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By Cynthia Bond Perry
It’s a leap of faith—starting a dance career anywhere, that is. But it’s a common occurrence in Atlanta, where skyscrapers poke up out of the lush forest canopy, and highways carve through foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The country’s second-fastest growing metropolis, this southern city is home base for an increasing number of dancers and choreographers. And they’re building a rich, diverse dance environment on the foundation of strong traditions. From classical ballet to the avant-garde, from jazz to hip hop, from swing to world dance forms, creative artists are weaving a colorful urban tapestry.
Supportive networks have developed, united by a shared passion for dance and a desire to build, collaborate, and create. Established schools and colleges provide excellent training. And for developing choreographers, Atlanta offers room to grow. Less saturated and less competitive than New York, it is a place where choreographers can take risks, define their identities, and build audiences. Both Georgia Tech and Georgia State Universities import top companies to perform. Many businesses support the arts, and teaching opportunities abound. There’s a bustling nightlife and a thriving music scene, yet the city’s natural surroundings offer quiet serenity. Living is less costly than in New York—still, the international dance mecca is just a short flight away.
Decades ago, two ballet companies laid the groundwork for the city’s burgeoning dance community. For 80 years, the Atlanta Ballet has been a leading force in dance. Twenty miles to the northwest in Marietta, the 50-year-old Georgia Ballet gained new impetus in 1997 when former Hamburg Ballet principal artists Gina Hyatt-Mazon and Janusz Mazon joined the artistic staff.
During the past 20 years, younger companies have sprung up. In the city’s Southern Crescent, Gregory Aaron and Nicholas Pacaña co-direct the Atlanta Festival Ballet, where students join professional dancers onstage in shimmering full-length ballet productions. In East Point, former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas II direct Ballethnic Dance Company, offering dancers of all racial backgrounds and body types a chance to study classical ballet. Their style blends ballet with the syncopated rhythms of African dance and other forms. In many parts of town, solid technical training is available through schools with attached preprofessional companies. (See sidebar.)
To the east, in Decatur, the contemporary dance company Several Dancers Core has encouraged creative innovation for 30 years. With an alternate home in Houston, the company works in both cites and also tours. Company founder Sue Schroeder has advocated for dance in Atlanta for years. The troupe produces original choreography as well as cutting-edge pieces by guest choreographers like Beppie Blankert and Polly Motley. In conjunction with Emory University, the company hosts Fieldwork, an extension of New York City’s The Field, where artists show new creations and share feedback.
Dancemaker Lauri Stallings, a 2007 “25 to Watch,” has called Atlanta home for five years—she settled there after three years as Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer. She’s creating a buzz with her site-specific works—rapt, performed last summer at the Woodruff Arts Center, and pour, shown last fall in Castleberry Hill. Stallings’ Atlanta-based company gloATL will present a new full-length work at the DUO Multicultural Arts Center in New York this summer.
In 2003, Pilobolus performers Matt and Emily Kent returned to Atlanta. Like Stallings, the couple has formed a locally based company, PickleShoes. Co-commissioned by Lincoln Center, the group recently collaborated with composer Rob Kapilow on Jabberwocky, which premiered at Alice Tully Hall. And after several years as a creative director with Pilobolus, Matt recently co-created Pilobolus’ first full evening show, Shadowland.
Community-minded artist/educator Celeste Miller integrates movement, text, image, and metaphor in multilayered performances. She’s maintained strong ties with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and recently formed the intergenerational divedance theatre.
Energies of a younger generation continue to feed the flow of ideas. Four years ago, Joanna Brooks brought her Martha Graham–based expertise to found the up-and-coming Brooks & Company Dance. In 2007, Angela Harris founded Dance Canvas, an organization that provides performance venues for select emerging choreographers on the local and national scene. And former New York–based choreographer Tracy Lang, who directs Spelman Dance Theatre (of Spelman College), also directs her own dance company.
Some of the more established companies include Zoetic Dance Ensemble, Gardenhouse Dance, Gathering Wild, and Beacon Dance. The physically integrated Full Radius Dance incorporates wheelchairs into choreography and hosts the annual adjudicated Modern Atlanta Dance Festival.
There’s a strong jazz thrust in town, with the established Ruth Mitchell Dance Theatre in Marietta. Artistic director Lisa A. Toups offers jazz classes, performance opportunities, and a place for choreographers to show their work. On the northeast side of town at Dance 101, Charles “Bubba” Carr teaches both classic Jack Cole and L.A. contemporary styles. Carr’s performing group features his inventive, imaginative choreography. To the north in Roswell, Cherrise Wakeham’s Project 7 Dance Company burns the floor with edgy, explosive L.A. contemporary jazz performances.
Hip hop is booming in Atlanta—and CiCi Kelley, teaching at Gotta Dance Atlanta, brings some of the hottest choreographers from New York and Los Angeles to show new dances in the annual Valentine’s Day benefit, Phazes of Love. Quincy Lamar and Stephen Jones, both dancing professionally in the music industry, also teach in town.
For those who prefer the Lindy Hop, check out the Atlanta Swing Era Dance Association to find out about current classes and jams.
People from all over the world come to live and work in this city, bringing their dances with them. The all-female African music-and-dance ensemble Giwayen Mata, led by Omelika Kuumba, offers weekly classes at Dance 411 Studios. And Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt’s Manga African Dance engages the community and schools in African dancing and drumming. Julie Baggenstoss at flamencoclasses.com offers workshops, lectures, and performances in the Spanish form, and the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company presents some of the many facets of Asian culture. The Atlanta-based ANAMICA (Association for a North American Mosaic of Indian Classical Arts), brings high-quality Indian artists to share their work.
Dance in Atlanta is a fabric of many textures, colors, and layers. Go ahead—take a leap. In one great city, there are worlds to explore.
• Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education
• Buckhead Centre
• Cobb Centre
• Dance 101
• The Studio Atlanta Dance
• Gotta Dance Atlanta
• Dance 411
All of these have professional or preprofessional companies attached.
• Georgia Ballet
• Ballethnic Academy of Dance
• The Georgia Dance Conservatory
• Several Dancers Core
• Lee Harper Studios
• Metropolitan Ballet Theatre
• Tolbert Yilmaz School of Dance
• Gwinnett Ballet Theatre School
• The Dancer’s Studio/Backstage School
• North Atlanta Dance Academy
NonProfit Dance Programs
• Moving in the Spirit (youth development program)
• Good Moves (nonprofit school; outreach; preprofessional and professional companies)
• Agnes Scott College
• Brenau University
• Emory University
• Kennesaw State University
• Spelman College
• University of Georgia
Performing Arts Magnet Schools
• DeKalb School of the Arts
• North Springs Charter High School
• Pebblebrook High School
• Tri-Cities High School (Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Program)
• Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
• Fox Theatre
• Alliance Theatre
• Rialto Center for the Arts
• Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech
• 14th Street Playhouse
• 7 Stages
• Cobb County Civic Center
• Xcel Talent Agency
• Bloc South agencies
Cynthia Bond Perry teaches at Kennesaw State and Brenau Universities and blogs at ArtsCriticATL.com.