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By Cynthia Bond Perry
The sun circles westward, backlighting lithe figures moving against a background of midtown Atlanta rooftops. At Atlanta Ballet’s studio, about 10 dancers swirl, coil, and unfurl through off-balance, angular shapes, rehearsing artistic director John McFall’s The Firebird, a passionate tribute to the Diaghilev era. Dancers are quietly breathless by its end, and the air is charged with electricity.
“That was a really special run,” McFall says afterwards. “At times very sublime and at times there were really explosive emotions.”
Eighty years ago, Atlanta Ballet was founded as the Dorothy Alexander Dance Concert Group, a regional ballet company. Alexander was a strict but inspiring teacher who wanted to spread ballet beyond her hometown of Atlanta. Atlanta Ballet became fully professional in 1967 under the direction of Robert Barnett.
Today, after 15 years under John McFall’s direction, the company continues to bring the joy and beauty of dance to its diverse and changing city. Through education, accessible repertory, and collaborations with Atlanta’s artists, this shared passion resonates throughout the community. At all levels, the company strives to create an open atmosphere that nurtures individual expression and values creative process.
McFall trained in Kansas City, Missouri, with Tatiana Dokoudovska, who founded the Kansas City Ballet. A Ford Foundation scholarship launched McFall’s career with San Francisco Ballet, where he spent 18 years as student, dancer, and choreographer.
McFall then spent three years as a freelance choreographer based in SoHo, in New York, where he attended concerts from Broadway to City Center to countless downtown performances. He began feeling that the real creative voices were found in these tiny loft shows.
“I realized that it’s about your own passion,” McFall says. “It’s about discovering more about yourself, who you are, and how that might relate to other communities. It’s really about process.”
With a mission to engage young people in the arts, McFall became director of BalletMet Columbus. During his eight-year tenure there, he expanded facilities, repertory, audiences, and the affiliated school.
When McFall took Atlanta Ballet’s helm in 1994, the organization had hit hard times. Though artistic standards remained high, school enrollment was down, and a recession had hit hard in 1989. Frustrated by budget restraints, Barnett had resigned a year before his scheduled retirement.
During McFall’s first two years, the company moved into a new building and staged a new Nutcracker. In 1996, the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education opened with Sharon Story as dean.
Like McFall, Story, who had danced with Boston Ballet as well as Atlanta Ballet, took an inclusive approach. “We had an open-door policy to anyone who wanted to dance, and we kept the highest standard possible without turning people off. Ballet is thought of as such an elite art form, which it’s not. Everyone dances.” Today, student enrollment at the school and its two satellite locations has grown from 200 to more than 1,400.
Community ties start here, in outreach programs that bring students to performances, send dance teachers into public schools, and provide scholarships for selected students from the school programs to attend the Atlanta Ballet Centre. About 60 students are on the intensive preprofessional track. Eleven graduates of that program are now full company members.
Balanchine ballets are a staple of the school’s preprofessional training, but company repertory has expanded to include more contemporary works. In recent years, cutting-edge works have given way to more accessible ballets chosen to attract new audiences and much-needed revenue.
McFall has worked closely with Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink, and the two share a common outlook. “We’re trying to build something that brings integrity to the art form and the community,” Pink says. “It’s the balance between artistic aspiration and audience expectation.”
Pink’s emotionally riveting Dracula, informed largely by the late Christopher Gable’s dramatic power and theatricality, is an Atlanta audience favorite. Atlanta Ballet has presented two other Pink ballets as well.
Pink has encouraged McFall to infuse the classics with vivid storytelling and compelling characters. To hold audience attention, story takes priority. Though classic sequences like the Dream Scene and Grand Pas in Don Quixote and other traditional ballets have remained intact, McFall develops each character’s actions as continuous threads in the story line.
Collaborations with popular Atlanta-based musicians have energized the company’s community presence. In 2001, the Indigo Girls sang live during Margo Sappington’s sleek and sexy Shed Your Skin. The next season, Diane Coburn Bruning built the rambunctious Ramblin’ Suite to the folk/bluegrass sounds of the Red Clay Ramblers. And in 2003, Christian Holder’s Trans-cendence united ballet with music of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Choir. McFall recalls how the 80-member gospel choir onstage, contemporary music ensemble, and 50-piece orchestra in the pit flowed with Holder’s free, fluid movement, invoking a sense of common humanity. The message, McFall says, was that through hope and acceptance, Atlanta’s diverse people can overcome differences.
In 2008, choreographer Lauri Stallings teamed with hip hop duo OutKast’s Antwan “Big Boi” Patton in the evening-length multimedia work big. Tapping into the pulse of city neighborhoods, big expressed the aspirations and sorrows of urban life. Atlantans of all walks of life were “dancing in the aisles,” McFall says, and a healthy 10 percent of people who bought single tickets to big became season subscribers.
McFall stresses that such collaborations are primarily about creative process. “You’re all looking into the unknown and experiencing the process in a way that is absolutely fresh, so remarkable, in the moment,” he says. “There’s no syllabus, no historic precedent. You’re just responding to each other every time you’re together, and you’re discovering all this stuff, and you don’t know what the outcome is going be.”
McFall prefers to work with dancers who are comfortable with the unknown, who contribute to the creative process. To foster a non-competitive, supportive environment, there is neither a hierarchy nor a star system. “We just have a group of individuals,” he says. “Each of them is unique and special.”
When British choreographer Christopher Hampson created a new ballet in 2005, he was struck by how tightly knit the company was, their sense of attack toward the movement, and their commitment to realizing his ideas. “Once you tell them what your vision is,” Hampson says, “they’ll move hell and high water to achieve it.”
Coming up in March, Atlanta Ballet continues its 80th-anniversary season, performing Lila York’s Celts and—for the first time outside the National Ballet of Canada—James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons. Next August, Atlanta Ballet moves into new headquarters west of downtown Atlanta.
Atlanta Ballet’s vitality and strength arise from a belief in nurturing the soul of the individual. “It’s about poetry, it’s about spirituality,” McFall says. “It’s about presenting your heart, your imagination to an audience and sharing that with other people.”
Cynthia Bond Perry teaches at Kennesaw State and Brenau Universities and blogs at ArtsCriticATL.com.
Atlanta Ballet’s Christine Winkler & John Welker
With her luxurious lines, Christine Winkler’s bravura onstage has a softness that lets you in. As Kitri in Don Quixote, there’s palpable pleasure in her arabesques, and her tour jetés puff out of nowhere. Responsive to his partner, John Welker’s lean, noble bearing and quiet technical authority serve Basilio’s joyous spontaneity.
Together, the married couple has the approachable, down-to-earth qualities that give Atlanta Ballet its welcoming character. If they’re rehearsing a pas de deux together, they’ll stay afterwards to work on lifts, then finish with a quick kiss.
The two dancers met during their first year as corps members of Ballet West. Welker had trained under John McFall at BalletMet Columbus, and when the young couple heard that McFall was directing Atlanta Ballet, they headed there, eager to dance larger roles and more contemporary styles.
The two immediately snagged leading roles in works ranging from Peter Martins’ neoclassical Ash to Daniel Ezralow’s tennis-shoed Read My Hips.
They joined the company in 1996, and today Winkler and Welker still dance leads. The pair sets the company’s tone and pace, exemplifying Atlanta Ballet’s work ethic and collaborative spirit.
Winkler enjoys the way McFall allows dancers to contribute to his choreography. Sometimes, Welker says, McFall gives suggestions, such as a pathway in space and a certain movement quality. Then he’ll ask a dancer to create a movement phrase that speaks to those parameters. McFall then makes final adjustments to work the new material into his choreography.
“He leaves you a lot of flexibility,” Welker says. “You feel confident that you’re bringing your strengths to the piece.”
Dancers feel safe and comfortable trying new things, since McFall is always encouraging and complimentary, Winkler says.
Working collaboratively benefits guest choreographers too. “They’re the kind of dancers any choreographer would dream of working with,” Darrell Grand Moultrie remarks. “You give them something, and they work on it. When you come back to it, they’ve taken it to the next level.” Moultrie, who is based in New York, continues, “You can bring anything to life because they’re ready to go there with you.” —CBP
Photo of Christine Winkler and John Welker by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet