Breaking news: John McFall, who led Atlanta Ballet to new heights, to retire at season’s end

John McFall (right) with Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
John McFall (right) with Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
John McFall (right) with Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
John McFall (right) with Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

John McFall, who has led Atlanta Ballet into what many consider a “golden era” during his 20 years as the troupe’s artistic director, announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of the upcoming season.

“I’ve had the privilege of leading Atlanta Ballet for more than two decades,” McFall said in a statement released this morning. “It has been an extraordinary experience and adventure. The 2014-15 season was the crown jewel of my tenure artistically. We brought the curtain up on some of the most astounding and exhilarating works the dance world has to offer.”

McFall said the time is right for his retirement. “It is the perfect time to transition and step aside,” he said. “I’m at the peak of my accomplishments with the ballet, and I’m proud of that legacy. It is time for another inspired individual to bring his or her vision to this wonderful company.”

His wife, Paige, has a career opportunity in Amsterdam, and McFall said the family may be moving overseas. “Atlanta Ballet is in my heart, and always will be,” he said.

The ballet’s board of trustees will form a committee to conduct a national and international search for the organization’s next artistic director.

Allen Nelson, the chair of the board of trustees, said McFall has raised the ballet to “world-class” standards. “John has challenged us all to take risks and be adventurous on our journey to create a distinct artistic profile for the company,” Nelson said in a statement. “Family and community have always been paramount to his mission and vision, and those values will remain at the heart of John’s lasting legacy with Atlanta Ballet.”

The company’s dancers were informed of the decision on Tuesday. The dancers were asked not to comment publicly on McFall’s retirement, but one said last night “there are a lot of heavy hearts today.”

McFall is beloved both within and outside the company, and his artistic vision has raised Atlanta Ballet’s national and international profile, including a two-week tour of China in 2013.

There was a telling moment three years ago when David Bintley, artistic director of Britain’s Birmingham Royal Ballet, came to Atlanta to stage his version of Carmina Burana. When asked what made him confident that Atlanta Ballet was up to the task, there was a twinkle in his eye as he replied, “John McFall.”

McFall works with dancer Kiara Felder. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
McFall works with dancer Kiara Felder. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

McFall has said there is a collaborative spirit at Atlanta Ballet that is “extraordinary and unique” and few, if any, of the ballet’s dancers would disagree. But what McFall didn’t say was that he is responsible for that atmosphere.

It’s no accident that McFall was able to lure cutting edge choreographers to Atlanta — from resident choreographer Helen Pickett to the legendary Twyla Tharp to Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo and Gina Patterson. He offers a creative incubator and dancers versatile enough to excel at different styles of dance.

McFall came to Atlanta Ballet in 1994 as only the third artistic director in the company’s history. The oldest ballet company in America, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 by Dorothy Alexander, who remained at the helm until her retirement in 1963.

She was replaced by Robert Barnett, a native of Washington who became a soloist for New York City Ballet under the legendary George Balanchine. He married a fellow dancer, who had danced in Atlanta under the tutelage of Alexander, and Barnett came to Atlanta to join the company. He also taught and choreographed before he became artistic director.

It was a troubled time for Atlanta Ballet when Barnett suddenly resigned in 1994 after burn-out and conflicts with the ballet’s board of directors. In his resignation letter, Barnett chastised the board for the poor working conditions in the company’s Midtown building.

McFall, then 48, was named to replace Barnett later that year. 

He grew up in Kansas City, son of a World War II veteran and his Russian GI bride. McFall’s mother brought him to study ballet with Tatiana Dokoudovska, a Russian-American dancer who had worked with Michel Fokine. Dokoudovska passed Fokine’s influence on to McFall and other young dancers in her company, the Kansas City Civic Ballet. 

McFall received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the San Francisco Ballet; he subsequently joined the company and under Lew Christensen’s artistic direction and Michael Smuin’s guidance, performed and choreographed, spending 18 years at the West Coast institution. 

cm-john-mcfall-colour-bio_5001Erik Bruhn spotted his choreographic talent early on, commissioning McFall to create a work for the National Ballet of Canada: McFall called it Components, set to “Shaker Loops” by John Adams.  

On his retirement from San Francisco Ballet, McFall freelanced. He lived in New York City and saw the great works of the day — everything from the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival to the Paul Taylor Dance Company to Butoh performances in downtown lofts. During this period, in 1986, McFall created The Watchers for Atlanta Ballet. 

That year, McFall became artistic director of BalletMet Columbus. Over the next eight years, he created eight original works for the company, expanded the school and commissioned new works by such emerging choreographers as James Kudelka and Alonzo King. 

According to an article by Doris Hering, a senior editor for Dance Magazine, McFall was asked to resign from BalletMet due to disagreements with a faction of the company’s board of directors. 

Once he came to Atlanta, McFall energized the ballet’s teaching component. He founded the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education in 1996, which is now acknowledged as one of the top 10 dance education facilities in the country. The center has nearly 1,300 students.

McFall also leaves the ballet on much firmer financial footing.

In 2012, the ballet ended its “Choreographing Our Future” capital campaign with $20.7 million, which far exceeded the $14.8 million goal.

The money was used to purchase and renovate Atlanta Ballet’s new state-of-the-art Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre on Marietta Street. The campaign also invested in artistic programming, expansion of the ballet’s endowment and a cash reserve fund. 

Last season was the ballet’s most successful. Atlanta Ballet took in $3.1 million in box office sales, the highest ticket revenue in company history, with a total attendance of almost 72,000 people. Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker — which McFall created and tailored to the Fox Theatre — brought in $2.1 million of that total, breaking its box office record for the second straight year. 

Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker was created by McFall. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker was created by McFall. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

McFall also pushed the ballet forward in terms of artistic vision. Many think the past few years have represented a “golden age” for Atlanta Ballet. 

He choreographed a number of new works, including a production of Peter Pan that was performed in London in 1999 as a centerpiece of the Royal Festival Hall’s Millennium celebration. He also orchestrated several high-profile collaborations between the company and artists who represent the Southeastern region’s unique flavor. Among them are Big Boi of Outkast, Indigo Girls, The Red Clay Ramblers, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Choir and the Michael O’Neal singers.

Atlanta Ballet has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years. In 2011, the company teamed with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to produce Twyla Tharp’s world premiere, The Princess and the Goblin. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette is evidence of McFall’s keen vision — the visually stunning, tightly structured and heartbreaking ballet elevated the company to new heights in technique, acting and musicality.

McFall challenged dancers’ classical chops with works by Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Yuri Possokhov and stretched dancers’ stylistic range with contemporary works by such notable choreographers as Ohad Naharin, Wayne McGregor and Jorma Elo. 

Last season saw the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s innovative and moving Camino Real, based on the Tennessee Williams play. 

Independent filmmaker Adam E. Stone, who has produced two film shorts that features Atlanta Ballet company dancers, said he researched companies all over America and was drawn here because the troupe takes creative risks. “Atlanta Ballet has a reputation for pushing the envelope,” Stone told ArtsATL last month. “Look at Camino Real; how many ballet companies in the U.S. would have attempted that?”

McFall watches Kiara Felder and Heath Gill dance his choreography in Three. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
McFall watches Kiara Felder and Heath Gill dance his choreography in Three. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

McFall’s truest legacy may be in the dancers he recruited and trained, and the loose atmosphere of cooperative collaboration he fosters in the studio. Unlike many other ballet companies, it does not have a star system of “principal dancers” and a “corps de ballet” of lower-level dancers. 

In Three, a piece McFall choreographed last season, for example, he spotlighted some of the company’s younger members as well as aspiring dancers from the ballet’s school.

“There’s something about the idealism that’s churning inside a really young individual,” McFall said at the time. “They’re stepping out into the world, and everything is fresh. It’s in their heart to jump off the cliff and it’s a compelling experience when you give them access to that, because you end up sort of flying off with them.”

McFall empowered his dancers, and it has resonated in the caliber and versatility of their performances.

“The pleasure is that we’ve all known each other for a while now, and these dancers have collaborated with a number of different choreographers — some of the most interesting choreographic voices from all over the world,” McFall told ArtsATL in 2012. “They’re such wonderful collaborators, it’s an adventure when you get into the studio with them. Everything takes flight.”

Tara Lee, in her 20th season and one of the company’s most prominent performers, met McFall when she was dancing with Joffrey II in New York City. He had just taken the job in Atlanta, and went to New York to scout dancers. Lee became one of his first hires in Atlanta. 

“From the very beginning, I felt artistically who I was supposed to be,” Lee told ArtsATL in 2012. “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.”

McFall rehearses dancers in 2007 in his version of Peter Pan. (Photo by Kim Kenney)
McFall rehearses dancers in 2007 in his version of Peter Pan. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

Because of the potential McFall saw in her, Lee now has several acclaimed choreographic pieces under her belt. In 2002, McFall set up a choreography workshop that was attended by only three people; one of them was Lee, who had the opportunity to compose her own piece. “He saw an incomplete version, because we basically presented whatever work we’d gotten done,” she said. “Several months later, he invited me to finish the piece for one of our company shows the next season … He’s been the instigator to really propel me.”

John Welker, beginning his 21st season, has the longest tenure of anyone with McFall. They met when Welker trained under McFall as a teen at BalletMet. After graduation, Welker joined a company in Salt Lake City, Utah. When McFall arrived in Atlanta, he called Welker and asked if he’d like a job.

“That would be great,” Welker responded. “But there’s another person now. I found a girl and she’s amazing.” Welker explained that she was also a dancer in the troupe.

“Great,” McFall replied. “Bring her too.”

Welker and his wife, Christine Winkler, became perhaps the company’s most prominent dancers during McFall’s tenure. Winkler retired at the end of the 2013-14 season, after giving birth to their son, Lucas. The company sent her off with a video tribute and one final performance on the last program of the year.

Welker has expressed aspirations to one day lead Atlanta Ballet. He is studying at Kennesaw State University and plans to pursue a graduate degree in arts administration. For the past five years, Welker has helmed the ballet’s off-shoot summer troupe, Wabi Sabi, and built it into a popular forum to spotlight emerging choreographers. And he credits McFall’s mentoring for the creation, and success, of Wabi Sabi. 

Atlanta Ballet's leadership (left to right behind choreographer Twyla Tharp): board chairman Allen Nelson, executive director Arturo Jacobus and  McFall. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Atlanta Ballet’s leadership (left to right behind choreographer Twyla Tharp): board chairman Allen Nelson, executive director Arturo Jacobus and McFall. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

“I worked with John McFall in conceiving it and conceptualizing it,” Welker told ArtsATL in 2012. “He was kind of steering me. John and Arthur Jacobus (Atlanta Ballet executive director) saw the potential of it. 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.”

Whoever replaces McFall will have a strong legacy to build upon, and a long shadow to escape. 

Three years ago, McFall said one of his primary challenges was fulfilling the ballet’s creative vision through the tough economic times of the past decade. “It can affect your leadership,” he said. “All of a sudden, everybody’s insecure: ‘Well, that might be too ambitious, because you don’t know if you’re going to sell enough tickets.’ There are all these questions.”

According to McFall, Atlanta Ballet’s leadership empowered him to raise the bar. “These ideas that I put on the table, we were able to run with them,” he said. “When you look inside of what your mission is, and the vision that makes it possible, you [ask], ‘Okay, what are we?’ We’re an arts organization. So let’s be an arts organization.”

Cynthia Bond Perry contributed to this report.

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