The past few weeks have been a blur for Atlanta Ballet’s Tara Lee.
There are daily rehearsals for a world premiere by choreographer Helen Pickett, called “Prayer of Touch,” in which Lee has a leading role. Then, after that, there’s a second daily rehearsal for yet another world premiere, “Pavo,” choreographed by … Tara Lee.
At 16 years, Lee is the third-longest-tenured dancer in the company and was one of the first recruited by John McFall when he became artistic director in 1994. She was born in Connecticut and began to dance at the age of six. She joined the prestigious Joffrey II company in New York two months after graduating from high school and came to Atlanta two years later.
Lee — whom Pickett describes as “sensually invested” in her dance — is one of Atlanta Ballet’s most prominent dancers. “I love her devotion and I love how her brain works,” says Pickett. “She’s a ballerina who’s danced for years. I love working with seasoned dancers; they fall into the detail.”
Lee’s choreographic debut came in 2003 with “Sixteen String,” which grew out of an Atlanta Ballet choreographers’ workshop. She followed that up with “Poem” in 2004, a piece later performed by the New Orleans Ballet Theatre. She has also had two commissions from the Emory Dance Company.
Eight years after her last piece for Atlanta Ballet, Lee returns with “Pavo” as part of “New Choreographic Voices,” which will run May 18-20 on the Alliance Stage at the Woodruff Arts Center.
In the first of a two-part interview with ArtsAtL Deputy Editor Scott Freeman, Lee talks about the show that made her fall in love with dance, the challenges of standing on her toes, and how she persuaded her parents to let her become a professional dancer. There’s also a slide show of photographs, many never before seen, shot by Atlanta Ballet’s official photographer, Charlie McCullers.
ArtsATL: You’re double-dipping in this production; you’re not only dancing, you’ve choreographed a piece. I wear two hats, writing and editing. They use different parts of the brain, and whenever I have to suddenly switch from one to the other, it’s kind of like mental whiplash. Do you feel that?
Tara Lee: You know. Yes. That’s a good analogy, whiplash. I actually threw my neck out two days ago [laughs]. I’m so grateful to the staff here and to the choreographer, Helen Pickett, because they’ve been very understanding about the situation and accommodating me.
The first two weeks we were in rehearsal for my piece, I got two weeks exclusively wearing the choreographer’s hat. They didn’t have to do that. Helen was very understanding about it, too. She knew what this means to me as a fledgling choreographer and how much it inundates your world. She even gave me the option to bow out of her piece if I felt it was too overwhelming.
She let me out of her rehearsals for two weeks so I could really concentrate during the initial creative process, and that was very helpful. Then I started to overlap the rehearsals as time went on. It’s been crazy. I fall asleep every night with all my clothes on and the lights on without brushing my teeth [laughs]. It’s that kind of exhaustion. But I love it at the same time. You feel like you’re being used up in the best way possible.
Probably the hardest thing about transitioning between being a dancer and being a choreographer within an hour is not necessarily the mental switch but actually the physical one. When you have to get ready to dance and you’ve been sitting around staring at your schedule or your music, you have to be careful to be ready physically. In terms of mental state, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. Whatever role I play, we’re part of a team putting together something. It’s a slightly different perspective, but you’re still part of a collaboration and that collective creativity.
Sometimes that makes it easier because when you understand both sides of it, you can be a more effective player for both. I’m sure you find that.
ArtsATL: Right. I try to emulate the editors I liked as opposed to the ones I didn’t.
Lee: Exactly. And also to be the kind of writer that you would like to edit. I’m starting to learn that. I want to be the kind of dancer that I enjoy working with in the studio, and maybe I wasn’t doing that. Now I can really understand the side where you’re trying to put something together. You really want to be with the artists who are in there with you and really enthusiastic about the work and focused. And who come with positive energy.
ArtsATL: Is it true your mother put you in dance class to break you of your shyness?
Lee: I was the kind of kid, if we were ever put into an environment outside the home where there’d be strangers or even friends of the family, I was the one always hanging out with the grown-ups or sitting on my mom’s lap or tugging on her skirt. I would never want to go out and play with the other kids. I was excruciatingly shy.
Part of me did want to start dance, but I didn’t like the idea of being in a studio with a lot of strangers. So my mother started me with classes. The first day I didn’t even want to come out of the dressing room. But soon after, I took to it. Then I scared my parents because I started getting serious after a couple of years, and the teachers wanted me to get more serious. Then they reversed their opinion: “No, wait a second [laughs]. We’re not sure this was a good idea.”
ArtsATL: When did you realize you had a gift for this?
Lee: It was probably by the time I was nine or 10. I saw the attention I was getting from the teachers, and being pushed in a way the other girls weren’t. And maybe even knowing that early that I was progressing fairly quickly, that I had a connection to it and a knack for it.
ArtsATL: Did it just come naturally, the bond with dancing?
Lee: I think there must have been a certain innate connection. I was brought up with music since I was a baby, because my mom’s a voice and music teacher. She brought my brother and me into the world of music since we were babies. I was taught piano by her since I was four. So there was a strong connection to music, which translated itself to dance.
ArtsATL: You already had a sense of musical time.
ArtsATL: What was the first ballet you saw?
Lee: “Coppelia.” I saw the Nutmeg Ballet in Connecticut and I remember sitting in the balcony. I must have been seven or eight. I remember the girl who was playing the dancing Swanhilda, the lead. She was dancing with a very bright smile on her face and would kind of look up towards the balcony. I remember feeling a moment of connection to her. I still remember that, yeah. I thought she was so beautiful.
ArtsATL: I have to confess that I know nothing about dance. A few years ago, Charlie McCullers did this beautiful photo essay on the ballet for Atlanta magazine and I wrote the text for it. A few months later, the ballet did the show with the Indigo Girls, I went to a couple of rehearsals and just thought, wow, this is so cool.
Lee: I love that. I love that people have that response to it almost immediately. It makes me realize we just have to get people in there to see us one or two times. It’s a pretty fascinating art that we’re involved in, and people get captivated right away.
ArtsATL: So this leads to my “I don’t know anything about dancing” question: how do you stand on your toes?
Lee: [Laughs.] That’s a good question. I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out [laughs]. I still haven’t mastered it. They don’t let you put pointe shoes on until several years of formal training to develop the necessary foot strength. Actually, standing on your toes is not the challenge — it’s getting on and getting off and maneuvering yourself. The first time you stand in pointe shoes when you’re a little girl, it’s a cool feeling. I remember rising up for the first time with my teacher’s hands to see how the pointe shoes fit. And I thought, “Oh, that’s not that hard [laughs]. I can stand on my toes, it’s not that big of a deal.” The challenge comes after that [laughs].
It’s a constant love-hate relationship with the ballerina and the pointe-shoe thing, because it affords us so much freedom and mobility and we can defy gravity. But until the day you retire, it’s not easy figuring out how to master the shoe. Every choreographer who comes in challenges us in a different way with the shoe, if they use shoes, and trying to push the envelope about what we can do, breaking the laws of physics you sometimes feel like. I find it’s a constant challenge.
ArtsATL: Charlie showed me a series of photographs he did of the feet of ballerinas, and they seemed just amazingly strong. Sometimes it was almost like looking at a hand.
Lee: Absolutely. That’s what the ballerina shoots for, to have as much expressiveness in the foot as the hand. That’s the ideal, to have that mobility, that strength and that kind of communication through your feet. It’s not easy to have strength and flexibility. And as a result, we get some ugly, mangled feet [laughs]. It’s like the “before” pictures on a podiatrist’s poster, just gross [laughs]. I, in particular, have famously deformed feet. But it’s kind of cool. It’s because of what we do, so we can be proud of it.
ArtsATL: When you graduated from high school, you reached a crossroads: college or dance You chose dance.
Lee: It was a hard decision, and I’d felt that decision coming since I was 13. My ballet teachers had told me and every time we had a parent-teacher meeting, they would make it very clear that could be my path. They encouraged me to follow it. My parents come from a pretty academic background, and the Asian culture also, and they really championed academia. I went to a prep school and was all about getting into a great college. High school was a back and forth. To the point that in my sophomore year, I almost gave up dance because I felt pressure from the school side of it and to be a part of that culture. Socially, too, you’re doing something outside the school, so that’s hard.
Junior year came and that’s when you’re supposed to apply to all these schools. I applied to a lot of schools, thinking I was planting my seeds for that, still not sure of what I was going to do. It came time to decide which school to go to, and my parents were all for it. I’d been accepted to Tufts University in Boston. I remember standing in the kitchen, it finally came down to where we had to kind of argue about it [laughs].
I said, “You have to give me the chance to try the dancing thing.” I’d decided to defer; you have a year before you have to attend, so I basically bought myself a year’s time to get a contract to dance with a ballet company. So I said, “Give me a year. If I get a contract to dance professionally, you’ll let me do it. If not, I will go to school.” So they let me do that and a couple of months later, I got into Joffrey II. So [laughs], they lost the bet.
ArtsATL: How did you meet John McFall?
Lee: I met him in New York City during my second year with Joffrey II. He came and watched one of our ballet classes. He’d just taken over the directorship of Atlanta Ballet. He was scouting a little bit, and he offered me a contract. I was so young and naïve, I didn’t even know how much of a good fortune that was. I was a New Yorker and I was going to Atlanta? I don’t know. I knew Atlanta Ballet had a reputation and it was a good one, but I was thinking: “that’s living in the South.” I decided to try it for a year [laughs]. It was a wonderful first year. I was given a lot of opportunities right away and it felt right. I felt very confident to stay for a second year, and then it wound up being my home.
ArtsATL: What made it feel so right for you?
Lee: From the very beginning, I felt artistically who I was supposed to be. That first year John brought in this really diverse repertoire for us to dance. I was so amazed by what we were doing, and I was so excited by the energy he was bringing in. He had this vision for the company and it was very exhilarating. And I bonded very quickly with the dancers, too. We became tight quickly.
ArtsATL: What was your first leading role?
Lee: Actually, the very first year I was in the company, the very first show of the season, we did a triple bill. It was three pieces, and one of the pieces was called “Read My Hips” [by Daniel Ezralow]. It was a very contemporary piece, and I got to do the lead role in that. When you’re young and don’t know too much, you kind of feel like, “Of course I should be in the lead [laughs]. Now, looking back, I was given a huge opportunity my first couple of months with the company. I got to do this cool part. That was a big deal for me, being such a young buck [laughs].