Five Former Atlanta Ballet Dancers Have Taken Their Careers Into Their Own Hands. Now What?
This past spring, Atlanta gave birth to a brand-new dance company: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. Embracing a do-it-yourself spirit in a city fond of entrepreneurship, its five founding members created Terminus following last year's leadership change at their former home, Atlanta Ballet.
When John McFall announced that he would retire from Atlanta Ballet at the end of the 2015–16 season, after 21 years, a search for the next artistic director began. The search committee included prominent dancers Tara Lee, Christian Clark, Heath Gill and Rachel Van Buskirk. On the short list was John Welker, McFall's protégé and a veteran company member. Welker had founded and spent several years producing Wabi Sabi, Atlanta Ballet's summer company, and the four dancers felt that he would be the ideal choice. When the board named Gennadi Nedvigin the new artistic director instead, Welker chose to retire and focus on finishing his degree at Kennesaw State University while the other four began to mull over a plan B. "We felt a drastic pivot in process and culture," says Welker. "We were also all at a point in our careers where we were recognizing time was short. So we asked ourselves, 'What do we want? How do we make this a positive thing?' "
As a result, Lee, Clark and Van Buskirk chose to leave Atlanta Ballet at the close of the 2016–17 season to start Terminus with Gill and Welker. (Gill was let go.) The small, collaborative troupe has already secured some funding from a private donor and homes at both the Westside Cultural Arts Center (in town) and the Serenbe Institute (south of Atlanta). "All these past relationships started lining up," says Welker, who is the de facto leader. "The work, in a sense, was already done, and so it became a matter of timing."
With a goal of thriving year-round and building up a brand-new audience, TMBT will debut an evening-length work this month at the Westside Cultural Arts Center, choreographed by Lee and Gill. After this inaugural performance, they will perform outdoors at Serenbe in November. The group is looking to perform in venues beyond the traditional proscenium stage. "There are whole generations of people who did not grow up going to the theater, so how do you reach out to this audience?" asks Welker. "There is a whole world of possibility that is untapped, that should have life and will make our art more relevant." And while Atlanta Ballet's repertoire appears to be skewing more classical, Terminus has a mission of bridging the divide between classical ballet and the more conceptual modern dance scene in Atlanta.
As the group coalesces, Welker expects it will remain a company of five core dancers, performing in-house choreography. But there are plans for growth—including expanding the number of dancers and repertoire as their budget grows. Given how auspicious and surprising their start has been, audiences should prepare to expect the unexpected.
I was on my favorite treadmill when it happened.
My best running buddy was on my left. To my right, a total stranger with whom I'd suddenly become competitive. As the 15-person group headed into a two-minute push, the instructor got hyped, and the remix blasting Rihanna's "We Found Love" transitioned to "Smooth Criminal."