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The ArtsATL Q&A: John Welker on Atlanta Ballet, Wabi Sabi and life after dance

John Welker and Christine Winkler in "Four Seasons." (Photo by K. Kenney)

Dancer John Welker has spent nearly all his professional career with Atlanta Ballet. He was plucked at the age of 18 from Ballet West in Salt Lake City by John McFall, then in his first months as Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director. Welker came as a package deal with his new bride, Christine Winkler, a ballerina who has also danced here for 18 years.

They not only now have the longest tenure at Atlanta Ballet, but for many they represent its face.

Now 36 and reaching the closing years of his dance career, Welker is looking to stay in the dance world by transitioning into the administrative side of things. Last year he founded Wabi Sabi, Atlanta Ballet’s offshoot outdoor troupe, which made a much-heralded debut at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in September. The troupe will return to the garden Thursday evening with six chamber-size pieces, including three choreographed by dancers from Atlanta Ballet.

Wabi Sabi was conceived as an “off season” endeavor that springs up during the ballet’s downtime in the summer and fall. “We want to dance, and we didn’t have an opportunity to perform, to work on our craft,” Welker says. “A lot of people find work elsewhere out of Atlanta. Or they stay in Atlanta — some go to school, some wait tables. I wanted to do something outside the season, to hire dancers and pay dancers so they can work on what they do.”

All the pieces on Thursday’s program are by fledgling choreographers. Of the three from Atlanta Ballet, the most prominent is Tara Lee, who made a national splash with the world premiere of her “Pavo” last month. Also debuting new work will be Peng-Yu Chen and Jonah Hooper, who also photographed the pictures in the exclusive slide show above.

Also on the bill are new works by Nathan Griswald, a former Atlanta Ballet dancer now with the Ballet Augsburg in Germany; Jimmy Orrante, choreographer with the BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio; and Rachelle Scott, who just graduated from Julliard and will be dancing with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York.

As Wabi Sabi rehearsals opened, Welker sat down with ArtsATL to discuss how Wabi Sabi came to be, his vision for its future and life after dancing.

John Welker and Christine Winkler in “Four Seasons.” (Photo by K. Kenney)

ArtsATL: How did Wabi Sabi come about?

John Welker: I came across the term about eight years ago. There was an article about Wabi Sabi and what it is: the beauty of impermanence, the imperfection and the passing of time and the constant changing of things and finding a way to live with it — to go with the flow and do it in a graceful manner.

It doesn’t mean giving up, it just means embracing the beauty of what’s unique about ourselves and what’s unique about everyone in the natural world.

So I thought, wow, that’s art. In one sense, we’re striving for perfection. But in the other sense, we know we’ll never achieve it. As dancers, we’re really tough on ourselves and really self-critical, to our own detriment in a lot of ways. We don’t celebrate what we do have that’s unique about us. We try to achieve the ideal rather than say, “Hey, I don’t have this and I don’t have that” and be fine with it. And work on what you do have, what makes you unique.

I thought, what a great word for a dance company. And then use the natural environment to enhance what we do on the level of performer to observer. We want to close that gap and be accessible to people. And what better way than the natural world? Atlanta’s a beautiful town. It’s a green, green city. That was one of the things I was excited about when I came here. I wasn’t expecting that. So it also celebrates Atlanta.

When we started to put this together, I originally wanted to call it the Choreographic Chamber Series. Then “Wabi Sabi” came back up and I went, wow, why didn’t I think of this in the first place? It sounds so much better. When you say “Wabi Sabi,” you remember it.

I worked with John McFall in conceiving it and conceptualizing it. He was kind of steering me. I had a couple of people I consulted. Virginia Hepner [an Atlanta Ballet board member who was recently named president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center] was one who really helped steer me to a path that can be performed annually and done on a slim, slim budget.

ArtsATL: Which is possible because you don’t have to worry about sets or production.

Welker: Exactly. You get rid of the theater and you throw off so many of the boundaries and shackles that you place on yourself when you’re in a theater setting. Which in its own right is a beautiful thing, but with Wabi Sabi it’s pointless to do something like that.

We’d been working on a relationship with the Botanical Garden. I approached them and asked if we could do something together. And they said, “ ‘Cocktails in the Garden,’ let’s use that. It’s a great venue and people already come. We can kind of join forces and see what we can make of the evening.” It was such a success. That night, around 1,100 people showed up.

John McFall and Arthur Jacobus (Atlanta Ballet executive director) saw the potential of it. Since then, it’s started to become more of an institution under the umbrella of Atlanta Ballet. They’ve been so supportive of me in the process, guiding me through everything, helping me raise money, writing personal checks. I’ve been floored by it, and by the reception from the dancers. I say, “Look, I can pay you only so much.” And they’re like, “Yeah, we totally want to do it. We don’t care. We just want to dance.”

It’s just really kind of taken off. I think a lot of that has to do with how we conceived it. Literally, the outside world is our stage and our performance opportunities are endless. We just have to seek the relationships, the collaborators who want to be a part of it.

ArtsATL: A cool part of it is your dedication to using Wabi Sabi to showcase new choreographers.

Welker: You know, new talent, young voices, it’s what keeps the art form alive. We need to find new people; we need to nurture the talent out there. Choreographers have so many obstacles getting their work seen. They need dancers, they need studio space, they need a performance, they need a public. It’s super-tough for a young choreographer to provide all that. So we’re providing it for them.

Winkler and Welker in a duet from Lila York’s “Celts.” (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

ArtsATL: How difficult is it to match choreography with geography?

Welker: Last year, I had every choreographer visit the garden and I said, “The garden is your oyster. You tell me where you want to do your piece.” And so it was all over the place [laughs]. We even had one in the fountains. Thankfully, the crowd stuck with us. They followed us from one venue to the next. This year, it’s going to be a little more reined in. There’s the Great Lawn of the garden and then there’s the Rose Garden, which is a little more intimate. I’m trying to keep it to those two stages. It won’t be as spread out, but it’ll still have the same magical backdrop it did last time.

ArtsATL: Is this something you’re looking to do on a grander scale?

Welker: What’s wonderful about it is that once the pieces are set and once we establish our rep, we’re so mobile. So I definitely want to take this on the road. I’m looking to do places outside of Georgia, inside of Georgia. I definitely want this to be a “whole summer” thing, not just something in the spring and fall. We’re building toward that.

ArtsATL: How did you become interested in dance?

Welker (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Welker: My sister definitely was the one. She was a dancer and I was 11 at the time. She was in “Nutcracker” and I saw the shows and it was interesting. She said, “You should try it, I think you’ll like it.”

So I said, “Okay, why not?” Mom signed me up and I went and sure enough, I really enjoyed it. I was still into sports, soccer especially. That was my main focus in the summer. But after a couple of years, I realized: this is really cool. Through my sister, I knew I could make a career of it. That’s when I became serious and started taking every day, with soccer left by the wayside.

ArtsATL: When did you realize you could be good at this?

Welker: They kept bumping me up through the levels at a pretty quick pace. And any guy who shows any kind of talent, they get a lot of encouragement. It’s hard to get guys into dance, the ballet especially. I was very competitive. So what they would do was put me at a level that was beyond me, everyone was better than me. Being the competitive person I am, I worked and I worked and I worked to be just as good as everyone else, if not better.

ArtsATL: How did you get to Atlanta? I know you’d trained with John McFall at BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio.

Welker: John McFall was definitely the one. After school, I went out to Salt Lake City to join Ballet West and I was out there for a year. John got the directorship here in Atlanta and he called me up. He said, “I’d be really interested in you coming out and joining the company.”

I said, “John, that would be great. I’d love to. But there’s another person now. I found a girl and she’s amazing.”

He said, “Great! Bring her too.” [Laughs.]

So we came and took a class and he had the chance to take a good look at us both and said he’d love for us to be here. And we’ve been here ever since.

ArtsATL: Did you ever imagine you’d be here this long?

Welker: Never [laughs]. But perspectives change. I was young at Ballet West; I was 17, a pup. I would see older dancers there who had been at Ballet West for 12 years and think, my gosh, I would never be with a company for 12 years. And Christine would say, “Yeah, I don’t know how they do it.” So here we are: 18 years. Never say never, right?

ArtsATL: You’re taking classes at Kennesaw State and eventually want to get a master’s degree in arts administration. So am I going to come back here in 10 years and find that you’re the artistic director?

Welker: [Laughs.] We’ll see. I kind of have a wait-and-see attitude and see what opportunities come by. But that’s what I would like to do, that’s a goal I have. It’s certainly not something set in stone. It’s obvious we all can’t dance forever, and I know that a college degree will keep doors open for me, keep new opportunities coming my way. I want to be ready for that.

ArtsATL: How much fun is it to step out of your dancer’s shoes and do it from the other side?

Welker: It’s great. I love it. You learn so much simply because you don’t know so much, right [laughs]? You start to really realize it once you step out of your comfort zone. I think what I really love about it is when I see people doing what they love and inspiring other people with that. That’s what it’s all about. It just brings me such satisfaction when I enable people to do that.

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