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Tara Lee and Heath Gill (foreground) rehearse with fellow dancers at the Westside Cultural Arts Center. (Photo by Daley Kappenman)

Q&A: Tara Lee on highlighting natural backdrop of Serenbe in Terminus’ Roam

In rehearsal at their West Midtown studio, the artists of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre move precisely and fluidly while maintaining perfect synchronicity. The company’s technique and athleticism are undeniable, but what catches the eye are the eloquence of their lifts and turns and the effortless way the artists move as a group — as if attached by an invisible string. In one moment, the five movers hold an arched backbend for an extended period of time. Despite the obvious difficulty of this move, the motion feels like one long sigh, and the dancers breathe and release their muscles while sinking into the stretched position. Choreographer Tara Lee compliments the dancers and guides them using metaphors. “This phrase is like a run-on sentence,” she says at one point. “Feel like waves here,” she later tells them. The artists play with different approaches to rhythm and phrasing. They discuss movement textures, with Lee encouraging them to choose what feels natural on their bodies.

Lee leads this rehearsal for Terminus’ newest work, Roam — which the company will perform over the next two weekends at Serenbe — with Terminus artists Heath Gill, Laura Morton and Rachel Van Buskirk also choreographing sections of the full-length work. The Terminus team has performed at Serenbe previously, with elaborate stage settings and dramatic lighting, but this time, they will create a different atmosphere by using the sun’s lighting, with the wooded hillside of Deer Hollow as backdrop. They’ll dance to an eclectic compilation of music, including a few arrangements by J.S. Bach and George Gershwin. Roam will run May 18–25, with showings at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. — early enough to allow audience members ample time to chat with the artists after each performance.

After rehearsal, ARTS ATL sat down with Lee to discuss the creative process behind Roam.

ARTS ATL: What was the inspiration of Roam?

Tara Lee: The definition of “roam” is to travel without a destination or agenda. We wanted to honor that in the process itself and see where we might follow our impulses and be a bit random and enjoy that. As we’re creating together in this work, we’re conjoining different people’s interpretations and definitions of what “roam” means. What’s coming out is both dark and light, without it necessarily being on purpose. What ends up happening is an innate balancing of each other’s energy — introspection balancing levity, solitude balancing the collective, light balancing dark. . . . In order to tell the story of one side, you have to acknowledge both.

There’s one section I made that feels very adagio and intense, with underlying questions of how small or big we are [in] the universe, and then in comes a lighthearted scene that Heath [Gill] created, one that he calls cartoons. It brings the element of playfulness into our world, and there we see the light and dark needing each other. Our approach and sensibility is coming out, and it’s shading and lighting itself. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all comes together because we don’t quite know yet. We’re more comfortable being uncomfortable than we were when [Terminus] first started. We’re more accepting of the chaos.

ARTS ATL: Why did you decide to use natural light for Roam

Lee: By being out in the daylight, it’s all open and gives us this feeling of liberation in the environment. It’s definitely a much more exposed, raw feeling in the sunlight, close-up. So there’s not much illusion or veil, and that’s appealing to us. With theatrical lighting, you can direct the audience’s focus and create/dissolve moods in your own time. Natural lighting and an open stage exposes everything at all times, including the dancers in rest mode.

It can be challenging to make it work poetically, but there’s an automatic straightforwardness when the dancing is exposed to the sunlight. We’re stripping the glamour off. We want to give the audience an experience similar to being with us in our rehearsal studio — unpretentious, and hopefully revealing a deeper quality of humanness and giving the audience a visceral response. We’re going to really hug the stage with the seating on three sides and are planning to give everyone first-, second- and third-row seats. Our facing will change, so there isn’t one front. We’re bringing the audience closer in to the dancing, and the natural setting of Deer Hollow will serve as an extension of the stage.

ARTS ATL: How has it been to work collaboratively with this work?

Lee: It’s so nice to energize each other with ideas. In places where you get stuck, others will take the momentum and carry it, and we use each other as a sound board. And other times we have to always sync up and figure out if the energies of the different works match up. It’s a lot of communicating. We’re in dialogue with each other throughout the process about how it all comes back together and threads together and weaves. There’s both independence and collaboration happening in different layers. It’s especially fun because everyone is creating and molding their works at the same time.

ARTS ATL: How do the sections you choreographed fit into the larger concept?

Lee: The sections I created all have a theme of traveling towards a sense of home — whether it be an actual place, a soul family or an unknown comfort. The idea of the lost soul searching for a place of belonging felt relevant and compelling. I’m also interested in who we choose to “travel” with and how those relationships offer support and protection. This is the first time Heath and I are collaborating, and Rachel [Van Buskirk] and Laura [Morton] are also performing a duet they created themselves. Although we’re working independently on our own expressions of “roam,” we collectively figure out transitions and the overarching ride. We are using some poetry [by Walt Whitman and Rumi, for example] as inspiration, and we collaborated on those selections as well. Our personal interpretations keep alternating in short sections throughout the work. And so we really wander together in this seemingly random experience that maybe ends up being not so random.