A Critic’s Notebook: Tara Lee authors new work for the Atlanta Ballet

Lee discusses her new work for “Modern Choreographic Voices”


Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee is currently in the process of choreographing her fourth work for the company, which has been changing its focus in recent years to present more new works by contemporary choreographers. Her latest piece the authors will appear in a mixed program, Modern Choreographic Voices, at the Cobb Energy Center from March 21-23, also featuring work from Ohad Naharin and Alexei Ratmansky. I visited the Atlanta Ballet studios recently to watch some rehearsal and to chat with Lee afterwards about the challenges of creating a new piece at the same time she’s also preparing to dance in the works of Naharin and Ratmansky.

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As someone who writes for a living, I’m intrigued by the title of your piece: the authors.
It didn’t start off that way. I didn’t know that’s where I was headed in the beginning. Layer by layer it started to define itself. I started a collaboration with a videographer: we had the idea that the video behind the dancers would be showing writing the whole time, nothing you could really read. The idea of this ballet is that when you pan out, you get a different perspective. You see more of what’s happening than when you’re too close to it, especially for relationships. When you’re in a relationship, you often don’t understand it until you step back. An author is the creator or originator of anything. This cast has authored their own story. “Authors” is also the name of a card-game. I thought that’s perfect because this is also a game that they’re playing.

When you’re telling the other dancers what to do, you seem to be very specific about what you want. Do you come into rehearsal each day visualizing exactly what you think the piece should look like, or do you let it evolve in the studio?
It happens in levels. At every stage you know what you want at that time and then when you’re in front of it, sometimes you do change your mind. The dancers’ bodies inform me about what I want so my picture of it evolves everyday a little bit. But in general, I know what I want. I know it when I see it.


Your own work will have its world premiere and you’re also dancing in both of the other pieces on the program. That sounds like it will make for a pretty intense evening.
It is pretty intense. I’ve never had to be this busy before so this is a new experience for me.

Is there a learning curve in being a choreographer that you could articulate? Do you feel like a different choreographer approaching work this time than you did, say, two years ago?
I do. I’m not nervous in the same way that I was. There’s something I feel is guiding it that I’m trusting. I feel very at ease that it’s going to turn out well and that we’re all going to be happy with it. There were more moments of doubt before. I feel more calm. I think that’s just experience, too. The dancers I can trust, they’re amazing artists.

When I see your choreography, there’s something very cinematic about it. I almost always think of movies, especially silent movies. Are you a film buff? Do you think of your work that way at all?
I do. I’m not necessarily a movie head, but I absolutely think that way. I’m glad that you said that. That is in my head a lot: the exchanges, the faces. I want to be interested in who that person is. The most intriguing performers to me are the ones who I would be most interested to meet. You need to see that aura around their face: that’s kind of a movie thing.

When I came in to rehearsal you were lined up with the rest of the dancers rehearsing. A few minutes later you had to change gears and start telling them what to do. Is it hard to change hats like that in a small company? Or is it fun for you?
It’s both. There was a little bit of an identity crisis when I was first choreographing. Now I’m just going with the flow and having fun with it. It’s a little bit insane at times, but it’s as difficult as you make it. I’m enjoying it: it’s been exhausting, but when you are doing something you feel is ‘in the zone’ it’s energizing. I feel like I should be more exhausted, but the work that I’m dancing in is really good too so that’s something that kind of lifts me up ... We have a weird life. At least once a day I step back and say, “This is a weird job.”

The Atlanta Ballet presents Modern Choreographic Voices featuring “Secus” by Ohad Naharin, “Seven Sonatas” by Alexei Ratmansky and the world premiere of “the authors” by Tara Lee from March 21-23 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. For more information, visit the Atlanta Ballet.