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As Atlanta Ballet embarks on its mission to shape a more contemporary profile, the 81-year-old troupe is wisely balancing its avant-garde explorations with proper respect for the past. In performances this weekend — October 21-23 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre — Wayne McGregor’s “EDEN/EDEN” will fit the former bill, while audiences will get their fill of a more traditional style with James Kudelka’s “The Four Seasons,” to Vivaldi’s concertos of that title.

“EDEN/EDEN” presents a high-speed, kinetic, thought-provoking vision: a future in which humans have merged with technology they create. “The Four Seasons,” a timeless story of Everyman’s journey from youth to old age and death, will feature former Atlanta Ballet dancers, retired performers whose return to the stage will offer unique views into the company’s past. The show is likely to be a season highlight for fans of both traditional and contemporary dance.

Atlanta Ballet’s premiere of “The Four Seasons’” in March 2010 was a historic moment for the company. Former Atlanta Ballet dancer Anne Burton Avery performed in it, and she recently shared her story not just of returning to the stage but of a career that spans much of the company’s history.

Our story starts, or rather ends, at the top of Atlanta Ballet’s 80th year, in the summer of 2009, when the troupe had gathered dancers, staff and alumni to plan a tribute to its artistic director emeritus, Robert Barnett. An old rift between Barnett and the company was mending. But Artistic Director John McFall had one more request. With plans to stage Kudelka’s hit based on Vivaldi’s music the following spring, he needed four older dancers to perform in the ballet’s final section, “Winter.” He hoped that Barnett, at age 84, would dance with the company one last time as a symbolic return to the fold.

Barnett had a request: that his former stage partner, Avery, dance alongside him in one of the four roles.

It’s hard to imagine that Avery, petite and sprightly at 67,  has now performed with Atlanta Ballet under all three of its artistic directors, from its founder, Dorothy Alexander, to Barnett, who brought the troupe to professional status, to McFall, who has expanded the repertoire to include today’s contemporary styles. As the longest continuously operating ballet company in the United States, its history looms large in the American regional ballet movement.

I recently met with Avery at the home of Lynda Courts, a former company dancer and a longtime board member of Atlanta Ballet who has served as its chairwoman.

“Miss Dorothy”

“The Nutcracker” inspired a three-year-old Avery. Like countless children, she decided then that she would be the Sugar Plum Fairy one day. And as many little girls in Buckhead did during the 1950s, Avery enrolled in Dorothy Alexander’s dance school at age six. “Miss Dorothy,” Courts told me, was a strict but soft-spoken woman who inspired discipline in her pupils.

Dorothy Alexander

“She was like a child’s idea of what a queen would be like,” Avery recalled. Avery’s delicate voice has the dramatic flair of a stage performer. She glows with enthusiasm for all things related to dance: its techniques, history, teaching and performance. She described Alexander’s elegant carriage and silky hair, worn loosely pinned back, black at first, then later white, making the grande dame of dance in Atlanta all the more statuesque.

Alexander had studied teaching methods in London: the Cecchetti, Bournonville and Vaganova styles. She made sure students understood stylistic variations from each of these schools. “Everything was placed and elegant and very Margot Fonteyn,” Avery said. “It was very spiritual.”

Alexander emphasized purity of line and principles of balanced anatomy. But balance with nature was important, too. Miss Dorothy was a proponent of “free dance” and taught flowing, full-bodied skipping steps inspired by Isadora Duncan. She also had the students study character dance. “We were expressing not only moods and music, but also people’s feelings and reactions,” Avery said. “I was told I needed to get a little tragedy in my life before I could dance Giselle.”

Alexander’s friend Ted Shawn invited the company, then known as the Atlanta Civic Ballet, to perform at Jacob’s Pillow in 1958; it was the first ballet company to do so. Avery performed Alexander’s “Green Alters,” based on W.H. Hudson’s novel “Green Mansions.” “She would have me run through the woods like a sprite to get that feeling, but in the classroom, we’d almost get sick or bloody working on technique,” Avery recalled.

Anne Burton Avery in Dorothy Alexander’s “Green Alters.”

Going professional

Avery was 15 when Alexander’s former student Virginia Rich brought Barnett to Atlanta. He had studied under Bronislava Nijinska and had danced with the Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballets Russes before joining the New York City Ballet in 1944; the couple met and married while they were dancing with the New York City Ballet. By 1958 they were ready to start a family, and Alexander was looking for a successor. Barnett became the troupe’s associate director and principal dancer. Within a year, George Balanchine had given the Atlanta company permission to stage his version of “The Nutcracker.” It was the first company outside New York City to do so.

“They needed a Sugar Plum Fairy, and Bobby [Barnett] was not real tall. That was my opening!” Avery’s voice rang, eyes alight.

While Avery was learning the fine points of classical partnering, Alexander had been starting a dance movement. She’d hosted the first regional dance festival in 1956. At one of these early festivals, Balanchine saw Avery dance the “Nutcracker” grand pas de deux with Barnett. The venerated artistic director offered Avery, then 16, a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend the School of American Ballet. A year later, he asked her to join the New York City Ballet.

Avery recalled dancing alongside luminaries such as Melissa Hayden, Suki Schorer, Jillana and Edward Villella. She recounted the troupe’s 1962 tour to the Soviet Union, Balanchine’s first return there since he had left in 1924.

“He really changed dance in Russia,” Avery said. “He used contemporary music, classical ballet steps and movements, but it was innovative, it was new, it was unique, it was balance off-balance; it was a flexed foot, it was not costumed; they wore leotards where you could see the body, and it was the embodiment of the music, not just delightful, charming little story ballets,” she explained of the style that merged classical ballet with modern art principles.

Anne Burton Avery with Suki Schorer, Arthur Mitchell and members of the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Balanchine was developing a preference for tall, long-legged female dancers — an aesthetic that eventually overtook the United States as his influence grew to define American ballet. “Being my stature of five feet and [she whispered] being very dramatic,” Avery left after two years to pursue a bachelor’s degree in ballet at the University of Utah. She snagged principal roles dancing with the Utah Ballet (now Ballet West) under William Christenson’s direction.

Avery and Robert Barnett in George Balanchine's “The Nutcracker.”

In 1968 Avery received a call from Barnett, by then the Atlanta Civic Ballet’s artistic director. He was taking the troupe professional, starting with a repertoire of several Balanchine ballets, and hoped she’d come back to dance with the company under its new name, Atlanta Ballet. She returned to find a stronger, more versatile company. “There were higher extensions and more articulate, fast footwork. But the elegance and the feeling that Miss Dorothy had started was still there, woven with all of this.”

For the next 10 years, Avery danced principal roles. The classics were her forte. Among them, she danced “Raymonda” opposite Barnett, even on her honeymoon; she danced “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker” pas de deux, taking intermittent leaves for the births of her three children. In 1974 Dance Magazine wrote, “If the regional movement has developed anyone who can justly claim the honorific title of ‘ballerina,’ Anne Burton certainly qualifies, for she dances with unforced radiance and grandeur.”

Return to the stage

Avery continued to teach after her retirement, but she hadn’t performed in 25 years when McFall approached her about dancing in “The Four Seasons.” She’d been charmed by Barnett, and was flattered when McFall brought Barnett’s request to her. Though hesitant, she agreed.

“I wondered if I could follow and remember directions for choreography,” she said, especially in Kudelka’s more contemporary style. She was nervous until she started working with company dancers Kristine and Courtney Necessary and Christian Clark, whom she’d taught as youngsters. “I just had a blast, dancing with these kids.… It just carried me,” she said. “It felt like I was on wings or something. They responded to me; I responded to them. It was fulfilling, even at this great age.”

In rehearsal there was little time to reflect on the past; she had to stay focused on learning the choreography and helping Kudleka realize his vision.

“The only time I thought back — when we were waiting for rehearsal to start, we were there early working on steps, and he said, ‘Oh, let’s do the pas de deux.’ And I said, ‘What pas de deux?’ It was ‘The Nutcracker,’ of course. We started marking through the grand pas and just kept going. There were just a few people there, and I said, ‘Bobby, don’t do that! Oh, Bobby, don’t do that!’ But it was a very special moment. He was so warm on stage, and it made me feel sparkly. I’ll always remember that day.”

In performance, she said, “I wasn’t thinking future or past; I was just in the moment. Because once I hit the stage until the ballet was over, I was in another world.”

Carol Skutek, John McFall, John Welker and Anne Burton Avery in James Kudelka’s “The Four Seasons.” (Photo by K. Kinney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet)

Avery recalled a feeling she had on stage with McFall, Barnett and Atlanta Ballet faculty member Carol Skutek. All four had talked about teachers they’d known and worked with in different times and places, about shared experiences with Bournonville, Vaganova, Cecchetti and Balanchine styles. “It was like pulling together four points of history,” Avery said. “Some of our experiences were different from each other, and some were about the same, but we all had a sense of what was going on in dance in the 20th century. And we were part of it.”

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