20 People to Watch - Lauri Stallings: The Choreographer

How the choreographer who vowed never to live in Atlanta and never start a dance company has helped transform Atlanta’s art scene

In April 2006, a few teenage apprentices at the Atlanta Ballet were walking by a rehearsal studio when they spotted something going on inside that piqued their curiosity. A new choreographer had just arrived, and she was working with some of the principal dancers.

“It was clearly not someone just teaching steps,” recalls Virginia Coleman, one of the apprentices who, like her friends, was fascinated by the way the choreographer was running the room. “It was like a conversation between dancer and creator. They were finding movement. It was something we’d never seen before, and it made us want to be inside.”

The young dancers quietly entered the studio and found an unobtrusive spot to sit and watch. The choreographer continued working with the company members on a set of unusual, propulsive steps. The movements seemed to weave together the classical and the contemporary, utilizing the whole body. The choreographer demonstrated the moves with odd monosyllabic annunciations and sudden exhalations, occasionally exhorting the dancers to soften their bones or visualize becoming a bullet. Suddenly, she stopped the rehearsal, looked over at the apprentices, and asked them what they were doing. “We apologized and told her we only wanted to watch,” Coleman says. “She said, ‘Well, you’re not going to learn anything just sitting there. If you want to learn, get up and dance.’”

Since that afternoon almost six years ago, the visiting choreographer, Lauri Stallings, has become a central catalyst for the Atlanta arts scene, continuing to pique Atlantans’ curiosity and create work that draws in an ever-widening circle of participants, collaborators, and spectators. As choreographer-in-residence at the Atlanta Ballet from 2005-2008, Stallings created inspired contemporary works, perhaps most memorably big, an unprecedented collaboration between the ballet and Atlanta hip-hop artists, including OutKast’s Antwan “Big Boi” Patton. In 2009, after her contract had come to an end, Stallings formed gloATL, a contemporary dance company whose performances typically leave the proscenium stage behind in order to reimagine the city’s public spaces: You may have spotted gloATL dancers embracing in a busy Midtown intersection during a summer downpour, climbing through a sewer overflow facility, dancing at Lenox Square mall, or lining up in a gaggle at the turnstiles of the Lindbergh MARTA Station. In addition to working with gloATL, Stallings is now artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University’s dance department, which is rapidly becoming one of the largest and most significant programs in the Southeast. And her reputation on the international, usually male-dominated dance scene has continued to grow as she zips around the globe to choreograph commissioned works for companies and festivals such as American Ballet Theatre, the Dutch National Ballet Project, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and the Hong Kong International Dance Festival.

Stallings recently was nominated for the American Academy’s Rome Prize, one of the art world’s most prestigious awards, which, though it was created in 1894, has never been given to a choreographer. This month, Stallings, along with gloATL and the Rialto Center for the Arts, is presenting Atlanta’s most ambitious contemporary dance event to date. Off the EDGE will bring an unprecedented number of world-renowned dance companies to the Rialto for a weekend of performances, exchanges with Atlanta-based companies, and public performances. “Lauri is one of the hardest working human beings I’ve ever come across,” says Leslie Gordon, director of the Rialto. “I don’t know if she eats or sleeps.”

Since arriving in Atlanta, Stallings has created unforgettable, inspired work that continually gestures toward embracing, engaging, and energizing the city. It’s surprising, then, to learn that just a few years ago Stallings was resolute: She would never live in Atlanta and never start a dance company.

“They screamed at me for hours.”

Stallings grew up in Gainesville, Fla. Her parents married young, and by their mid-20s had three kids and very little money. “We had no means to go to the mall or be entertained by manufactured, external means,” Stallings says. “We spent all of our time outside exploring the acres of pine forests and sand dunes and lakes around Gainesville. We were always building things. Always finding a location, building something, making a dance in it.”

After a fourth child arrived, dance lessons helped corral the free-roaming Stallings children. “We realized later that dance lessons were affordable babysitting,” she says. “The dance studio is where we grew up.” Stallings studied a broad range of styles at Gainesville’s Pofahl Studios, including ballet, contemporary, and jazz, but was particularly drawn to tap, which, she says, is still what she does best.

It was soon clear that dance meant far more to the Stallings kids than just babysitting. Her talented older brother, Luke, left home early to move to New York, and almost right away he landed plum roles in major Broadway shows. Stallings wanted to follow in his footsteps, but her parents insisted she go to college. At 16, she aced the SATs and won a scholarship to Pittsburgh’s Point Park University. The university’s dance program appealed to her because of its unusual emphasis on jazz. She planned to finish college as quickly as possible and join her brother in New York, dancing on Broadway. But an early mentor at Point Park, Roberto Munoz, who had trained in the rigorous and prestigious world of Cuban ballet, convinced Stallings to pursue a career in classical ballet. Stallings finished her BFA in three years and shortly after graduation joined the Cleveland Ballet.

“I never fit in,” she recalls of those early years in classical ballet. “And for some reason I was always the front swan. They screamed at me for hours to try and get me to look like everyone else. I don’t think I was able to remove those parts of myself. I couldn’t detach them. It was very challenging for the classical choreographers and directors.”

Things improved when she moved to Ballet British Columbia in Vancouver, known for taking on relatively more contemporary work. Stallings thrived. “I didn’t have to try to separate and be something else,” she says. “I began to find what I might be as a moving species.”

Stallings committed to performing more contemporary work, eventually joining Chicago’s renowned Hubbard Street Dance Company in 2000, where she stayed for five seasons, the rest of her performing career. Dancing with Hubbard Street is intense. With 130 performances a year, dancers must constantly be available, working, learning new material, traveling, taking direction from some of the world’s greatest choreographers, and becoming efficient about the whole process. Stallings absorbed it all, also learning about the day-to-day non-dance aspects of running a company. “I was always engaged with the organization,” she says, “not just as a dancer. I was always interested in the relationship of the various components.”

The many injuries that Stallings sustained through the years started to accumulate. Some required treatment and recovery, others went undiagnosed, and others she hid because she didn’t want to miss a show. “Someone else’s ligament and two screws are in my knee,” she says. One day in rehearsal, her femur slipped out of its socket. The stage manager came and pulled it back into place. “I was like, ‘I’m fine. Let’s go back. Start the music again,’ I started my solo again — I can’t believe how foolish this was — and my hip dislocated again,” she says. It took three months for Stallings to recover, and she wore tape around that hip for the rest of her dancing career.

In 2000, Hubbard Street brought the work of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin to the United States for the first time with the piece “Minus 16.” Stallings discovered that Naharin’s system of movement, called Gaga, allowed her to work around her injuries. “The movement philosophies were so helpful for me,” she says of the yoga-like technique that seeks to establish fluidity throughout the body. “Working in the philosophies of Gaga, I was able to begin finding new paths, new channels that up until then had been blocked.”

In 2005, Stallings premiered her first independently choreographed evening-length work, Moody Hollow (the title takes its name from the spot in Georgia where her family met for reunions). The run sold out and was met with standing ovations every night. Moody Hollow made the cover of the Chicago Tribune, and Stallings was named Chicagoan of the Year.

Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall traveled to Chicago just to see the show and was so impressed that he invited Stallings to create a piece with his company. That invitation turned into Stallings’ three-year contract as choreographer-in-residence at the Atlanta Ballet. “You can’t categorize someone like her because she’s always in motion,” McFall told Creative Loafing in 2010. “That’s what’s so special. You celebrate the fact that it’s always unexpected.”

“I guess we’re a company.”

Initially, living in Atlanta never crossed Stallings’ mind. She says Atlanta made her feel “unsettled and uncomfortable.” Her partner Richard Carvlin, former Hubbard Street production manager, was working in New York with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and she lived out the first part of her residency in short stints, mostly in Atlanta hotel rooms as she traveled around the world to fulfill a growing roster of commissioned works in Hong Kong, Germany, New York, and South America.

But in 2008, Stallings began work on big and was introduced to Atlanta’s thriving hip-hop community. “That year I fell in love with the city,” she says. She found herself welcomed into a community of artists. “There’s always this quiet quaking that’s going on with them,” she says. “These are hungry people. They realize there’s always more to do, and there’s always better ways of doing it. And they were some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. I felt like I was part of this huge family. That was a first for me in the city.”

The initial discomfort she felt with the city began to feel more like a nudge to stay and create. “Atlanta doesn’t allow you to experience settling,” she says. “I dug that it made me uncomfortable. Comfort is way overrated. When the residency finished I turned to Rick and I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’”

Stallings had no intention of starting a company. In fact, she’d often told the dancers at the ballet it was something she would never do. “But it slowly started to dawn on me that I wasn’t making work when I was here,” she says. “I was coming here to my terrific yard and all our terrific trees, but I wasn’t responding to the city as an artist.”

Then Susan V. Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre (where Carvlin had begun working as stage operations manager) called and offered Stallings space whenever it was available. With no goal in mind other than the daily work itself, Stallings began rehearsing with a small group. They seldom danced in the same space twice: rehearsal rooms, the Hertz basement theater, the empty Alliance stage, hallways, stairwells, even a bathroom. Often, they went out to the crowded corner of 14th and Peachtree streets at lunchtime and surprised passing office workers. It was only after months of working together that it occurred to anyone that what was happening might need a name. They chose “glo,” a Dutch word that describes “a gathering of people who witness a unique event.”

“Starting a company was never on her to-do list,” says Nicole Johnson, a gloATL dancer. “We just kept dancing, and all of a sudden it was like, ‘I guess we’re a company.’ It’s something that kind of just began unfolding.”

From the beginning, the idea of finding new ways to bring dance to the public was central to the group. “We don’t need to just make another dance,” Stallings says. “I knew Atlanta was asking more from us than that. I thought, ‘We’re asking a whole lot of them. Why don’t we ask more of ourselves?’”

“Just come join us.”

Stallings points out that technically, she’s stayed true to her desire to never start her own company: “I don’t consider glo ‘mine.’ My name’s not anywhere on it. I consider it everybody’s. ... And I don’t think we’re ever going to have the feeling of an institution, with a staff and departments. We simply want to get better at what we do, to support individual artists.”

First up in 2012 for the non-company that is not hers is the non-festival Off the EDGE. “I told Leslie I’d rather be dead than have another dance festival,” says Stallings. Stallings, who is curating the weekend, says she wants the event to be far more than a typical dance festival, with its ticketed affairs for visiting artists who come to town, perform their distinguished, award-winning work and then split. “We don’t need any more visits,” she says. “We need to take ownership of something.” In addition to a ticketed guest artist series, Off the EDGE will initiate comprehensive artist-to-artist exchanges, free public performances by Atlanta-based artists, a conversation series, a weeklong residency with Israeli modern dance legend Rina Schenfeld, youth outreach initiatives, and a visual art exhibition in the Rialto lobby.

As for the rest of 2012, look for glo repurposing the city’s empty swimming pools for dance; choreographing 1- to 4-year-old toddlers in a series of site-specific works; collaborating with National Science Foundation and NASA scientists; creating a “physical installation” on the theme of nonfiction in residency at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center; and presenting a joint fundraising gala with local community arts organization WonderRoot at a nontraditional venue in March.

In April, Rome Prize recipients will be announced. Interestingly, since the prize has never been given in dance, Stallings is being considered under the “Architecture” category. Her proposal posits dance as the contemporary equivalent and successor of architecture, dancers and choreographers as the new catalysts of space and movement. Award recipients are invited to stay in the American Academy’s villa in Rome, Italy, for six to 11 months, but Stallings says if she’s chosen, she hopes she can bring gloATL with her.

At a question and answer session after a gloATL performance at the Goat Farm last year, a young woman raised her hand and asked how she could audition to be in the company. It’s a simple question, not infrequently heard at such Q&A sessions, but elsewhere in the highly specialized, highly selective world of professional dance, it usually sounds as naïve as “How can I join the NBA?” or “How can I star in the next Avatar film?”

“Audition,” Stallings said as if sizing up the word for the first time. “Did anyone here ... audition?” The dancers shook their heads and laughed. The company had simply taken shape in its own morphing, precarious way. “We don’t really have auditions,” Stallings explained. “Just come join us.”