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Ray says the Grammy-winning folk duo wasn't sure what to expect when the company first approached them with the idea. "We were just like, 'Of course,' you know?" Ray recalls. "We thought, 'Is this going to be a stretch?' Then we looked at the more orchestral, epic songs we had, that had a lot of things going on and were more dramatic. I just thought it was a really creative idea."
Tom Bell, who covered dance for Creative Loafing for four years, saw both Prince's Billboards show and Shed Your Skin. While he questions whether either production had a narrative cohesion, he appreciates the attempts to move ballet forward.
"I think ballet, like any art, has to risk trying out new things, even if sometimes those things will turn out silly, flashy, unrefined," he says. "Otherwise, it becomes a museum piece art, and who can blame the next generation if that doesn't excite them? Masterworks don't come along often. They don't come along at all if no one is pushing the envelope."
Big hopes to meld the two forms much more closely, with the Purple Ribbon crew working with and around the Atlanta Ballet dancers. In an ironic twist, Purple Ribbon will supply the musicians, while prerecorded classical music will feature Giuseppe Verdi, Thomas Newman, Max Richter and J.S. Bach, among others.
For the Atlanta Ballet dancers, it's not such a stretch to dance to hip-hop. After all, one of its stars, Anne Tyler Harshbarger, is a DJ around town whose Tuesday night "Martini Mix" at Bluepointe is a popular draw. Plenty of the dancers can be found haunting the city's nightclubs, shaking off their classical training to dance music at Hot Lava and Fever.
Nicole Johnson, a 23-year-old dancer, almost couldn't believe her ears when she heard the company might be performing to OutKast's music. An Atlanta native, Johnson attended the DeKalb School of the Arts and came up through the Centre for Dance Education.
I ask her if she listened to OutKast growing up. "Yeah. I mean, everyone has, haven't they? Or I feel like everyone has. But it's been interesting to listen to it now, and I think you look a little deeper into it and find different things in the music. It's definitely a new way of coming back to the music that I've always listened to."
Janelle Monáe grew up in Kansas City. With an addict for a father, she created her own little worlds as an escape valve. She loved music, loved hip-hop. Tupac was her favorite, even if she wasn't into the gangsta lifestyle. ("I did the opposite of what I grew up around," she says.)
She also loved Elvis, Stevie Wonder and Judy Garland. She laughs as she acknowledges, that, being from Kansas, she just had to love The Wizard of Oz. Musical theater – with its own little pretend worlds of story, song and dance – became her favorite form of artistic expression. It also seemed to bring different ethnicities together, and she liked that. "I just felt like I could grow in this environment," she says.
She moved to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, with an eye toward Broadway. She even dabbled in classical music – singing more than listening – and performed the aria "O, Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi for a class. She also stood out in another way.
"I was the only African-American girl in all of my classes," she says.
She quickly realized the only Dorothy she could play in New York wouldn't be in The Wizard of Oz; it could only be in The Wiz, the all-black homage to the musical.
For every role she wanted, Monáe says, "the lead was always, you know, a white female. I was like, 'OK, well, what kind of roles are there for me?' Well, forget this. I want to create my own musical."
Monáe's song "Sincerely Jane," with its haunting lyrics, is a centerpiece of the ballet performance in Atlanta: "The way we live, the way we die, what a tragedy, I'm so terrified. Daydreamers, please wake up, we can't sleep anymore."
The song is an orchestral wonder unto itself, with trumpet and string arrangements moving the song forward, a French horn punctuating her thoughts. When she conceived the song, Monáe decided to draw from her experiences growing up in Kansas. "The lyrics are a letter my mom wrote me," she says.
Inside Studio 1 at the Atlanta Ballet, the song blares from speakers as Monáe continues her attempt to nail down her dance movements.