John McFall, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director, likes to mix it up. When we met recently, he was a flurry of energy and color: black-and-white checkered shoes with pink laces, mustard-yellow jeans and a black shirt beneath white hair and ice-blue eyes.
He mixes it up, too, in the company’s “New Choreographic Voices,” coming March 22-24 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The program will showcase three ballets by three noted choreographers: Israel’s Ohad Naharin, Britain’s Christopher Wheeldon and Gina Patterson, an American based in Austin, Texas.
“I love bringing in choreographers from other cultures,” McFall says. “They have a perspective that combines their countries’ ancient histories with what is going on in the moment.”
Naharin’s “Minus 16” fits that bill. A grounded, visceral work, it’s set to a dizzying selection of music including “Hava Nagila,” “Hooray for Hollywood” and Hebrew folk songs interpreted by the rock group the Tractor’s Revenge. There are no toe shoes or tutus in sight.
“Minus 16” is not new to Atlanta — the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed it here in February – but it’s new to Atlanta Ballet and marks the beginning of a three-year, three-work agreement with Naharin. Atlanta Ballet will premiere Naharin’s “Secus” next year; the third work is still under discussion.
“I want to bring the voice of Israeli art and expression to the Southeast,” McFall explains. “Ohad is a lot more than a choreographer. He is the wellspring, the creator of something called Gaga which is not a dance step but a way of living. It’s an attitude. It’s an approach to feeling, responding, expressing and realizing yourself as well as connecting beyond yourself. It’s big.”
With “Minus 16” as the program closer, McFall had one-third of the March bill in place. “I always start with [the idea for] the program in my head,” he explains, “but oftentimes it doesn’t come together quite the way you envision it, so you keep noodling with it. I think about the contrast of the music, the feelings of the ballets, the aesthetic. I think about challenging the dancers. It’s a pretty big puzzle, but at the end of the day it’s about touching the hearts and minds of people.”
He predicts that the world premiere of Patterson’s “I Am” will touch audiences deeply. He invited some of the company’s trustees to watch a rehearsal recently and was amazed at their reaction. “I looked over and saw all these trustees crying,” he says. “They didn’t just have watery eyes, they were sobbing. It’s not often that you get that kind of emotional response.”
In McFall’s view, the appeal of Patterson’s choreography lies her ability to delve deeply into her own feelings, her own identity. “There is something wonderful about how she has embraced being a woman,” he says. “Her work is nimble, fluid and extremely, extraordinarily feminine.”
“I Am” is Patterson’s second work for Atlanta Ballet and was inspired by the writings of Brazilian novelist Paul Coelho. According to the company’s press release, it includes nudity, but McFall declines to elaborate. “I trust Gina,” he says. “Nudity is fine; we are born this way. You could say nudity is an item in this city, but that’s why we have the arts — to stimulate, to be a little provocative.”
The women dance on pointe in both “I Am” and Wheeldon’s “Rush,” the third work on the program, but the ballets are worlds apart aesthetically. “I Am” is set to a collage of ambient 21st-century music and is full of deep curves and spirals, luscious lifts and floor work that express the entanglements of love and longing. In contrast, “Rush” is a precise, technically demanding ballet that cleaves closely to Bohuslav Martinu’s vivacious and highly structured “Sinfonietta La Jolla”.
The company first performed “Rush” in last year’s “New Choreographic Voices.” “It’s a difficult ballet to do,” McFall says, “in part because it’s an ensemble ballet and we are not really an ensemble company. I don’t hire dancers to be part of an ensemble. I hire them because of who they are as individuals. Every once in a while I like to give them an ensemble challenge. It brings something important to who we are.”
He is eager to create long-term relationships with all the choreographers whose works he brings on board. And he likes to think big. “In the beginning I had a pretty ambitious idea about Wheeldon choreographing a full-length ‘La Bohème’ for us,” he says, looking off into the distance. “He threw out some other ideas. I rejected them.” So they agreed on an encore of “Rush.”
You get the feeling that McFall will keep asking Wheeldon, Naharin and Patterson for more. “I am patient,” he says, “but I am also tenacious.” It’s that tenacity, combined with the technical strength and adaptability of his dancers and the support of Executive Director Arturo Jacobus and the company’s board, that have catapulted Atlanta Ballet into a new era of relevance and creativity.
In the midst of it all, McFall stays focused on the basics. “I am here to mentor dancers and teach dancers,” he says. “And to stimulate the community of Atlanta so the arts can enrich people’s lives.”