Claudia Schreier’s ‘Nighthawks’ brings jazzy vibes to Atlanta Ballet stage

Set to Marsalis’ dynamic portrait of New York City, “Nighthawks” is Schreier’s homage to the two cities she loves — her native New York and Atlanta, her second home since she became Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer in 2020. In this collaboration, culturally diverse expressions resonate through boldly evocative artwork by Atlanta-based muralist Charity Hamidullah and costume designs by Abigail Dupree-Polston.

Tom West, executive director of Atlanta Ballet, said that the collaboration between Schreier, Hamidullah and Polston stems from the company’s mission to produce high-caliber works that are relevant to Atlanta’s growing and diverse audiences.

“We’re working with diverse choreographers, musical artists and others to advance the art form and open doors for us to experience the world through each other’s eyes,” said West. “This is the power of art — to help us develop empathy, share experiences and develop deeper understanding of each other.”

The impulse to better represent Atlanta’s diverse population has resulted in a vibrant and energized expression of city life.

During a rehearsal break, Schreier said the spark for “Nighthawks” ignited more than a year ago when she and Atlanta Ballet artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin began discussing a new piece to jazz music. Marsalis’ “The Jungle” symphony was a natural fit — Schreier had worked with the composer and other jazz artists for Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2017.

Schreier chose three of the symphony’s six movements because of their depth, energy and variation, she said. Marsalis’ symphonic work fit with her vision of a large ensemble piece that would meld classical and jazz dance genres. Marsalis’ elephant flair expressed the primal element, Schreier said, that’s inherent in surviving in the concrete jungle.

Schreier wanted the designs to show the vibrancy of urban life as well as the growth “and fragmentation of a city’s communities,” she said, “and the ever-shifting living palette that emanates from the cross-pollination of identities and personalities.”

The music called for street-smart clothing and footwear, Schreier said, which informed conversations with Dupree-Polston, a frequent collaborator. They found a kindred spirit in Hamidullah, whose mural art incorporates what they sought — a graphic style that has narrative elements and uses bold color and line to enhance the body.

Hamidullah grew up in Rochester, New York. She began working as a tattoo artist at age 15 and moved to Atlanta in 2011. In 2014, she began shifting toward mural art and other media, and she has since fulfilled commissions from the City of Atlanta, Microsoft and the Urban Advocate, among other groups.

Hamidullah’s work deals with themes of strength and endurance, she said. “It takes a lot to be in a city and to elevate and to grow.”

For “Nighthawks,” Hamidullah created 12 artworks to tell a story of the Atlanta she sees — “the innovators, the diversity, the growth together, the very strong, empowered people,” she said.

“I play with light and darkness,” she added, “because I see that within space, within life, [and] within cities, not only on the buildings, but [also] within people.”

Her forms and patterns flow in and around images of Atlanta people — beautifully sculpted bodies of local Atlanta models photographed by Jamani Chavis. There’s a sense of intimacy among the human figures, Hamidullah said. Colorful lines represent journeys as well as connections between people, she said, “because even though in cities, we live in these separate spaces, we’re all intertwining and dancing with one another on the daily.”

Dupree-Polston then reconfigured Hamidullah’s images onto costumes for dancers, who will be set in motion by Schreier’s choreography. Large panels, hand painted by Hamidullah, will adorn the stage space, as if bringing a cityscape into the theater.

Ideally, the combined effect will be more than the sum of its moving parts — what Dupree-Polston calls “the unique fourth voice that doesn’t exist without those three collaborators.”

Back in the studio, Marsalis’ music drives dancers onward. Fuki Takahashi and Spencer Wetherington clasp hands and swing each other to and fro, adding fast rhythmic footwork, turning leaps and breathless lifts in quick succession.

“It’s a dense, challenging piece,” said Schreier afterward. Marsalis’ rhythmic patterns often change within one section, so dancers’ counts are unusually complex. But dancers are getting into the ebb and flow of Schreier’s more grounded style, which sometimes feels as improvisational as jazz music.

Because dancers come from different backgrounds, some of them take to the new style more readily than others. But, Schreier said, “It’s a rarity to have that much dedication from day one, moving forward and just trusting the process. They’re extremely versatile. They’re game for anything.”

It’s clear that Marsalis’ “The Jungle” has taken the artists down new avenues of dance expression. Similarly, Hamidullah’s artwork has inspired Schreier and Dupree-Polston to expand their palettes of possibilities, all in a spirit of mutual respect and support. “Even though we’re working in our respective disciplines,” said Schreier, “we’re creating something larger than ourselves.”

Presented by Atlanta Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 10-11; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, May 11-12. $26-$149. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-892-3303,

By Cynthia Perry
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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