A year ago, five of Atlanta Ballet’s most prominent dancers began to plant the seeds to leave that landmark institution and form their own dance company. This weekend, those seeds will bear their first fruit when Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre makes its public debut.
As he walked into a rehearsal last Thursday at Terminus’ Westside dance studio, John Welker — the longtime principal dancer with Atlanta Ballet who is now the director of Terminus — beamed with joy. “I just found out we’ve sold out the entire weekend,” he said.
The shows will be at the Westside Cultural Arts Performing Arts Center Thursday, Friday, Saturday (with a just-added afternoon matinee) and Sunday. The five-member troupe will unveil an hour-long work, exstasis, choreographed by Tara Lee.
It’s an auspicious debut for the troupe, which announced its formation to great fanfare in May. Terminus allowed an ArtsATL editor to embed with the dancers as they met weekly over the winter and spring to plan their new troupe, and the news was picked up locally and nationally.
The Terminus dancers see exstasis as an expression of the journey they have taken to forge their own creative path. “I couldn’t be happier that Tara’s piece will be our first steps on a stage with Terminus,” said Welker. “This piece really speaks to where we’re at right now as a group, but it tells the story in universal terms. It’s about change, transformation and hope in the face of uncertainty.”
The five founders are among the most recognizable faces in Atlanta dance.
Welker and Lee were star dancers at the ballet for 20 years each under the guidance of then-artistic director John McFall. Christian Clark, a Decatur native, grew up with the ballet; he was a company dancer for 15 years and became the principal male dancer, starring in such productions as Romeo et Juliette.
The two other Terminus cofounders — Rachel Van Buskirk and Heath Gill — have each been named as one of the “25 To Watch” in the annual Dance Magazine roundup of upcoming dancers; both were also featured as one of ArtsATL’s “30 Under 30.” Van Buskirk was with Atlanta Ballet for 10 years and starred in last year’s opener, Carmina Burana; Gill was with the company seven seasons and starred in last season’s closer, Camino Real.
In addition, Lee has choreographed several pieces for the ballet (including a new work for the upcoming season), and Gill has choreographed for Wabi Sabi, the ballet’s now discontinued outdoor summer troupe.
After McFall announced his retirement, Welker was a finalist to be Atlanta Ballet’s next artistic director, a job that ultimately went to longtime San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Gennadi Nedvigin.
As Nedvigin began to put his own imprint on the company, bringing more classicism to the repertoire and a more traditional and technical mindset, the five dancers began to explore the idea of forming their own company to more deeply explore the style of modern ballet that was championed by McFall.
The group found a home at the Westside Cultural Arts Center and then entered into a partnership with the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and the Environment. After the troupe debuts exstasis at Westside this weekend, Terminus will debut Lore — choreographed by Gill — November 17–19 outdoors at Serenbe.
Exstasis means “to stand outside the self” in Latin. It’s a state that “frees us from our rational limited self, and we feel an expanded sense of being,” Lee said.
The hour-long exstasis is abstract, but also tells a story. It features an eclectic mix of about 30 songs, ranging from Mozart’s Requim in D minor to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies. It also features a dramatic spoken word section between Welker and Gill.
At one of their final rehearsals last week, the joyful chemistry between the five Terminus dancers was on full display as they honed Lee’s piece. As they worked through the final sections, each dancer freely offered suggestions but respected Lee as the final arbitrator. There was intense focus on the piece, but also lots of laughter and smiles.
The work incorporates Mind Myself, a critically acclaimed shorter work that Lee composed for the Wabi Sabi troupe in 2010. “I’m glad we’re using it,” she said. “I always saw that as an indoors piece, in a black box theater.”
Terminus has a modest two-show opening fall season. Welker said recently that the troupe, which has exceeded fundraising goals, expects to offer a full season next year. “I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished as a group and the support we’ve gotten from Atlanta,” Welker said.