It’s intermission, and Atlanta Ballet is about to perform Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Gaga-driven “Minus 16” for the first time. Heath Gill stands alone at the front of the stage. He wears a black suit, his hair carrot red against the closed curtains. Confident and nonchalant, hands in his pockets, he looks like a member of the legendary Las Vegas “Rat Pack.” “Or a bouncer,” Gill says with a laugh as he watches the video of his performance several months later.
Gill was in the first cast in “Minus 16,” an honor for any dancer. He performed the opening, 15-minute improvised solo with playful humor, drawing on his background in gymnastics, tap and musical theater as well as his years of ballet training. He threw in a little Charlie Chaplin, a little Bob Fosse and a headstand or two. It was a tour de force.
Ballet dancers are not known for their ability to improvise, but casting Gill in this challenging role was a “no brainer,” says Rachael Osborne, Naharin’s assistant. She flew in from Israel to set the piece for Atlanta Ballet. “Heath has a joyous courage and what feels like a pure love of dance as play, exploring the limits and possibilities of his body and the power of his imagination,” she says. “He is highly coordinated and musical. A pleasure to watch.”
“Minus 16” was one of several career highlights for Gill during the ballet’s 2012-13 season. “A lot of choreographers came in and saw me for what I am and gave me an opportunity to do something great,” he says. David Bintley cast Gill as the naïve and romantic First Seminarian in “Carmina Burana.” Gill portrayed Harker in Michael Pink’s “Dracula,” a role that requires both technical strength and roller-coaster emotion. In the plotless “Requiem for a Rose,” he was an attentive and generous partner. “Last season I definitely felt I took a step forward artistically,” the dancer says. “I got lots of opportunities and was forced to rise to the occasion. That’s how I learn best.”
The first thing you notice about Gill, 24, is his tightly curled red hair, but it’s not the last. Every inch of his body seems engaged. That’s what draws us in. His movement style is big, generous and expansive, and his head and arms are unusually expressive, something many male dancers overlook in favor of dazzling (but surface) technical virtuosity. Most of all, he excels in the dramatic roles. “I am a storyteller,” Gill says. “Even in abstract ballets, I look for the motivation. I also think of contemporary works in terms of physics, the push and pull, cause and effect.”
He is the first to admit that he doesn’t have the perfect body for ballet. His feet could arch more, his legs could be straighter, his classical line more, well, classical. After Gill’s first year in Atlanta Ballet’s fellowship program, Artistic Director John McFall suggested that he might be better off doing contemporary works with another, less classical company. (At that point, “Swan Lake” was still in Atlanta Ballet’s repertoire.) “I am very competitive by nature, so I wasn’t so much upset as determined,” Gill says now. “I thought, I have another year in the fellowship program. I’m going to make them think twice about letting me go.”
The following year, the company changed its programming strategy to focus on more cutting-edge material. “John came back to me in January and said he’d like to keep me here doing these contemporary things,” Gill remembers with a smile.
The classics such as “Swan Lake” and “Giselle” look their best on dancers who have uniform training and who can move as one unit, perfectly aligned. Atlanta Ballet’s new repertoire calls for versatile dancers with varying body types and unique stage personas. Gill fits the bill perfectly. These days, McFall praises him for his work ethic, his daring and fearlessness. “Guest choreographers love him,” McFall says.
Gill grew up in Albion, Illinois, population 2,000, the son of a psychotherapist and a power plant supervisor. As a rambunctious four-year-old, he was turning cartwheels one day in the lobby of the Loker Studio in Wayne City, where his older sister, Heather, was taking a gymnastics class. “I smacked into the door of the studio, making a noise,” Gill says. “The teacher opened the door and invited me in. I was very embarrassed.”
His embarrassment didn’t last. He was in class every week after that, and soon launched into tap and jazz and discovered that he loved to perform and take part in dance competitions. That was in addition to piano lessons and band. (He still plays trumpet.)
Seven years later, his mother suggested that he start ballet classes at another studio, but he balked. He was afraid the friends he’d made playing baseball, basketball and soccer would give him a rough time. He finally relented. His first performance with the academy’s touring company was as Peter in “Peter and the Wolf.” “We toured that thing everywhere,” Gill recalls. “I loved it.”
Two years later, he was cast as Winthrop Paroo in a local production of “The Music Man.” “That’s where I learned how to play a character, instead of just smiling and putting on a show,” he explains. “I loved tapping into someone else’s life for a moment. I still do.”
One of the cast members in the musical had connections to Clara Cravey, principal of the Houston Ballet Ben Stevenson Academy. She encouraged Gill to audition for the company’s summer intensive. Much to his surprise, he was accepted.
“I noticed him right away,” says Cravey, now an associate professor in the University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance. “He was such an artist, such a performer. He stood out onstage.”
The following year, Cravey invited him to join Atlanta Ballet’s summer intensive, where she was teaching. “Atlanta felt like home from the get-go,” Gill says. Cravey became his mentor; he still remembers corrections she gave him during that summer session.
He did three more summer intensives with Atlanta Ballet before being invited to join the pre-professional fellowship program. His father, however, wanted him to go to college: he had already been accepted at the University of Oklahoma. Two weeks and many sleepless nights later, Gill made his choice and moved to Atlanta. His father got on board later. “He said it was cheaper than college,” Gill says with a grin.
A self-diagnosed workaholic, he danced 12 hours a day at Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education and in the daily company class. He worked weekends to pay the rent. “I felt like I was a stray dog and they took me in and trained me,” he says.
It’s now four years since he became a full member of the company, and he is a perfect fit for the rapidly evolving troupe: smart and versatile with an inborn artistry that grows richer every year. The 2013-14 season will include the Southeastern premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s starkly modern “Roméo et Juliette.” Gill is hoping to be cast as Mercutio. “He is a bit spunky, a bit sarcastic. It would be a blast to do.”
Gill and his girlfriend, Jackie Nash, also an Atlanta Ballet dancer, recently moved into a house in East Atlanta and are enjoying domestic life. On Sundays they sleep late, do yard work and cook dinner together — but they don’t talk about dance, he says. On weeknights they put ice packs on their legs and feet and settle in front of the TV; Gill’s favorite show is “Breaking Bad.”
He and some of the guys from the company go camping in the North Georgia mountains every so often, but it’s hard to imagine Gill staying away from dance for long. He wants to remain in the dance world when he retires from performing and is already trying his hand at choreography. This year he created a solo work for Wabi Sabi, the ballet’s dancer-led summer initiative, and designed a flash mob for the Coca-Cola Company.
It’s testament to Atlanta Ballet that dancers such as Gill are given the time to blossom and discover their artistic potential. And while his father would still like for him to attend college one day, let’s hope it’s not any time soon. “There is only one out of many, many dancers who has that special artistry that comes from inside,” says Cravey. “And Heath has that. That’s the special thing about him.”