Small- to medium-sized companies based in cities outside dance meccas—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles—are often written off as "regional," or somehow lesser than their big city counterparts. But in recent decades, a few have defied such categorization as they've gained traction on the national and international scene.
So how does a company build an international profile without losing connection to its hometown? We asked the directors of Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Sarasota Ballet to share their strategies.
Seven years ago, a private screening of the popular documentary Ballets Russes sparked a project at the University of Oklahoma: a specialty archive that will preserve historic Ballets Russes treasures and make them available to students and researchers.
In a discussion after that screening, Yvonne Chouteau, a native Oklahoman and former Ballet Russe ballerina who was featured in the film, asked, “What are we going to do with all of our memorabilia?”
Chouteau and her husband, the late Miguel Terekhov (see “In Memoriam”), also a Ballet Russe principal, had founded OU’s dance program in 1963. As with dozens of Ballets Russes artists who settled in the U.S., their efforts to build audiences and train dancers supported the expansion of dance in America.
Chouteau’s question prompted OU School of Dance director Mary Margaret Holt to create the Ballets Russes Archive, a repository for rare materials from three Ballets Russes organizations: Serge Diaghilev’s company, de Basil’s troupe (founded with René Blum), and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Letters went out to former dancers and their family members across North America, seeking everything from contracts, correspondence, and programs to photographs, film footage, and costumes.
Camille Hardy, a former Dance Magazine critic who is now an OU dance history professor, became the project’s principal researcher. To date, about 70 people have contributed materials, with frequent new arrivals.
Many items in OU’s archive do not exist anywhere else. Examples include a scrapbook documenting Chouteau’s career and a series of interviews that include Terekhov detailing the Original Ballet Russe’s five-year tour of South America.
But some materials are deteriorating, and none can be used until they have been restored and catalogued, with finding aids and an interactive database to lead researchers to what they need.
To that end, Hardy joined forces with OU’s School of Library and Information Studies. She received a $100,000 research grant—a coup for dance in a competitive, university-wide applicant pool. The grant funds positions for two graduate assistants in library science and a graduate dance scholar who will assist in the long-term goal of digitizing the entire collection. It’s a true group effort, with input from Mary Cargill, dance reference librarian at Columbia University, and Patricia Rader, cataloger for the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
By June 2013, Hardy expects to have these resources available to OU dance majors and dance history minors, as well as scholars from outside of the university. At that point, she plans to begin digitizing the collection. Eventually, it will be accessible worldwide from any place with an internet connection.
But benefits are already evident. In March, the Dance Heritage Coalition awarded Tara Davis, an OU library science graduate assistant, a fellowship in preservation and archiving. Davis is as fascinated by tour itineraries, rehearsal schedules, and daily correspondence as she is by letters from Tamara Karsavina and Alexandra Danilova.
Striking studio photographs convey the companies’ glamorous image; but the candid snapshots taken backstage or on the beach, Davis says, reveal more personal emotions: “It’s something the dancers are sharing with each other. It makes my imagination run wild, and wonder what it was like behind the scenes.”
Hardy feels that the archive revivifies the Ballets Russes legacy in a region where its tradition is already strong. “It’s about accessibility,” she says. “We have treasures here and we want everybody to have access to them.”
Eugene Collins and Paula Tennyson in Swan Lake. Photo by Maurice Seymour, Courtesy Ron Seymour; from the Margery Beddow Collection.
Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Gretchen Ward Warren believes good dancers possess strong bodies, courageous hearts, and intelligent minds. In class, her calm, steady voice marks time with varied piano melodies, reminding students how bones and muscles move and where to focus when dancing for an audience.
A former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist, Warren served as ballet mistress of American Ballet Theatre II and taught at the University of South Florida for 27 years. She’s written two books: The Art of Teaching Ballet and Classical Ballet Technique. Warren shared her knowledge and passion for teaching with Cynthia Bond Perry last summer at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education.
You began training at age 10 in Princeton, NJ, with Mila Gibbons. How did she influence your teaching? Mila Gibbons had trained in Paris, and she had the most beautiful body for ballet. She had the purest port de bras, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I emphasize the upper body when I teach. Early on, she instilled in me that ballet is a serious art form and that we must practice slowly and methodically, in a physically correct way. Mostly, I was caught up in how beautiful she was. Working to replicate her example was a tremendous inspiration.
Why do you begin class with Thera-Band exercises for the upper body? In their stretch regimens, most students neglect to develop flexibility in their upper back and shoulder joints. If you want to have beautiful port de bras, you should focus equally on the upper and lower body.
In class, you give very specific directions about where the eyes go, along with the port de bras. Why? Ballet is an extroverted art form. We look out to the audience. If you are in a habit of dropping the eyes, your audience never sees them. And then you often drop the chin, which affects the alignment of the spine. But your audience wants to see your eyes. Onstage, under the lights, the audience is nothing but a black void. It’s an art to look as if you’re relating to the audience, and you need to practice that in class. The Russians teach that the eyes always follow the hand, and you look at your hand with affection. It makes the whole body relate. We see the thought behind the gesture.
You’ve said ballet dancers should study modern dance. Why? A lot of contemporary ballet choreography, by Jorma Elo or Nacho Duato for instance, is high-risk work if your body is not trained in modern dance. A good modern teacher will teach you how to get down and up off the floor without banging the bones. And the release in the upper body is so healthy for ballet dancers, who tend to hold tension there. Many modern classes today include handstands and other movements where the upper body supports the body’s weight. This develops necessary strength for contemporary choreography, especially partnering.
You teach class with a model of a skeleton on display. How does an understanding of anatomy enhance training? In ballet, we’re used to looking at the exterior lines that our body forms. But if we understand what’s happening in the joints and muscles, if we think about what happens under the skin, we often do the steps much better technically.
For instance, in an arabesque, the muscles in the center of the back activate to orient the rib cage forward, keeping both sides of the body square to the front, while the muscles in the low back aid the working hip to open. These two counter-twists help you to get that nicely placed arabesque.
Many students are taught to keep their hips square in arabesque. But in that position, it is impossible to lift the leg to the back turned out. In actuality, the hip bone of the supporting leg is more forward than the hip bone of the lifting leg. They’re on a diagonal line. But the upper body—torso, rib cage, and shoulders—should face squarely front. The working hip rotates outward so that you can get a turned-out leg lifted to the back.
What can dancers do to improve their jumps? Jump—a lot! Every jump has a position in the air, and you should know that position before you take off. For instance, in petit jeté, you stretch the legs underneath you in a small second, or in the Balanchine school, you hit the cou-de-pied in the air. You can practice using the barre to help you up into the air and sustain that position for a moment, so your muscles really feel it. This gives your jumps ballon. It looks as if you’re frozen for a moment in the air, defying gravity.
You helped recruit talented dancers from across the country to study at ABT and join ABT II. What qualities in a dancer would you say constitute that talent? After you look at their physical aspects, you look for coordination, flow, and a sense of music coming out of their body when they dance. And then, they need to have a unique quality that draws you in. If you watch any great dancer, it looks like they’re commenting on the choreography. They’re making decisions about where to hold something a little longer, where to push, then where to pause, and what’s the most exciting moment that they want to show. It looks like a conversation with the choreography. That’s the ultimate area of talent—to draw us in, because you are so personally invested in what you’re doing, we’re fascinated watching you do it. We’re drawn to beauty, but not the beauty of a vacuous high-fashion model. It’s an inner beauty that reveals itself when you’re dancing.
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.
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