Cover Story - Atlanta Ballet defies gravity for 80 years
The dance company celebrates as America's longest continuously operating ballet company
A white plume passes between two young dancers in the Atlanta Ballet's rehearsal hall. Company members Christian Clark and Nadia Mara playfully hand the feather back and forth to convey the soaring love of young Tamino and Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute.
Choreographer Mark Godden watches the young dancers as they rehearse the opening show of the Atlanta Ballet's 80th season. Mara tucks the feather under her knee, Clark catches it between neck and shoulder, and the ballerina takes it back and flutters it like a wing. It looks light and flexible enough to be the perfect prop, but Mara notes, “You'd be surprised how hard it can be to make the feather do what you want.”
It's also hard to tell where Tamino and Pamina's budding romance stops, and where Clark and Mara's delight in their craft begins. With Godden as their de facto coach, they strive as hard as any athlete, but clearly enjoy their workout. At one point, Mara tucks up her legs as Clark hoists her onto his back, but the movement doesn't go as planned and Clark takes her on a brief, giggly piggyback ride.
The choreographer lets them have a moment of fun, and then brings them back to the dance. Occasionally Godden stands perfectly still when he works out steps, as if he's doing mathematical calculations, and then mimes the next motions, which looks more like tai chi than dancing. Godden, the former resident choreographer for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, says, “The Atlanta Ballet has a real depth of talent. Whenever I come in to cast a ballet, I hope I have enough choices for a first cast. Here, I come in and find out I have enough for two separate casts.” Godden's choreographed Mozart's Magic Flute before, but says, “These dancers are so wonderful that I'm re-choreographing a lot, to make it personal for them as well.”
Atlanta Ballet dancers don't use props very often, so the plumage of Mozart's Magic Flute is an exception. Something ineffable always passes between people involved with the ballet, whether the choreographers, the dancers or the audience. Where many art forms can be stored on paper, canvas, video or audio discs, ballet seems more fleeting — it lives primarily in the muscle memory of the dancers and the minds of its spectators. At the Atlanta Ballet, the longest continuously operating ballet company in the United States, the torch has been passed down for generations.
John McFall, the company's artistic director since 1994, attributes its staying power partially to its connectedness with the Atlanta community. “Grandmothers or aunts bring young children to see The Nutcracker every year, because they've either seen it or were in it when they were children. It was a rich experience for them: stepping into the studio, putting on the costume, dancing with their colleagues — some their age, some professional dancers — that left a deep impact in their hearts and minds.”
The company has gone through so many changes over eight decades it may not be recognizable from its origins as the Dorothy Alexander Concert Group in 1929. Former dancer Lynda Courts, who served as chair of the Atlanta Ballet's board of directors from 1989 to 1996, says “Dorothy Alexander was trying to build dance in the Southeast and Atlanta to the point where, if dancers really wanted to build careers, they didn't have to move to New York to do it.”
Courts' history with the company goes back to when she was 4 years old and would visit her 7-year-old sister taking lessons at “Miss Dorothy's” Ansley Park home. “My mother and I would usually get there five minutes early and watch the lessons, and Miss Dorothy could see that I could hardly sit still. Occasionally, she'd honor me by letting me join the class for the reverence at the end. She let me start taking lessons at 4, a year earlier than most children.”
Courts remembers Miss Dorothy as a demanding teacher who brought out the best in her students. “She was very strict. You were allowed only three unexcused absences in three years, and we had to sign contracts to that effect, even before the company became professional. But rather than feeling like it was a problem, she inspired you to rise to that standard of accountability. She taught us to work through the difficult to get to the beautiful.”
Alexander also served as a missionary for dance in midcentury Atlanta. “I remember her taking us company dancers to things like garden club meetings, where we'd perform in a big room and talk about the company. She started dance education in public schools. She started a regional dance festival in Atlanta. She reached out in just amazing ways. If you don't reach out and engage the community, you don't survive.” Courts attributes a major part of the company's longevity and depth of talent to its educational programs, with the accredited Centre for Dance Education now the sixth-largest dance school in the country.
Alexander retired in 1961, but had already brought in her successor, the New York City Ballet's Robert Barnett. Barnett took the helm as artistic director the following year. Courts danced in the company for five years while attending Westminster High School, and recalls firsthand the thrill of Barnett's arrival. “It was like the biggest rock star in the world coming to Atlanta. Legendary artistic director George Balanchine actually created the candy cane dance in The Nutcracker for him.” Balanchine gave the Atlanta Ballet permission to be America's first regional company to perform his choreography for The Nutcracker, which Courts danced in her final year.
Under Barnett's leadership, the company attained professional status and changed its name to the Atlanta Ballet in 1967. Astonishingly, the Atlanta Ballet has had only three artistic directors in its 80-year history. Barnett and McFall cultivated the company's national artistic reputation while weathering the periodic funding crises that bedevil most Atlanta arts groups.
Creative Loafing's longtime dance critic Tom Bell says that today, “The Atlanta Ballet seems to work hard to strike a balance between tradition and innovation, and also between fiscal responsibility and risk-taking. They're not out on the bleeding edge of the art, but they do offer stability for their company dancers and opportunities for innovative guest choreographers to put on major productions of their work.”
Bell adds, “I find the Atlanta Ballet dancers to be a bit more athletic or muscular than the average ballet dancer. They're not so much the fragile reeds than you often see in other major ballet companies. You get the sense that they could handle themselves in a fight.”
Probably no show in the company's past decade proved as exciting and innovative as big, a collaboration with Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of OutKast. Simply preparing big and basking in OutKast-level showmanship was a career highlight for Clark. “Everyone in the rehearsals was smiling and had this bubbly energy. The ballet started with all the guys in the company coming out with Big Boi. The music was so loud, and just being there on stage with him was great.”
big provided Mara with one of her most memorable moments in ballet, too. “Christian and I did a pas de deux together with me in a harness, suspended on a rope with my feet barely touching the floor. Christian would pull me in the air, but the rope never brought me down in exactly the same place twice, which made the dance exciting, because you never knew what would be next.”
Clark's and Mara's careers show the ways that the Atlanta Ballet can attract members from around the block or around the world. Clark's a lifelong Atlantan, who took lessons as a boy, worked his way up from trainee to apprentice to company member, and appreciates that he can dance in the same city where his family lives. Mara was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and moved away to study dance at the age of 18, a difficult feat in a culture where children don't leave home until they're married. In the United States, she danced with North Carolina Dance Theatre before getting attention from the Atlanta Ballet, then a contract.
McFall finds that original, contemporary shows like big or The Indigo Girls Project help connect the ballet to the community in ways that shows from the canon don't. “When we collaborate with the Indigo Girls or Red Clay Ramblers or Antwan Patton, it's more about our time, our city, our neighborhood. These collaborations can be very provocative. You're revealing things that have never been revealed before, so you have to trust each other and step into the unknown. You won't know what the show will be until the curtain goes up.”
He also emphasizes the importance of classical shows such as Giselle. “Traditional work is important. It's dance literature. Dance is passed like an apprenticeship, from one dancer to another. The steps can be very complex — there's a pedagogy. It's not something you learn to do from reading a book or watching a video.”
Clark acknowledges the difficulty of working such long hours and maintaining discipline from an early age, but finds that rehearsal amounts to making a specific dance second nature, which allows his body to take over during performances. “When I dance, I'm not thinking, 'Oh God, here comes a pirouette!' When you're onstage, it's about being in the moment. If you're not in the moment, you're cheating yourself.”
It's probably impossible to calculate exactly how many such moments will make up Mozart's Magic Flute, Godden's slightly modernized treatment of the classic opera. Consider the total number of dances in the Atlanta Ballet's 80 year history, and those sublime moments probably approach the infinite. Nevertheless, the white plume will continue to pass from one ballerina to her partner, from one show to its audience, and probably even from one veteran company member to a child playing an attendant to the Sugar Plum Fairy.