By Kristi Casey Sanders
“This is not opera. This is not dance. This is not hip-hop. This is not theater. This is a world-premiere production. This is big.”
— Atlanta Ballet Choreographer-in-Residence Lauri Stallings
Two things Atlanta is known for are its innovative Atlanta Ballet world premieres and its hip-hop scene. Even so, bringing the two together is a revolutionary idea. “It was founded and run by [Atlanta Ballet’s] board of directors and community leaders,” big choreographer Lauri Stallings says. “It’s not their generation’s music that’s hip-hop, and there was some hesitancy about it. That’s why it’s so commendable for [Artistic Director] John McFall to have … the courage to think of something even remotely like this.”
Courage and audacity is something the Atlanta Ballet has in spades. In recent seasons, it has created groundbreaking world premieres to the music of the Indigo Girls (Shed Your Skin) and the Red Clay Ramblers (Ramblin’ Suite). After McFall mentioned his desire to bring hip-hop to the ballet, Peach Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Schulte Roth introduced McFall and his dancers to Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and the artists on his Purple Ribbon Entertainment label. For both camps, big was a chance to dramatically subvert expectations, to reach new audiences, and to expose a vein of talent and level of collaboration audiences had yet to experience in Atlanta.
“We talked with Big Boi, and we said, ‘Let’s redefine who we are,'” Stallings recalls. “We had to do this. This is what the music, these dancers and my experience [called for]. It’s all about moving forward all the art forms together to create something unusual. And it all starts with the curiosity of a child.”
Childlike curiosity not only is a theme in the show, it’s what propelled big’s creative process. “As an adolescent in the world of hip-hop, I like not knowing something and … being able to start right from the beginning of something with a clean slate,” Stallings says. For months, she researched the music Big Boi had created on his own and with the Grammy Award-winning group OutKast. Her first step was to create a template score for the work. Then, she and Big Boi started bouncing ideas off each other about what big could be.
“I had an interview with NPR the other day,” Stallings says. “And [the interviewer] said: ‘I’d like to think that you and Big Boi sat down together, and you said, ‘What about this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes! And what about this?’ And, ‘Oh, you’ve heard this?’ And, ‘No, I haven’t.’ And, ‘Oh, I dug this up from 1991.’ ‘Where did you find that? We only performed it once!’
“He said, ‘I’d like to think that all that’s true,'” she continues with a laugh. “And I said, ‘It is all true.'”
In addition to the track that only was performed live once and a song from Big Boi’s new album, big also features music from artists such as Giuseppe Verdi, composer of the operas La traviata, Rigoletto and Aida. “In order to embrace the world of hip-hop as a music genre, as a force that enters us sound-wise and we respond to, in order for the audience to fully be able to digest it for two hours, [we realized] we would have to be able to contrast it with music that was not hip-hop,” Stallings explains.
In a way, the whole show is about contrasts. On stage, Big Boi’s presence is mirrored by the presence of Little Big, a nine-and-a-half-year-old boy. Elements of the stage picture are heavily symbolic, yet there is a solid storyline the audience can follow. Traditionally earth-bound dancers fly. Rain appears inside. Parallel worlds simultaneously exist onstage. Atlanta Ballet’s impeccably trained dancers perform side-by-side with 40 untrained children from the community, as well as Purple Ribbon Entertainment artists such as Sleepy Brown and Konkrete. Tonight, you may watch the work of these artists onstage; tomorrow, one of them may wait on your table in a restaurant or pump your gas at the Shell station down the street. One of the girls in the children’s cast is homeless, Stallings says, and she apologizes when she’s late. All of the people on stage are people who are deeply rooted in this community. And the diversity of the artists and the show’s potential to appeal to diverse audiences is what excites Stallings.
“This work is about looking out in the audience and seeing all those different people sitting out in the audience and experiencing the same journey together,” Stallings says. “We do away with labels, with preconceived notions and come together to experience the now, right now.”
Big may have a life outside this month’s shows at the Fox. “There’s lots of ideas,” Stallings says. “Going to Vegas; being a part of [Big Boi’s] upcoming tour, where one night he performs his new album and the next night he does big.” Regardless of where the show ends up, however, it always will have strong ties to Atlanta.
“What a great city to do it in,” Stallings says. “This is a city that had all those thinkers [like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.], who had all those great ideas based on principles. And those are all glimmers throughout this work.”
Big plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre April 10-13.