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At the beginning of Lore, John Welker appeared on a stage platform, a solo figure in a weathered, black vested suit and a wide-brimmed fedora. A Romani man’s voice called out in the night air, singing perhaps of legends, of ancestors or of chilly November nights like this one, when people gathered around a campfire in a forest clearing surrounded by trees, which glowed in firelight against a star-spattered sky.

With his hands, Welker began to spin a story. He pulled it out of thin air, it seemed, then shaped it like putty. He painted S-curves in the space to the voice’s fluctuations, then turned his palms upward, shifting into a centuries-old theatrical pose. His fedora-clad shadow loomed twice his height on the red curtain behind him, making his community of seven onlookers seem small by comparison.

Welker played the storyteller, the central figure in Lore, Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s second world premiere during its first season, and its sold-out outdoor debut at Serenbe. Choreographed by Heath Gill, the folk-inspired theatrical dance work ushered in Thanksgiving with a poignant reflection on the role storytelling can play to strengthen family lineage and hold communities together. Though sparse at times in characterization, Lore spun a visually evocative, rhythmically rich and poignant story of life, death and the continuity of life from one generation to the next.

Lore is the first full-length piece choreographed by Heath Gill, who also played the son. (Photo by Ben Rawson)

Most people know that Terminus formed after John McFall departed from his post as artistic director of Atlanta Ballet. McFall, gifted in the art of making story ballets, shaped an unusual ballet company. He nurtured dancers’ individual voices in an open environment that minimized competitiveness and fostered trust and creativity. He brought in innovative repertoire and engaged dancers in groundbreaking new creations. After McFall left, many of the company members departed. Some took jobs in cities across the US and Canada, others in Europe. But the Terminus five stayed in Atlanta to find their collective creative voice. Guest artists Devon Joslin, James La Russa and Laura Morton, also raised at Atlanta Ballet, augmented the group.

At Friday’s premiere, a grassy clearing sloped down to the outdoor stage. A campfire blazed in the center of the stage, smoke rising above a higher platform that spanned the rear stage space. Behind it, a red curtain was draped, where light cast dancing shadows of human figures from time to time during the course of the work. On either side of the campfire, shallow ramps sloped to a ground-level space that opened toward the audience.

A collection of music pieces blended Romani influences with Celtic, Danish and other music traditions. Though different in origin, most pieces shared a common instrument, the violin. In a way, the soundscape reflected a pluralistic vision, where groups of people from different parts of the world are united by a common sense of humanity.

In the layered earth tones of Jana Acevedo’s costumes, dancers vivified folk traditions with heel-digs and shoulder-shakes. They unfurled their arms outward and drew them inward with a rhythmic looseness that echoed an old-world, often Romani feel.

Welker and Lee, a town father and mother of sorts, led the dance. Their hands met, palm to palm, above eye level. They encircled one another and turned, arm in arm, swinging up into lifts at times, then returning to the dance.

Their son, played by Heath Gill, and daughter, Rachel Van Buskirk, moved playfully as siblings, playing tag and swaying together, side by side.

Lee and Welker worked through a kind of push-pull dynamic of a married couple, struggling to make a life together even though each has divergent wishes at times. These tensions wove into the eight dancers’ intricate floor patterns. Partners interchanged, circling one another, arm in arm. They sprung into lifts and twisted their bodies as they turned in the air. At times, the group coalesced into a circle around the fire.

Brother and sister parted ways, and Van Buskirk entered a romantic relationship with Christian Clark. Like their elders, their palms met, above eye level, but they moved with a new sense of discovery and silent moments of reverie. They revolved around one another, taking turns leaning over each other’s arms, their breath visible in front of the smoking campfire.

Romance turned to wedding ritual as bride and groom danced together blindfolded to gentle hesitations and silences of a Danish bridal song. In a slow motion wedding scene, the community enfolded the two into a shared embrace.

Rachel Van Buskirk and Christian Clark performed a dance of courtship blindfolded. (Photo by Jonah Hooper)

In the work’s weightier second act, death became part of the circle of life. Lee and Welker danced together as an older couple who no longer push and pulled against one another, but supported one another as their bodies seemed to weaken even as their personal powers deepened.

Specters flitted across the red scrim. A circle of shadow hands converged toward Welker, whose storytelling gestures grew tighter and more repetitive until he disappeared behind the scrim, leaving his hat behind.

The fedora, symbol of the storyteller’s legacy, first went to his son. A mournful and ascendant piece played as the people leaned against Gill’s shoulders. He bore their sorrow as if it were the weight of the world.

Van Buskirk lifted his spirits. To a soulful song, mysterious and emergent, she took the fedora. She glided across the stage with lilting leaps and twisting turns, as if catching the invisible ribbon of the story as it floated on a breeze. It seemed that love and loss had strengthened her. With Clark by her side, she took Welker’s place as storyteller, standing above the campfire. Her gestures echoed her father’s as glimpses of his shadow rose behind her.

Recent changes at Atlanta Ballet have caused many to reflect on endings and beginnings, what it means to lose someone or something you cherish, and what could possibly fill that void. At a time when dancers shaped by McFall’s vision have scattered to the winds, the founding artists of Terminus remain in Atlanta, huddled around the fire of inspiration. The message of Lore appears to be that John McFall’s legacy is in strong and capable hands.

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