To carry an artistic legacy forward can be a burden for some and an inspiration for others. Societal expectations can all but crush a person’s creative spark, but in the hands of the right person, that kind of gift can take flight. Such is the message of LORE, Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s original narrative ballet on the passing of familial legacy and how its path can defy expectations. LORE will run through October 20 at Serenbe.
At Deer Hollow last Friday evening, sparks from a campfire on the stage rose up and disappeared into the air. The atmosphere was warmer, lighter and more convivial than LORE’s premiere in late November of 2017 — a cold, damp evening shrouded in uncertainty. They were a brand-new company, built in part to further the artistic legacy of John McFall after his departure from Atlanta Ballet by developing their own creative voices and talents. The artists had faced numerous logistical challenges with their first outdoor production. The question that permeated the darkness was, would they make it?
LORE was the second world premiere of Terminus’ first season, the company’s Serenbe debut and 28-year-old choreographer Heath Gill’s first full-length narrative work. In some ways, LORE seemed, and remains, a kind of statement of purpose or intent — to sift through the many influences they had performed in Atlanta Ballet’s richly varied repertoire and find their own collective voices.
LORE is not a perfect work — its eclectic score combines influences from Slavic, Celtic, Mediterranean and Appalachian forms of cultural expression – a questionable choice in this era, when people can be quick to judge an artist for cultural appropriation. The effect of mixing musical flavors from different parts of the world was somewhat like a fusion recipe. It was hard to peg Gill’s onstage community in any particular real location — they lived and danced in an imaginary realm.
LORE’s characters are drawn without many specifics, more as archetypes or, perhaps in keeping with James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons, a kind of Everyman. They are broad, universally relevant human figures within a community of people who move through the seasons of life, ultimately passing leadership to one of two siblings.
In some ways, LORE reaffirmed Terminus artists’ role as carriers of an artistic line. Simple in story line but thoughtfully complex in form, LORE builds on the gifts the artists received while working with John McFall. His leadership emphasized the value of the individual artist’s creative voice as part of a tight-knit community where men and women collaborate and contribute in equal partnership. These values are central to LORE, and central to the aesthetic of Terminus as a company.
John Welker’s opening solo introduced a singular voice and vision. In a worn jacket and fedora, Welker appeared on a raised platform, his shadow cast on a red drape behind him looming larger than life. He opened his hands vertically as if pulling the thread of a story out of thin air. Figure eights of narrative seemed to ripple through his body and into his arms. He extended a hand, palm up, from his mouth outward. He reached to one side then another, as if embracing loved ones. Welker gathered his hands at the center of his body and fanned them outward in an expression of creative generosity, even as dark hands in silhouette beckoned to him from behind the drape, foreshadowing his death.
Welker’s narrative seemed to weave the eight-member community together as they encircled the campfire, arms around waists. Partners’ hands met, above eye level, palm to palm. As they wove around one another, their circular gestures grew into a tapestry of sweeping revolutions and counterrevolutions, interweaving floor patterns with the formality of baroque dances with the exuberance of folk dances. They crossed their arms in front of their waists and unfurled their limbs outward, legs turning inward and outward, heels and toes tapping the floor. The men pulsed their shoulders and sprung into bravado kneeling turns — all done with distinctly surprising rhythms and cadences.
Embedded in Gill’s storytelling were the relationships between three pairs of individuals — Tara Lee and Welker as community mother and father figure, Rachel Van Buskirk and Gill as their daughter and son and Van Buskirk and Christian Clark as a young courting couple.
Lee and Welker’s partnership began with playful one-upping as one stepped over the other’s strides. As the two became older, trust and support grew intrinsic to their partnering. Lee flipped her body through a deft promenade but then faltered, only to be swept up again by Welker. She calmly stood by him until he disappeared into the shadowy realm behind the red drape.
As Van Buskirk and Clark’s courtship grew, so did the circles, dips and lifts of their pas de deux, picking up on the languid, looping swings of an Appalachian violin melody. In a delicate wedding ritual, they danced together blindfolded, discovering one another through different senses, such as the touch of a leg or the sound of a heartbeat.
For siblings Gill and Van Buskirk, doubt was initially cast on who would inherit Welker’s fedora, a symbol of his storytelling gift. After Welker departed, Gill could not bear its burden. Van Buskirk stepped in to help him — an impulse that gave rise to the work’s loveliest surprise. Through her desire to aid her brother, Van Buskirk discovered her own gift for storytelling and, thus, vision and leadership. The chosen one was not the son but the daughter.
For a first-ever full-length narrative work, LORE clearly showed that Gill has extraordinary gifts and is lucky enough to have a community of highly skilled creative artists ready to help further his creative vision. There is also a certain naiveté that underscores LORE — perhaps in keeping with the creation of Terminus. When the five founders of Terminus began to envision their ideal dance company three years ago, it’s likely that they had no idea of what it would take to create something out of practically nothing. But they had experience, imagination, vision, talent, skill and a supportive community around them. As long as they can sustain all of these things, they’ll continue to defy expectations.