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Big Boi does the ballet

Hip-hop star and Atlanta Ballet go big at the Fox



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Like many choreographers, Lauri Stallings speaks in her own language. As she works with her dancers, Stallings punctuates her instructions with "shhh-OOOPs" and "shhhh-UUUs" and "ha-ha-has" to emphasize particular movements. It's a form of shorthand her dancers immediately pick up on. In interpreting Big Boi's music, first with her dancers and then with the audience, Stallings says she hopes to tell his story as that of a journey, what her artistic director John McFall refers to as "an American fable" but in a modern context.

And she can't wait to do it.

"This music feels as if I've been waiting for it for a while, for quite some time," Stallings says. "It's very organic for me to respond to it. The interesting thing is when we can find contrast with it, and that's what I'm interested in. That's also what Big Boi's interested in. Hip-hop music has been responded to in an incredible, energetic way. Now, what we're trying to do is say, 'Hmmm, what's underneath all of that and what's going on right now in the world, 2008? And what's going on in this community of artists, community of people?'"

In Big Boi's music, Stallings has found some of the most intricately produced and forward-thinking hip-hop of its generation. And so dancers will perform to something as traditional as Verdi's La Traviata, followed by Big Boi triumphantly entering the stage with Scar and Sleepy Brown rapping to "Morris Brown" from OutKast's Idlewild soundtrack: "Music makes the world go 'round / Where it goes / Ya just don't know / My heart is like a marching band."

Throughout the show, Big Boi will narrate, comment on, even challenge the story, not unlike the way he raps in his songs.

"OutKast's music is so extraordinarily sophisticated and artistic," Stallings says. "I really don't respond any differently to them then I would to Stravinsky or Shostakovich or Vivaldi. I'm responding exactly the same way."

Contradictions and paradoxes aren't new for Stallings, 39, who turned heads during her five-year stint with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago as a dancer and choreographer before setting out on her own. She often marveled with her audacity, which earned her a "25 to Watch" nod last year in Dance magazine. In Chicago, the magazine notes, she "always looked a little different. Even in a company characterized by strong personalities, she frequently seemed to be marching to her own drummer."

A work like big demands that kind of audacity and willingness to take risks. Someone who noticed Stallings' unique style immediately is Laura Molzahn, a 20-year dance critic for the Chicago Reader (a sister paper of Creative Loafing).

"She was a distinctive dancer just as she is a choreographer," Molzahn says. "She just kind of stood out. As a dancer, she's tall and lanky. That in itself is a little unusual. Some dancers are so tight and precise, but Lauri was a little more freeform. Less controlled, in a way."

Molzahn recalls one particular Stallings work, The Manifests, in which the choreographer tried to convey an inspiration from the waltz dance form. "I had no idea what the title means," she says. "When I watched it, frankly, I didn't see that (inspiration) so much. And I can't remember any specific movements from that piece. But I remember thinking, 'Wow, every piece is different, and it's different from anything else I've seen.' It's full of invention."

Judging from Stallings' previous choreography, one thing is certain: Regardless of whether it holds together, big sure will be fun to watch.

Barry Hughson started his new job as the executive director for the Atlanta Ballet at 8:30 a.m. Monday, March 12, 2007. Two hours later, he learned that the chair of the board of directors, 46-year-old Lisa T. Fair, had died suddenly from a staph infection.

A seven-year figure at the company, Fair was admired for her love of dance as much as for her fiscal discipline. "She was a very bright woman, and a really accomplished leader," says Karen Vereb, president of the board of directors.

At that point, the struggling company was still reeling from McFall's controversial decision the previous summer to scrap the use of a live orchestration to save $400,000. It was a smart move for the bottom line but horrible for public relations.

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