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Big Boi's Hip-Hop Ballet

David Barasoain

Jim Gates

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Big Boi at work
(David Barasoain)
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Atlanta Ballet's BIG rehearsal
(Tekholm08)

When I was a kid, at Christmas time my parents would drag me to the ballet. As it turns out, I wasn't the only one...

"The first time I saw the ballet actually, it had to have been in the fourth or fourth grade and it had to be the 'Nutcracker,'" says Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, who gained fame as half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop duo, OutKast, best known for the breakout hit "Hey Ya!"

Patton's branching out from pop music -- way out. He will perform in his own ballet as a musician in a new show, "BIG." The Atlanta Ballet reached out to Patton with the idea of merging ballet and hip-hop.

"To put that to dance, to something as calm as a ballet and you get different types of music for them to dance to -- I think long as the beat's there and they can feel the music, that they're really gonna dig it, man," Patton says. "Because it's gonna be electrifying, I can say that."

Both Patton and the Atlanta Ballet have a history of experimentation. The Atlanta Ballet did a dance adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" and another partnership with the Indigo Girls.

Lauri Stallings, the Atlanta Ballet's resident choreographer, first set out to learn all she could about hip-hop. Plus, she listened to every single OutKast song ever released. "OutKast is just a huge engine, and it's a very good car -- it's a Rolls Royce," Stallings says. "I got to go inside that world and discuss with Big what part of the engine we wanted to use."

The first meeting between Patton and Stallings to pick music for the planned ballet was a revelation.

"I broke out my iPod and she was like 'What songs do you want'?" Big Boi says about the meeting. "I started flipping through my catalog and started to play songs. And she was like, 'Oh my God, I want to use that one!' And I was like, 'Really?' And that was 'Kryptonite.'

"She's like, you know, amazing, because she can feel it," Patton says. "And soon as the music hits, she starts breaking out different dance moves and hand moves and making sound effects -- and I was just like 'Okay, cool."

At a recent rehearsal for BIG, Stallings leads a group of male dancers through a routine. She begins to move, sliding a Gene Kelly-like foot to the side and then suddenly twisting her palm, pushing it out and up. The dancers mimic her actions perfectly -- the spins, the slides and kicks. But there is no music, just Lauri making short bursts of sound intermixed with commands: "Tat, tat, tat! Stay! Shoo! Turn!" It's like a secret language she uses to communicate to her dancers.

"Lauri uses a lot of sound effects when she's teaching the choreography," explains Christian Clark, one of the dancers. "It really helps to understand the movement when she does that, and I've sort of found that now all the dancers are doing it even when we're not doing her choreography. We're all making these sounds. Its quite funny actually, but it works!"

Dance is just one part of the challenge of producing BIG for the stage. It's sometimes difficult to coordinate the schedule of a dance company's full season with that of a jet-setting hip-hop celebrity. Then there's the stage production, replete with lights, video projections and Patton's live performance, including backup singers and a DJ. And don't forget the dancers.

A lot could go wrong, but Patton remains optimistic: "You have two different forms of art coming together to make one feature," he says. "You got the distinction and the elegance and the sophistication of the ballet with the funk of me and my band and what we do -- as long as I don't get hit with one of those tutu shoes!"

Stallings also hopes the audience will leave enlightened, as well as entertained -- "so those that are coming that think they're there for hip-hop leave saying 'I'm going to see more dance across the board.' And those that are there for dance say, 'My goodness, why have I not given hip-hop a chance?'"

The six performances of BIG run through Sunday in Atlanta. There is hope that if BIG is a hit, a tour to New York and possibly Las Vegas will follow.

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