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Preview: Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi troupe returns to Atlanta Botanical for a garden party

Christine Winkler, seen here in Twyla Tharp's "Princess and the Goblin," makes her comeback with Wabi Sabi after the birth of her son. (Photo by Kevin Kenney)
Atlanta Ballet's Christine Winkler, seen here in Twyla Tharp's "Princess and the Goblin," makes her comeback with Wabi Sabi after the birth of her son. (Photo by K. Kenney)
Atlanta Ballet’s Christine Winkler, seen here in Twyla Tharp’s “The Princess and the Goblin,” will make her comeback with Wabi Sabi after the birth of her son. (Photo by K. Kenney)

It feels as cold as a walk-in refrigerator in Studio 2 at Atlanta Ballet’s headquarters on the Westside. But after nearly an hour of rehearsal, ballerina Yoomi Kim pauses time and again to raise her black T-shirt up and wipe the sweat off her face.

She is working on the solo piece she’ll perform Thursday evening, August 15, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden with Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi troupe. There will be another performance there on August 22, and Wabi Sabi will also perform Saturday, August 17, at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in North Georgia.

Kim’s dance is based on choreography by Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker — Wabi Sabi’s founder and artistic director — and they’re putting the finishing touches on a performance that’s only a week away. He opens the rehearsal by showing her a series of steps and body movements. “I made this up at 9:30 this morning, so it’s a little foggy,” he says with a laugh as he comes to a stop.

Kim’s piece is one of two that Welker is choreographing for Wabi Sabi’s summer season. The other is for his wife, Christine Winkler, who is making her return to dancing after taking last season off for the birth of their son, Lucas.

Christine Winkler at the High Museum. (Photo by Jason Meek)
Winkler at the High Museum. (Photo by Jason Meek)

Welker says the same premise will inform both pieces, sparked by a commission from the High Museum of Art to create a dance inspired by either its “Girl with a Pearl Earring” or Rashid Johnson exhibitions.

“That was a tough call for me,” says Welker, taking a break before going to a rehearsal in which he dances. “I proposed doing a ‘Portrait in Dance.’ I asked Christine if she’d like to do a solo that is about her. I created the dance as a portrait of her life. She was game; she was trying to get back into shape after Lucas, so it was a great opportunity for her to work and get back into the studio.”

When Winkler, a 19-year veteran and one of Atlanta Ballet’s marquee ballerinas, debuted that solo dance at the High’s “Culture Shock” event last month, her mother sent her flowers with a note that said, “Welcome back to the dance.”

She is making her comeback just four months after giving birth, and it is just as arduous a process for a dancer as it is for a female athlete. “There’s such a change in the body, things you aren’t aware of,” Winkler says. “It takes awhile. It’s hard to get back into shape. Your abdominal core — which is everything for a dancer — you lose.”

She wasn’t planning to return until September, when preparations will begin for the upcoming Atlanta Ballet season. Then came the opportunity to perform a solo dance that her husband had choreographed. “I love dancing,” she says. “The moment I got back into the studio, my spirit was lifted.”

Welker says the return has not been easy for his wife. “We’re professional dancers; we’re pretty harsh on ourselves and our bodies. If we ask our body to do something, we expect it to be there. She’s coming from a harder spot. The body is not responding as quickly as she’d like, so it was very frustrating in the beginning. But she said the other night that she feels the response is coming back. She’s a lot more confident.”

When another planned Wabi Sabi piece fell through at the last minute, Welker decided to use the same premise to create a solo work for Kim, a native of Seoul, South Korea. He interviewed her about her life and built a soundtrack of classical and modern music using the GarageBand application on his computer.

Welker and Kim dance a duet at the botanical gardens. (Photo by Jonah Hooper)
Welker and Kim dance a duet at the Botanical Garden. (Photo by Jonah Hooper)

“He even found a file of Korean street voices that he mixed in, and that was great,” Kim says with a laugh. Welker’s musical track includes the sounds of a loud truck horn and a passing train as the music transforms from a soft violin to hard, modern beats. “The dance is like a mixture of ballet, modern and hip-hop, all [swirling] in my mind,” Kim says.

The outdoor performances in the Botanical Garden’s “Cocktails in the Garden” series have become a staple since Welker founded Wabi Sabi in 2011. Part of the premise was to give the dancers something to do in their off season. But a larger reason was to give young choreographers a place to show their work. Atlanta Ballet dancers Tara Lee, Jonah Hooper and Peng-Yu Chen presented original works last year; this year, in addition to Welker, Lee and Heath Gill will choreograph pieces.

The list of guest choreographers, all New York-based with connections to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, shows that Wabi Sabi may be picking up some national relevance:

* Jennifer Archibald is a graduate of the Alvin Ailey School and is the founder and artistic director of the Arch Dance Company. She is a choreographic fellow at Ailey’s New Directions Choreography Lab, under the direction of Robert Battle.

Gregory Dolbashian also learned dancing at the Ailey School. He is the winner of two choreographic competitions this year, for Ballet Austin and the Northwest Dance Project, and also won Hubbard Street 2’s international competition. Dolbashian’s work has been performed by the Chicago Ballet and other companies across the country.

Rachelle Scott is a company member of the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York City. She studied dance at the Ailey School and graduated from the Juilliard School last year. Her debut choreography piece was performed at Juilliard in the spring of 2012.

View more photos from last year’s performances in the Atlanta Botanical Garden here

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