During an hour of rehearsals in Atlanta Ballet’s Westside studios, John Welker and Nadia Mara made seemingly a thousand minor adjustments as they worked with ballet mistress Dale Shields on their pas de deux. The intensity as they prepared for Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker kicked up a notch when new artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin stepped into the room and joined the instruction, jumping up often from a folding chair on the side to demonstrate his nuanced suggestions.
The dancers’ focus was so acute that when Shields mentioned, “OK, four minutes,” Welker seemed startled that the session was quickly ticking toward its close. He stared up at the large clock and smiled in disbelief. “Oh, wow.”
For 22 seasons, Welker has been consumed in this losing-track-of-time way while dancing for Atlanta Ballet, forever focusing on details that would seem invisible to many human eyes, trying to be perfect in a discipline that disallows perfection no matter how disciplined the dancer.
Welker has been such an Atlanta Ballet fixture, an expressive star who has commanded countless lead roles as the company’s primary male dancer, that it’s hard to believe that Nutcracker, opening December 9 and running through December 24 at the Fox Theatre, will mark his final performances.
Oh, wow, indeed.
Along with Christine Winkler, his then-girlfriend and now his wife of 18 years, Welker helped usher in John McFall’s high-achieving era as artistic director in 1995. Welker was all of 18 at the time, just arrived from Ballet West in Salt Lake City and eager to make his mark. And he did in dances classical to contemporary, including Michael Pink’s Romeo & Juliet (paired with Winkler), Pink’s Dracula and James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons. He also founded and served as ballet master of Wabi Sabi, Atlanta Ballet’s summertime contemporary dance offshoot (where he will be succeeded by fellow dancer Alessa Rogers). Welker was also looked upon as the moral compass of the company, the person the other dancers looked towards in terms of setting the tone for what it means to be an Atlanta Ballet dancer.
Then Winkler retired in 2014, followed by McFall at the end of last season, and the road that once seemed to go on forever suddenly had a terminus. Now Welker, 40, is turning his determined focus to completing his dance degree at Kennesaw State University in May before, he hopes, pursuing an MBA at KSU starting in the fall.
Relaxing after the recent rehearsal, the Ohio native, who’s never ditched his classic Midwestern earnestness, sat down with ArtsATL to discuss his accomplished past and the possibilities of the future.
ArtsATL: Why did you decide to retire after only the first program of the season?
John Welker: I’ve been going to Kennesaw State for my dance degree since 2009. Lo and behold, it’s 2016 and I’m still chipping away at it. So I’ve been in the process of kind of figuring out what the next step I want to do after dancing. I’ve always kind of had my foot in something, and always have tried to branch out during my career to extend myself beyond just dancing, whether that was being very active in our dancers union initially, and then starting Wabi Sabi and then school. Actually Wabi Sabi and school happened almost at the same time, so all of the sudden my life became so busy. And then Lucas, our three-year-old son, came along. So it was just, I could feel it coming.
And then John (McFall) retired at the beginning of last season, and I said, you know, I’ve been waiting for a change in my life for some time, and I see this opportunity now to really kind of commit to a transition. So at the end of last season, I was looking at, oh, I have so many classes I need to do at Kennesaw, but I need to have a priority. And if I were to complete this season with the ballet, I wouldn’t be able to take these classes, because these are the ones that I’ve been putting off since 2009 and the ones that I can’t do online. And they’re only offered once a year and they’re smack-dab in the middle of the work day. So it was, let’s just do this.
And I think about it and it’s such a luxury for a dancer to be able to choose his or her own retirement, I’ve been here 22 years. Let’s call it when I can leave on my own terms and leave in a way that honors what (the company has) given me and what hopefully I’ve passed along to them through the ballet. And just go onto the next step.
ArtsATL: Has your body signaled that it’s time?
Welker: No, not really. The season is brutal and you do have these slight injuries, everyone does. But right now, I can tell you (my back and knees) feel great. I feel I can go on. But at the same time, I’m ready to complete this degree and move on.
ArtsATL: You and Christine and Tara Lee essentially ushered in an era for Atlanta Ballet when John McFall became only its third artistic director since the company’s 1929 founding. Did you feel like your period had to end with John’s in some respect? Or maybe that there was a new era launching that it was hard, at this late point in your career, to fully commit to?
Welker: Yes and no. Yes, when John left, he has been such a huge part of my career. He’s been so many things to me through the years: a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a father figure. It’s no secret the respect I hold for him and what he’s taught me through the years, how much opportunity he’s given me. And that respect is mutual. Yeah, it just felt right. An era was ending. But at the same time, there was a new beginning, you know. (But I didn’t want to) dance on until someone says, “You gotta stop!” [Laughs]
ArtsATL: Did Gennadi Nedvigin try to dissuade you?
Welker: No, he was so respectful, so understanding right from the get-go. He created a space for me to do whatever I wanted, really.
ArtsATL: The idea of getting a graduate degree is so that you can become an arts administrator, right?
Welker: Yeah, absolutely. I think a business degree is a really interesting path for me, for someone who frankly never really loved school. But I’ve always loved the arts, so my thinking is I really want to bring a skill set that’s quite rare in the ballet world — (to merge) a lot of passion for art and dance with the skill set of a businessman.
ArtsATL: Do you hope to work in dance exclusively?
Welker: Not exclusively. I’m open.
ArtsATL: Has Christine given you any advice about retiring from performing?
Welker: She’s always been so supportive, as much about this as about anything else. She’s like, “John, just do what you love to do, do what you feel passion about, and trust yourself. And have the confidence that you’re capable of doing whatever you want to do.” That was pretty much our discussion.
ArtsATL: Well that’s a quality discussion. It may not be epic, but that’s OK, right?
Welker: No, I don’t want it to be epic. When Christine retired, there were a lot of questions about what she was going to do next. But you see, she was prepared for this in a way that she probably didn’t think. She landed on two feet running. She’s got three jobs and almost has more than she can handle right now. Just seeing that, from my perspective, is really encouraging.
ArtsATL: Was it difficult to continue on after Christine left?
Welker: Absolutely. Christine always brought such a unique energy to the studio. She worked super hard and she was beautiful to watch, always inspiring. But what a lot people didn’t get to see when she was onstage is that she is so goofy (offstage). She’s got this amazing sense of humor, and I definitely miss that levity in the studio. It changed the dynamic, something that was missing, especially for me. We worked together our whole lives, we’re used to working together. To suddenly not have it was really strange, not just not having my partner but also not sharing all those experiences during the day,
ArtsATL: Will you have any kind of teaching role, like Christine now does, or other connection to Atlanta Ballet after this year?
Welker: That’s to be determined. I’ve been here 22 years and I don’t plan to go anywhere soon. But we haven’t had that discussion yet. I’ve let them know that my primary focus is with school and with Lucas and Christine, so time will tell. But I’m open to that and future discussions.
ArtsATL: How has becoming a dad affected your mindset about work?
Welker: It’s been really incredible. Lucas has been quite a miracle to Christine and I in what he’s brought to our lives and will continue to bring. I’m very work-centered, and to have him give us another focus beyond that really makes us so much more well-rounded people. We don’t stress about things at work that we used to.
He’s wonderful, so precocious — not the little prince, but the little king of the household. He’s the only child and likes the attention that he gets and gathers.
ArtsATL: If he’s interested in being a performer later, would you encourage him?
Welker: Sure, absolutely. I’m so blessed, and so is Christine, to have parents who have encouraged us no matter what we decided to do. Even though it was dance — “You want to do what!?” — I think there’s very much that same perspective: Whatever Lucas wants to do, we’ll encourage that. As long as he’s happy and passionate, it’s all good to us. If he ends up being a dancer, I have a lot of advice I can give him!
ArtsATL: Do you have any concern that you’re giving up something that you won’t be able to match in the future?
Welker: Yeah, absolutely. To be brutally honest, there’s not going to be anything that will match this. There won’t be. I know that. I’ve seen it. I’ve had many conversations with dancers who’ve retired, and they’ve pretty much said, “Hey, nothing’s going to be like your career as a dancer. You’re just not going to be able to find that replacement. It’s not an equal replacement.”
I knew that going into it, and I’m not going to try to hold a candle to it. But at the same time, I have so many other interests, such as teaching. I come from a family of teachers, and I find it such a transformative experience that I am able to pass on the knowledge that I have, and to see a new generation benefit from it is so gratifying. So I look forward to doing that, certainly.
ArtsATL: As your final curtain approaches, are there things you feel most proud of in your career?
Welker: Sure, I could (mention) a few (roles). But you know, I don’t want to sum it up in a role. It’s really the breadth of what I’ve been able to achieve in my relationships with the dancers, with this organization and the city, I think, that has been so fulfilling to me over the course of 22 years.
I hope the biggest thing I achieved is that I never let the steps get in the way. Get in the way of the art, get in the way of communicating to the audience and to my fellow dancers that I really wanted to say something beyond the technique, though I worked very hard at honing that and I never lost sight of that. But at the same time I did not want that to distract me — or when people watched me, I didn’t want them to see the steps. I wanted them to see the character I was playing, I wanted them to see the breadth of the performance, or the musicality, all these other elements that I believe speak to why dance is so special. It’s not just the technique. That is what I hope I achieved in my career.
ArtsATL: The art!
Welker: Yeah, the art. Absolutely.