixed RE: was very refined and polished in a way that made me forget that this was their first show together. It did not feel at all like a startup company. Armstrong clearly brought excellent leadership experience and artistic direction to the production. The works were well-rehearsed, and the ideas were expressed in concise, meaningful methods. ALA Dance leapt into the Atlanta dance community with an enthusiasm that made it clear viewers can expect more high-caliber work from their team in the future.

Ashley holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University, where she performed in works by both Christine Welker and McCree O’Kelley. She currently serves on faculty at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education and Studio Go Dance. Ashley also volunteers for DanceATL and is the chairperson of its writing committee. She is a freelance writer/copy editor in the Atlanta community, contributing to publications such as DanceATL’s Promenade. When she’s not dancing or teaching, she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.

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