The overture of contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho’s ballet “Maa” begins with a sound not often heard in dance and usually kept out of ballet entirely: footsteps. Heavy and clompy but with a determined speed, the sound of Saariaho’s footsteps — recorded in various environments, including water, sand and snow — open the score and operate throughout the piece as a sort of sonic fingerprint, a reminder of the composer’s human physicality. Even when the footsteps recede, this human presence in its physical journey remains a signature, perhaps even a metaphysical signpost towards a more otherworldly journey beyond humanity.
“Maa” is one of the few evening-length pieces by a major contemporary composer created specifically for dance and one of the very few to be titled a “ballet.” Saariaho gained prominence with the premiere of her opera L’amour de loin in 2000, but the 69 year old composer has been working for many years: music for “Maa” (‘earth’ in her native Finnish), one of her first major works, premiered in 1991 at the Finnish National Ballet with choreography by Carolyn Carlson. In 2010, the Miller Theater at Columbia University in New York also produced “Maa,” with choreography by Luca Veggetti.
On September 9-10, 2011, the Atlanta-based dance company gloATL took on a new production of the rarely-performed ballet in Atlanta’s Symphony Hall. gloATL is the creation of Lauri Stallings, a former dancer with Chicago’s renowned modern company Hubbard Street Dance who has quickly garnered a growing international reputation after just five seasons of full-time work as a choreographer. Founded in 2009, gloATL is especially influenced by Ohad Naharin’s gaga system of movement, and it has established a strong Atlanta following in its first two seasons through a series of free outdoor performances.
In gloATL’s “Maa,” the music and choreography often conjoined in exquisite synergy and occasionally in a engaging, sporting competition of sorts. As composed, “Maa” utilizes seven principal dancers, seven musicians and seven sections (The original choreographer Carlson was influenced by numerology at the time; Saariaho has said that the number seven didn’t interest her much but was simply a point of departure).
In the Atlanta production, a lone female dancer seemed to pull and cajole Atlanta Symphony director Robert Spano onto the stage and into place to conduct. Hers was less than a siren call. While the conductor seemed in a dream state, the dancer’s movement was bird- or insect-like and otherworldly, with the conductor compelled in a trance rather than passion.
The able musicians of Atlanta-based Sonic Generator slowly assembled, usually remaining seated at stage right but occasionally interacting with the dancers. The piece features some unconventional textural layering and unusual use of instruments: a flautist seemed almost to breathe whispered words into her instrument; a violinist crossed to stage center, and plucking her violin unleashed waves of white noise, while the sound of her bow uncharacteristically gripping the strings were manipulated through a computer, echoing and reverbing during an extended solo. The instruments were made much more present through such digital manipulation, especially the physicality of sound at high sampling rate and its relationship to movement, its existence as the result of human movement, was brought to the fore through such use and manipulation. Challenging for dance, the piece seemed to have a textured pulse more than any regular specific rhythm. The soundscape often suggested (or even literally used sound files of) birds, waves, insects, lapping water, whispering, breathing.
The pace of the phrasing of movement was likewise varied and organic. Stallings employs the use of the full body in her work: larger movements, such as a sudden lunge, are often detailed or rounded out with smaller rotations and echoes in unexpected places: the neck or wrist or face. The use of the dancers’ hands in shifting, protective or prayerful, often defensive or anxious, gestures was a suggestive element that was woven throughout the show. Although “Maa” has no specific narrative, the work seemed to explore boundaries and the effort and effect of crossing them: After exiting the stage during an interlude, conductor Robert Spano crossed it and reached out towards a harpist placed in the audience as if possessed, as dancers restrained him; dancer Nicole Johnson climbed down into the orchestra pit for a section titled “Windows”; half the stage was covered in grass; and the audience itself surrounded the dancers in 360 degree seating in the round, with much of the audience placed on stage around the dancers.
Elements of the show were brought on in an organic, often gradual way: Dancers and musicians entered individually and accumulated slowly, and they exited together, even in each other’s arms. One of the most interesting elements was the use of student dancers from the nearby dance program at Kennesaw State University, for an added “Physical Pause” in the music midway through the show. Silent through most of the opening sections, Spano’s turned to them and activated them by his conducting, as the black-suited dancers at the back of the stage suddenly became a thunderous, black-suited presence.
The over-arching tone at gloATL’s signature outdoor public dance events has typically been invitational, communal, gentle, and celebratory. It was surprising then to find the group so capable of exploring the fiercely individualistic, mysterious world of Saariaho’s “Maa.”