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Near the end of exstasis, the Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre debut last weekend at the Westside Cultural Arts Center, dancer and choreographer Tara Lee sank to the ground. Delicate strains of Camille Saint-Saëns’ music began, recalling “The Dying Swan,” Anna Pavlova’s signature solo, which Michel Fokine choreographed with her in 1905. In this symbolic piece, the lone ballerina flutters helplessly as the life force ebbs out of her, leaving her folded on the floor.

Lee’s contemporary interpretation shifted into reverse. She sprang up from the ground as three black-clad companions arrived at her side, lifting her as she unfurled her body upward. Lee looped through space and then wound around her partners, only to rise again and walk across the space’s upper air.

It was perhaps the most beautiful of many transcendent moments in exstasis, an original dance production choreographed by Lee with input from the dancers. Lee’s first full-length work was inspired by the human desire to expand beyond our perceived limitations, and through ecstatic experiences, connect with something greater than ourselves.

In recalling Pavlova and Fokine, intended or not, Lee referenced a handful of artists from Russia’s Imperial Ballet who formed the initial nucleus of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

In that forward-looking company, which revolutionized ballet, Fokine and his collaborators eschewed 19th-century ballet’s rigid conventions and invigorated the art form with the dynamism of Russian culture and the energy of the new century. They combined dance, music and painting for a heightened sense of immediacy, while unifying style with subject matter and freeing the body’s range of expressiveness.  

The Terminus dancers considered exstasis to represent their own journey as a dance company. (Photo by Darvensky Louis.)

It’s possible to draw parallels between the Imperial Ballet’s “dissidents” and Teminus cofounders John Welker, Tara Lee, Heath Gill, Rachel Van Buskirk and Christian Clark, who all left Atlanta Ballet last season. Like Pavlova, Fokine and their cohorts, the Terminus five wanted to have a voice in the future of their company after John McFall stepped down as artistic director in 2015. Their decisions to leave Atlanta Ballet were individual. Welker, for example, applied for McFall’s former position and was turned down, and Lee had reached a natural retirement age.

The five artists shared a vision for an ideal ballet company. They formed Terminus out of a common impulse to plunge into the well of their shared histories dancing an extraordinary breadth of repertoire and to discover their collective artistic voice.  

The result, exstasis, was a mind-bending, breathtakingly beautiful and utterly absorbing creation, performed in a close-up setting at an elite level of power and finesse. These are easily five of the most refined and nuanced dancers in Atlanta.

Considering the career changes each dancer has faced, exstasis seemed in many ways a personal statement, both shared and individual, on life transitions, how our destinies are not predetermined and that we always have a choice. The work shows how, together, people can transcend fear, aggression and suffering in order to merge with their higher selves.

One might call exstasis a fantasy, since its conceptual arc shifts from one context to another, with varying degrees of realism and abstraction. This is perhaps the work’s weakness. Efforts toward a more unified form may engage audiences even more deeply.

April McCoy’s simple, well-fitted costumes, designed on a color palette spanning from black to pale blue-grey, offered consistency between scenes while they distinguished characters with understated grace. Her vision melded beautifully with Joe Futral’s lighting, also essential for shifting scenarios, as well as Mitch Starks’ projected images, which illustrated Clark’s imprisonment and later enhanced moods and transformative moments through images of water, light and sky.

A chorus of black hooded dancers appeared and reappeared. Like stone bas-relief figures set in motion, they moved to echoing harmonies of Renaissance-era liturgical choral music, suggesting both earthly struggle and soaring spirit.

The “Immortalis” section featured Lee and was perhaps the most personal statement of the piece.

In each of three sections, “Libertas (freedom),” “Veritas (truth)” and “Immortalis (immortality),” a central character dealt with some state of imprisonment. First, Clark faced physical incarceration. Guards bullied him, keeping him away from the person he loved. Clark’s movement could hardly be contained as he circled the space, turning, leaping and sliding to the floor as he hinged backward in despair. In a hypnotic duet with Van Buskirk, one of several freshly conceived partnering sequences, each lift was its own miracle.

Under a façade of glitz and virtuosity, “Veritas” revealed a hapless Welker with limited perception that he was heading toward a doleful destiny. This duet, based on Lee’s 2010 piece “Mind Myself,” featured Gill as an alter ego figure, a trickster of sorts, who showed Welker that he’s not stuck in a predestined fate. Rather, he’s in a state that can change or be changed. Later in this section, Van Buskirk deflected aggression with gentleness, showing that joy and creativity can free people from fixed states of mind. Her appearances as muse or angel, woven throughout, exuded newfound power and radiance.

“Immortalis” seemed perhaps the most personal statement. Here, Tara Lee appeared, running as fast as she could, perhaps trying to outrun death. As the number of days left in her confinement dwindled, Lee was forced to confront her fear of the unknown.

In the end, the black hooded figures gathered around a white pool of light, alternately allowing movement to travel through their bodies. Lee channeled a few beats from Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden. Sudden impulses seemed to course through another dancer’s body, recalling Ohad Naharin’s movement language.

That circle of light seemed to represent the group’s creative source, a well of shared experience that will continue to generate Terminus’ unique voice, a voice created in Atlanta, by Atlanta artists. exstasis was an expression of the city’s creative culture, performed at a rarefied level of technique, stage power and commitment. This was perhaps the most joyful realization of all.

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