Preview: Atlanta Ballet celebrates the legacy of John McFall’s leadership with “MAYhem”

McFall was honored during the curtain call for Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker in December. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
McFall was honored during the curtain call for Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker in December. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

“Nowness” is the way dancer Tara Lee describes the spirit of innovation that’s filled Atlanta Ballet studios under John McFall’s artistic leadership. That heightened sense of being in the moment is a natural theme for MAYhem: Kissed, the company’s closing production of McFall’s 21st and final season. It will be a breathtaking farewell, expressed through three works spanning from Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s lush and playfully resonant El Beso (The Kiss) to Andrea Miller’s world premiere of Push to a repeat performance of Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony, a fast-paced tribute to the danse d’ecole.

MAYhem, which runs May 20 through May 22 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, will include a special tribute to McFall at the conclusion of the opening night performance.

McFall is only the third artistic director in the company’s history. The troupe was founded in 1929 by Dorothy Alexander, who was replaced by Robert Barnett when she retired in 1963. McFall came to Atlanta in 1994.

McFall has taken Atlanta Ballet to new heights.
McFall has taken Atlanta Ballet to new heights.

He 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 and a rousing performance in Toronto last year. McFall also attracted significant foreign choreographers to work with the dancers in Atlanta. David Bintley, artistic director of Britain’s Birmingham Royal Ballet, for example, came to Atlanta in 2013 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.”

Over the past few months, McFall has talked with ArtsATL about his vision and aesthetics, as well as some favorite moments from his two decades as the leader of Atlanta Ballet.

ArtsATL: Back in 1994, one of the reasons the Atlanta Ballet search committee chose you to be artistic director was your ability to articulate your mission so that trustees, foundations and individuals would want to support the company. What is the vision? 

John McFall: The vision is about engagement. What is the purpose of an arts organization? To create art and bring it to the community, and draw people into the process. The full circle of the process is that by educating people, ultimately, new leadership will appear on the horizon. Because art brings people to discover themselves, so that they embrace it and celebrate it; the arts become something that’s meaningful and makes a difference in their lives. Through engaging a community, you can build the infrastructure of a vision, where it becomes tangible, vivid and real. Because then it’s life experience.

We use the term “education” — really, what you have to do is inspire people. You ignite something inside of them. You turn a dial, you open something — that new awareness, that sense of wonderment and possibility.

Where is that connection to an audience? Something happens when a young person begins to realize who they are, and begins to respond to the possibilities that are available in the world.

When that individual is on stage, in the light, in costume, telling a story, there is an indescribable magic that touches people in the audience. Does an audience member want to identify with that? Or do they just celebrate it? Are they being entertained? I think it’s more soulful.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be a performer. You’re not really thinking of anything but those moments that you’re sharing, on stage. You’re released from the mundaneness that we are all encumbered by, all the time. There’s something so exhilarating about those moments. It touches the hearts and minds of people in the audience; don’t we all want a piece of that?

McFall's defining legacy may be the way he nurtured dancers.
McFall’s defining legacy may be the way he nurtured dancers.

But, frankly, our culture isn’t as cordially wrapped up in the arts as one might think. There’s always a lot of talk. But when you look around, who’s talking about the arts? Sure, people in the arts organizations talk about it non-stop. But where’s the political voice? Where’s the leadership? Who in the state of Georgia — who in the region — is a big advocate for the arts?

So, we’ve accomplished a lot at the Atlanta Ballet. There are a lot of people that do care. We have a lot of families with students in the Education Centre; our trustees; a lot of people are committed to bringing the arts deeper into people’s lives. It makes a difference, and it has made a difference.

ArtsATL: Twyla Tharp said one of the reasons she accepted the commission to choreograph The Princess and the Goblin was the new headquarters. It showed that the community was behind this company.

McFall: Well, there you go. If Twyla said so . . .

ArtsATL: What did The Princess and the Goblin do for the company’s performance level and exposure?

McFall: It’s a big deal to get an American choreographer — a game-changer who’s had an illustrious career — to do a full evening world premiere for you. Twyla’s expectations are high, and she’s very demanding. That’s another growth process for our dancers — to live and breathe that. They worked with her for months.

ArtsATL: One dancer who comes to mind is John Welker. I had never seen him perform such complex movement at that technical and artistic level. The movement was off-balance; it was fast. His intensity of focus just blew me away. Would that be an example of Twyla’s influence on the dancers?

McFall: John is an artist, and that’s not a very light word. There are a lot of good dancers, but there are not many artists. And he’s one, and Twyla is so intrigued with getting inside of someone she feels can reveal something to us, including herself. She’s extremely persistent, and has high aspirations. She’s always looking for what she calls the “gravitas.”

In other words, what’s the deep meaning? If she starts to sense that a dancer has that capacity, she will go there. And she will be relentless in how she approaches that. She’ll be subtle; she’ll be quiet; or, she’ll be outrageous and very demanding. At the end of the day, when the curtain goes up, that individual’s not the same. And that process resonates throughout the studio, throughout the facility, throughout the organization.

We’ve brought in dozens of choreographers from around the world and the process with each of them is unique.

McFall in the studio in 2007 working on his own version of Peter Pan, a show that was performed in London during that city's Millennium celebration .
McFall in the studio in 2007 working on his own version of Peter Pan, a show that was performed in London during that city’s Millennium celebration. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

ArtsATL: For example, MAYhem, this weekend’s production?

McFall: For Alex Barros, it’s like a triathlon. He’s in all three ballets in every performance. And each work poses unique challenges. Each style is so different; the demands on dancers are extraordinary. The evening ends with a classical ballet, something more of the 19th century, en pointe. It’s difficult.

Being a virtuoso classical dancer is a huge achievement. Multiply that with the realization that most interesting choreographers today may use classical ballet as a springboard, but in terms of aesthetic and vocabulary — especially the sense of gravity — what they are doing has little in common with the verticality and lightness of academic classical ballet.

People like their comfort zone. Classical dancers are sometimes not keen on stepping outside that zone. It takes an individual who is available to new ways of moving. It takes extraordinary effort. When you work with Andrea Miller or Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, you’re in a different place. It is fortuitous that Atlanta Ballet has worked with other contemporary choreographers who have taken them into the unknown.

ArtsATL: Can you talk about some of the collaborations you’ve orchestrated — Shed Your Skin with the Indigo Girls, and big, with Big Boi and OutKast?

McFall: The Indigo Girls grew up in the community; they lived, worked and created together. They continue to make music, and have a couple of generations of fans. They also tackle big subjects. Politically, look at the flag issue. They tapped people on the shoulder about critical issues that mattered to them. That’s the kind of collaboration that I admire.

We’re in tune with our time, what’s going on in the world. So, if you have Antwan (“Big Boi” Patton) and OutKast, they’re commenting in their music about our time, our place and what’s in the future. We’re talking about culture. That’s what Atlanta Ballet does; that’s why people go.

Atlanta Ballet's collaboration with Big Boi of OutKast for big.
Atlanta Ballet’s collaboration with Big Boi of OutKast for big.

ArtsATL: Your philosophy is to invite dancers to put their own individual spin on choreography, to contribute to a choreographer’s creative process. How does that way of working make the company distinctive?

McFall: Well, we go so far past the steps; we don’t get distracted by just doing the technique. Our dancers are liberated. Most student dancers, first of all, are afraid. We live in a very competitive culture. It takes time for dancers — if they’re mentored properly — to recognize their own ability to be comfortable with who they are, so they can express themselves. It’s not about the steps. It’s about the person performing the steps. It’s about the heart, the soul, the intellect; it’s about compassion; it’s about vulnerability; it’s about love; it’s about life.

There’s no soap opera at Atlanta Ballet. It’s all about the journey. The dancers celebrate each other. They are completely at ease, to go where they haven’t gone before. To discover more. To take a bigger bite. They’re totally uninhibited. They don’t balk; they don’t step back; they always reach further. They make themselves available. Their curiosity continues to animate all these possibilities when they’re in a studio with a choreographer. The choreographers go nuts. There’s no place like this. When they see that — it’s a clean slate, and nothing encumbers the creative process.

McFall was a nurturing force among the company dancers.
McFall’s joy came from watching his company dancers grow artistically.

And the dancers trust that. They trust themselves, and they trust each other. That’s why they can partner like they can. They do it with total abandon. And they know each other so well; they’ve been working together for 20 years, some of them. It’s astounding what they do. It takes my breath away, every time I watch them perform. I’ve been there, and I’ve helped them get there, and it’s exhilarating. But it’s only for moments, you know? That performance is something that you’re witnessing that’ll never be replicated that way ever again. You know what that’s about? That’s what life is.

ArtsATL: What are your hopes or concerns for the future of Atlanta Ballet?

McFall: There’s a strong infrastructure. Whatever that new vision will be, it has a very good platform. We’ve moved a considerable distance; it’s been a great process; we’ve had wonderful impact; I think the future is filled with all kinds of possibilities.

The one thing I’m remiss about is we don’t have a theater. That would have been a marvelous platform to develop the young voices out there. They’re all over the place; they just don’t have easy access to a professional venue. It would have been great to be an intersection and destination for those people. Maybe someday.

The direction that Miss Dorothy, Robert Barnett and myself have set — it’s a tapestry of different generations that have continued to build on what was so good. So, I see a bright future for Atlanta Ballet.

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