Hip-hop meets ballet in Big Boi’s ‘big’ debut
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — As half of the famed hip-hop duo OutKast, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton is known for his bass-booming, chart-topping smash hits. His recording studio in Atlanta is lined with plush velvet, stocked with Courvoisier and has a swing hanging from the ceiling — a place to settle in and do his work.
As a choreographer for the Atlanta Ballet and a dancer for years, Lauri Stallings’ world revolves around pirouettes, cou-de-pieds and battement tendus. The stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theater is her work home.
His only experience with ballet was seeing the “Nutcracker” as a child. Her experience with hip-hop: “None at all.”
But the curtain will be rising Thursday in Atlanta — a hip-hop mecca that is home to Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris, Young Jeezy and Lil Jon — for the first of six performances of a collaboration between Big Boi and the Atlanta Ballet: a work called “big.” Video See Big Boi talk about the unconventional show »
On paper, Big Boi and Stallings couldn’t be more different.
But it is their two styles, from seemingly opposite ends of the artistic spectrum, that both say make the show so innovative. As bass boomed through the ornate, faux-Egyptian halls of the Fox Theater as a ballet dancer was hoisted in the air, the point couldn’t be any clearer. Photo See photos of dancers preparing for their “big” debut »
“It’s definitely one of the funkiest hybrids I’ve ever seen,” Big Boi said.
Big Boi’s contemporary style may seem inherently different from the traditional and classical sounds that normally echo through an Atlanta Ballet performance. But, Stallings said, as a choreographer it’s not a stretch to equate one of hip-hop’s biggest names with some of the most venerated composers who are usually the backdrop for traditional ballets.
“For me [Big Boi’s music] sounds like Shostakovich, Stravinsky a little … just today’s Stravinsky,” Stallings said.
“Big” came about almost matter-of-factly. In an interview at his studio, Big Boi — whose unprepossessing size belies his energy — said the Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director, John McFall, approached him at a fundraising event and proposed a collaboration. Big Boi said he had a split-second of uncertainty about a ballet project, but was intrigued by the prospect and quickly immersed himself in the work.
Stallings said the show is a dream marriage of artistic aesthetics that has been a long time coming — and in this duality of differences, anything goes.
Audience members will be pulled on stage. Dancers will weave their way through the audience. Big Boi and a live band will perform some of his greatest hip-hop collaborations.
But the greatest collaborating may be the pairing created by Stallings and Big Boi when Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” is intertwined with “Morris Brown,” a cut from OutKast’s “Idlewild” soundtrack.
Those contrasts — “physical but sublime, beautiful but ugly, loud but soft,” in Stallings’ words — are exactly the feelings this fusion ballet is intended to evoke, both artists said. Video Watch Stallings explain the fusion of hip-hop and ballet »
“Its very moving, sophisticated, elegant but at the same time it will tear your back off,” Big Boi said.
Collaborations between ballet companies and pop artists are uncommon but not unheard of. The Joffrey Ballet performed a multimedia work with a rock score, “Astarte,” in 1967, an event so novel it made the cover of Time magazine. In recent years, ballets to the tunes of Prince, Elvis Costello and other artists have begun to pop up.
The Joffrey opened the door for the ballet to use new techniques to reach those who may never have attended a ballet otherwise, said Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, a professor of ballet and musical theatre at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
“Although it may seem off the traditional path, it’s certainly in the realm of ballet collaborations,” she said. “I think it’s always a wonderful moment when someone first experiences classical ballet within the context of their life … and [‘big’] seems like the ideal one to do that.”
For some of the dancers of the Atlanta Ballet, the show is a chance to perform alongside one of their idols and deviate from their rigidly classical performances.
“A lot of the ballets in the past have been very structured and very classical,” dancer Courtney Necessary said. “I have a hard time even calling this a ballet — it’s mostly about movement and being very organic, and finding the beat in music and sometimes going against the beat. The stuff we are doing is nothing like what you would think of as classical ballet.”
Big Boi hopes to hype the crowd by debuting his newest single, “Sir Lucious Leftfoot Saves the Day,” as the last song of the night.
Stallings and Big Boi hope the show, which has received growing buzz in the ballet and hip-hop communities, will help bring together a hip-hop crowd that may not have ever chosen to go to a ballet and a classical crowd that might never have heard songs like “Bombs Over Baghdad.”
“You [hope] to open up people’s minds to different avenues that they might not think they can or cannot take,” Big Boi said. “Really the combinations are endless … when you have creative minds and art forms coming together.”
The joining of those forms is a risk Big Boi and Stallings hope will pay off and perhaps unleash a new wave of productions.
“We get to [take] a fresh look of the possibilities of tomorrow,” Stallings said. “You should leave with your senses so wide open that we’re hoping that you experience your life a little different after it.”
If “big” is successful, the show could tour, Big Boi said.
But at the least, he said, he expects the audience to enjoy the work’s energetic spirit.
“If you come in there with your tie on, you might have your bow tie leaning to one side when you leave,” Big Boi said, “because you’re definitely going to move.”