On a blustery November day in downtown Atlanta, a handful of workers in red T-shirts take to the trees in Woodruff Park to string up Christmas lights. The twinkling strands are barely visible in the afternoon sun, but they offer the tiniest hint of what awaits the space between Peachtree Street and Edgewood Avenue in just a few days.
Woodruff Park's six acres and its surrounding buildings will be bathed in light Sat., Nov. 27, for Luminocity Atlanta's Hinterland. The event's centerpiece is the latest and most ambitious work from Lauri Stallings' gloATL. It also reunites the choreographer with Southern rap icon Big Boi after their 2008 collaboration on the Atlanta Ballet's big. Luminocity founder Kelly Nelson has brought the two together again for Hinterland, a kind of high-tech gypsy carnival. The concept is so encompassing, the spectacle so sprawling that it practically defies classification, much like Stallings herself.
A classically trained ballet dancer, Stallings' visceral contemporary choreography for gloATL beguiled Atlanta audiences during its inaugural 2009-10 season. "You can't categorize someone like her because she's always in motion," says John McFall, the artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet who's known Stallings since the '80s. "That's what's so special. You celebrate the fact that it's always unexpected."
You get the sense in watching Stallings talk and move that she feels everything. As she paces the perimeter of gloATL's windowless, mirrorless rehearsal space in the Woodruff Arts Center, her fingers tap an inaudible tune; her eyes dart back and forth, taking in the organized chaos of dancers whirling around her. At 5-foot-8-inches, Stallings' lean, pale frame is toned from years of dance, and her wavy strawberry hair is an afterthought, usually pulled back loosely from her freckle-specked face.
Stallings made the professional leap from dancer to choreographer after her stint with Chicago's acclaimed Hubbard Street Dance. "I was in Jirí Kylián's ballet — who's the contemporary choreographer of our time — and it was in his ballet that I was like HUH! I don't want to be out here any more!" she laughs. "I was like wow, I thought it might happen in someone else's choreography but not his because it's absolutely perfect, right? So I just knew it was time for me to get off the stage."
Stallings then came to Atlanta in 2005 for a three-year residency as a choreographer at the Atlanta Ballet. Those three years would culminate in the unprecedented big, a booty-bumpin' ballet/hip-hop mashup featuring Big Boi and Janelle Monáe mixed in with Atlanta Ballet dancers. In 2009, Stallings established gloATL, which performed a series of mesmerizing site-specific performances in places such as Lenox Square mall, the streets of Castleberry Hill, and the Woodruff Arts Center lawn.
"I like trusting the public, particularly Atlanta," Stallings says. "I've found them to be underestimated and, here we go, Woodruff Park is a perfect place not to be underestimated."
Hinterland opens gloATL's second season with some serious swagger, reuniting Stallings not only with Big Boi, but also her creative trio from big: costume designer April McCoy, lighting designer Ryan O'Gara and videographer Adam Larsen.
Like all of Stallings' site-specific works for gloATL, the location informed the work in Hinterland. "I spent some time down at the park and [the mosaics were] the first thing that clung to me, got under my skin," she says. "And for some reason I immediately went to a very old place in the world, the Balkans."
Stallings began hearing a soundtrack that eventually became a multicultural mixtape featuring Balkan composer Boris Kovac, indie polka-folk outfit Beirut, and Big Boi performing tracks live from his new album Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. "The music did come first to me and that never happens. Usually it's the language, the nature of it, the feeling of it. This was sounds, sounds just started flushing," she says.
Stallings describes Woodruff's six acres as a series of "energy pockets" they'll fill with vignettes: a 50-foot long dinner table in the middle of the park with Big Boi, aka the Ringmeister, aka Professor Gulag, at its head; a Bavarian-style White Christmas on the wood chips at the park's southern end. "There is a beautiful old fountain that isn't working. It looks like a very large cake to me, and I think Big Boi will look quite nice on top of that cake," laughs Stallings.
Forty-two dancers (the most to date for a gloATL performance) will canvas the park, which will be blanketed in a crazy quilt of projections, as will the surrounding buildings. Tens of thousands of lights will crawl across the Flatiron building and its neighbors, be nestled into costumes, and flicker in the spokes of BMX stunt bikes. A phantasmagorical light parade with three floats and Hinterland's menagerie of performers will make its way up Peachtree Street to Baker Street where Big Boi will return for the finale.
"The sky's the ceiling and we're just creating the sides," said Stallings in a video interview for Luminocity.
"I love the energy [of Woodruff Park] and I feel like it's overly protected — there's a strange hold," she says. "I'm hoping those fingers will release; I'm hoping we won't see so many veins in the hold; I'm hoping we'll see flesh, and a softness. Once we get past November people will be like, 'Oh. OH. OK.'"