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Essay: One dancer’s loving tribute to the Zen and artful life of Atlanta Ballet’s John McFall

Alessa Rogers, left, watches as John McFall is honored during December's Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
Alessa Rogers, left, watches as John McFall is honored during December's Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

(Editor’s note: Atlanta Ballet company dancer Alessa Rogers earned her stripes in 2012 when she was noticed by legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp during rehearsals and plucked into the lead role of Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin. On the heels of that role, Rogers was chosen to star in the ballet’s staging of Roméo et Juliette in 2014, a much-acclaimed performance that she reprised last year.

Now in her eighth season with the company, Rogers is also a contributing writer for 4dancers.org, a website for dancers and the dance community. She wrote this moving tribute to retiring Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall in the form of an open letter. The ballet’s final performance of the season, MAYhem — running this weekend at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre — is dedicated to McFall.)

Dear John,

You are stepping down as artistic director of Atlanta Ballet this month after 21 years. How does one describe what your tenure accomplished? How does one distill such a career?

I could talk about the numbers — how the budget has nearly tripled since you arrived in 1994, or the 1,200 students enrolled in the school. I could talk about how Atlanta Ballet has transformed in your two decades from a regional dance troupe to a world-class institution. I could talk about the exciting collaborations — Big Boi from Outkast, the Indigo Girls. Or about the world premieres — Twyla Tharp’s first full length ballet, Helen Pickett’s Camino Real.

Rogers is in her 10th season with the ballet, her 8th as a company dancer.
Rogers is in her 10th season with the ballet, her 8th as a company dancer.

I could talk about the tour to China, the opening of a beautiful new building, your own choreography including the record-breaking Nutcracker. I could talk about the cutting-edge choreographers like Ohad Naharin, Alexander Ekman and Jorma Elo that you convinced out of a sheer doggedness and passion for your dancers to come to a city in the Southeast and bring their work to us.

These things are astounding, valid and commendable. But you know all these things already and besides, this letter isn’t about what you’ve done for Atlanta Ballet. It’s what you’ve done for me, for your dancers. So I’d rather talk about the joy.

See, John, every day over the past 10 years I’ve walked through the doors of Atlanta Ballet, brimming with excitement about the day ahead, overflowing with exuberance that I get to work here. It’s been the greatest joy of my life to come to work every day at Atlanta Ballet, doing a job I love with people who inspire me, and the greatest honor to say I am one of John McFall’s dancers. It’s not to say every day has been easy. I don’t think any day was easy. But every day was worth it. Every day brought such a precious, exquisite happiness.

You have to know something about the wider culture of dance to understand that there is something special going on at Atlanta Ballet. Ballet is a notoriously competitive and unhealthy profession, rife with horror stories and stereotypes. But not here. Here we are each other’s greatest fans. It is ingrained in us to be that way from the artistic staff down to the 20-year veterans to the new dancers and on down to the students.

McFall has taken Atlanta Ballet to new heights.
John McFall

I don’t think people who aren’t in the dance world understand how rare this is, this thing you’ve cultivated here. But it’s no accident. You care about how the addition or subtraction of one dancer will change the dynamic for the others. You know that what goes on in the studio profoundly affects our quality of life. You take time hiring dancers, but once we’re here we tend to stay. And we genuinely love each other. This family you’ve created is what suffuses my job with so much joy.

Some people might say, well that’s nice but it has no bearing on the product you put on stage. I say, on the contrary, it’s what makes Atlanta Ballet work — I want to do my best because 23 of my best friends are on-stage next to me and I know they depend on me and support me. I am a better dancer because I am in this atmosphere than I would be if I were in any other company in the world. A dancer — anyone — needs a healthy place to grow and someone to believe in them. The lightness and laughter and love in our studio isn’t seen at a whole lot of other companies in the world. When we go on stage, we can be the fearless risk-takers we are known as. You give us the freedom and trust to be that way, and the audience responds to that.

You once said that you didn’t want lost dancers. We are not lost because you found us. Each dancer at Atlanta Ballet might not have gotten a chance at very many other places. Not because we are unworthy. We just might not fit the cookie-cutter ballet mold quite right. You said to hell with that — if you have fire and you can move and you are hungry and you are kind — there is a place for you here.

You saw who we are as people, and who we could become, and knew that was enough. We have created a company here that international choreographers consistently want to work with, who say time and time again that working here was the most special experience of their whole globetrotting careers. That speaks to you, your vision, and what you’ve created.

3b6bab6e685444b9cd7e686db2e99856You saw something in each of us that I frankly don’t know if many other people would. You saw the diamond in the rough, and you didn’t chip and chip and chip away until you wore us down to find it. No. You stepped back. You let us do the chipping. You empowered us with your unwavering faith in us, without pressure to be or become before we were ready. So we could find ourselves in our own time.

Sometimes all a dancer/artist/person needs in life is a chance. You gave chances. Sometimes it took a couple of years for your risk to pay off, but you relished being proven wrong by a dancer and never treated us as expendable. I could become the artist I am because you held a space for me to be the person that I am. You never wanted us to apologize for that, or to become small. I am comfortable being who I am, where I am, in a way I don’t think many dancers ever get the chance to be.

Anyone who meets you knows immediately they have met no ordinary person. Whether it’s your crazy shoes, your Midwestern drawl, your ribald sense of humor and mischievous gleam in your eyes, or your random tangents and huge vocabulary (one former dancer kept a thesaurus in her locker for after rehearsals with you), you were always entertaining and always teaching.

I learned how to roll through my pointe shoes from you, but I also learned that cardinals don’t migrate more than a mile from where they are born. It was important to you that your dancers were aware of life outside the studio. You supported our outside endeavors whether it was going to school, traveling or organizing our own shows because if our role is to be authentic, we must bring whatever perspective we have outside the studio onto the stage. That will always stick with me, that a broader, rich curiosity of the world will serve me well as an artist.

But I think what you gave us more than anything else was space to have joy. Ballet can be so hard. You reminded us that joy is a choice and that if you aren’t having fun, it ain’t worth it.

What I experienced under your direction was nothing short of transcendence. I’ve been a part of something greater than myself, lived moments on stage that seemed to be made of gold. What a gift. No one can ask for more. You made this possible — the opportunities themselves — but you also made it possible for me to meet the opportunity. You saw us as who we are and who we could be. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone, regardless of job, had a person like you to look up to and foster the spirit of an organization? If we all could feel that in our lives, to have a person who believes 100 percent in your ability to fulfill your potential? What would we be able to achieve collectively if we were all believed in like that?

Rogers and Christian Clark as Romeo and Juliette.
Rogers and Christian Clark as Roméo and Juliette.

You will be gone from Atlanta Ballet but what you cultivated won’t leave as easily. You gave so much of your spark to each of us. We will carry forward forevermore in our hearts the flame that you instilled in us, the 24 current dancers, the countless others who came before. We’ll nurture it in the studio, when we become teachers and directors ourselves. If we leave the arts field and go into another profession, what you taught us will still be there. You will go on affecting lives because that is your legacy.

In your 21 years here you’ve created beauty and community, a sense of pride in ourselves and our city. You’ve created a home and a family and held space for us while we found ourselves. Atlanta Ballet dancers have not looked to you just as our boss or someone who merely directs us, but as a comrade we love fiercely. What you did for Atlanta Ballet was create a place that is loving and healthy, where we collaborate with imagination and full trust in the process, and dance with abandon and openness, curiosity and wonder, and a sense of joy and humor and adventure.

Thank you for creating this place that is so singular within the dance world, and for letting me be a part of this beautiful dream that you have created.

Wowie Kazowie.

With love, gratitude, and always joy,

Alessa

 

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