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Dressed in white, 13 men whirled hypnotically like dervishes, spun on their head like B-boys and then dove into the arms of fellow performers with a visceral sense of trust and camaraderie. 

It was 2018 when the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University presented Compagnie Hervé KOUBI, a troupe created by a French choreographer and made up of male street dancers recruited from Algeria and Burkina Faso. The evening-length work, What the Day Owes to the Night, not only erased stereotypes of Muslim men but also showed that people from two countries with fraught histories can join together to create deeply meaningful and breathtakingly beautiful artwork.

Afterward, the performers came out on stage for a postshow talk. They were humble, honest and carried with them a fervent passion for dancing. It was compelling to hear their personal stories of how Koubi, seeking to understand his Algerian roots, recruited them from the streets of cities in Algeria and Burkina Faso and pulled them together to create an internationally touring phenomenon that blended street dance with contemporary dance. It was an example of the power of art to dissolve social barriers, erase stereotypes and embrace differences through cultural understanding.

It also spoke to the vision and connections of Leslie Gordon, then director of the Rialto, who brought the company to Atlanta. 

Leslie Gordon elevated Atlanta dance as director of the Rialto. (Photo by Judy Ondrey)

This past February, Gordon moved her discerning taste and cultural sensitivity from the Rialto to the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, where she is now executive director. The move comes with uncanny timeliness as the country wrestles with the rise of hate groups and frequent mass shootings. The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh was the most compelling reason for Gordon’s decision to take the position. “At the end of the day, your cultural identity has to come through,” Gordon said.

The Breman aspires to become more of a cultural center and gathering place through programming in the Breman’s current Midtown facility. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta plans to build a new community cultural center in its Midtown location. The new facility will have a theater, which the Breman with be in charge of, Gordon said. 

But her legacy at the Rialto as dance presenter is worth examining as we consider what Gordon did at the Rialto that so effectively supported the dance community’s growth, and how, going forward, we can borrow from that vision, know-how, social connectivity, taste and passion for dance that her presenting so reflected.

Gordon’s legacy in Atlanta dance

During Gordon’s 16-year tenure at the Rialto, Atlanta’s contemporary dance community grew from a dozen or so companies and post-college independents showing work sporadically into a thriving scene with concerts almost every weekend, five metro-area colleges with strong dance programs, an influx of professionally trained dance artists and more sophisticated audiences for modern and contemporary dance. The city now enjoys more widely diverse offerings spread out across the metro area, with higher levels of craft and artistry. 

Few could dispute that Gordon’s focused and intentional dance presenting at the Rialto helped make Atlanta a regional dance hub. Local artists and audiences gained access to major modern and contemporary dance companies — both established and groundbreaking — on the national and international dance scenes. The Rialto became a centralized hub, presenting work of such caliber and distinction that they would bring even the most reclusive dance artist out of his or her pocket of activity and into the city’s conversation about dance. Gordon worked Atlanta into larger networks — on national and international levels.

Under Gordon’s guidance, the Rialto expanded the scope of Atlanta dance.

When Gordon came to the Rialto in 2003, it was seven years into the theater’s new life, after a $14 million renovation in 1996. The space had gone for two years without a director. Under Gordon’s direction, a focused mission took shape. The space was the primary venue for Georgia State University’s School of Music, so Gordon found a niche in presenting straight-ahead jazz. 

The Rialto aimed to reflect Georgia State’s culturally diverse student population, so Gordon used these international ties with Atlanta-based consulates — relationships she’d previously fostered while working with the Cultural Olympiad, Arts Festival of Atlanta and the National Black Arts Festival — to bring in music and dance that were unique cultural expressions. 

As a presenter, Gordon had access to a wealth of choreographers and companies few have — she went to presenters’ conferences in New York and Tel Aviv. She frequently attended the dance festival at Jacob’s Pillow, a nationally respected center for contemporary dance in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, known for presenting distinctive companies and choreographers, from well-established luminaries to up-and-coming innovators.

Gordon had a simple philosophy when she booked shows at the Rialto. The box office was important, but she wasn’t interested in entertainment for entertainment’s sake. She wanted programming that would challenge and inspire. 

It wasn’t easy to convince Georgia State officials that dance could attract an audience and be successful. “You had to justify everything,” Gordon said. She carefully researched each company and explained why Atlanta audiences and artists needed to see them. At the end of each season, the officials looked to see what did go well, the cost and how well it served their goals. They considered whether or not the sum total of tickets across music, dance and other programming had met Gordon’s projected goal. “Usually, we were right on target, or ahead,” she said. 

Gaining outside support

Outside funding enabled the Rialto to bring in high-level companies and show that audiences would attend dance productions, Gordon said. First, it came from Shelton Stanfill of the Woodruff Arts Center, who funded a project with Core Dance. Around 2007, the Charles Loridans Foundation invited Gordon to submit a grant proposal to help develop dance in the city. The idea was to be “impactful and intentional about who we’re bringing in and why.”

Gordon proposed to bring in dance companies that were not seen in Atlanta at the time, she said. Companies of national and international note were appearing in other Southeastern cities, such as Charleston, Birmingham and Durham. But these companies weren’t seen in Atlanta because the city had no dance-presenting organization.

Celebrated ballerina Wendy Whelan is one of the artists Gordon brought to the Rialto.

“My main point was, there’s a strong dance community in Atlanta, but the dance company leaders and dancers don’t have time or money to go and see what else is happening in the dance world,” Gordon said. The idea was to keep touring companies a little longer so they could engage with the community through classes and workshops — and of course, the preshow and postshow conversations that allowed Atlantans to get to know visiting artists on a personal level. 

The Loridans Foundation gave the Rialto a smallish grant to fund the Rialto’s 2007–08 Spring into Dance series, which featured Tango Fire, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Noche Flamenca and David Dorfman Dance Company among its offerings.  

Gordon then brought in the dance field’s major trailblazers, such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Rennie Harris Puremovement. French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s Empty Moves paid tribute to his mentor Merce Cunningham with work set to a score by John Cage. More recently, Gordon booked Wendy Whelan, a former ballerina with New York City Ballet, whose evening of works by four contemporary choreographers launched a new direction in her performing career. Whelan is now associate artistic director of New York City Ballet and continues to perform groundbreaking solo work.

Forging an international network

Gordon’s taste in cultural dances reflected something unique. If she presented Brazilian folkloric dance, she would take it a step further. At the end of the show, performers would lead audience members outside the theater and have a Brazilian carnival-style party, singing and dancing in the streets. 

Gordon was knighted by the French Consulate for her work at the Rialto.

Her travels — from dance festivals in Tel Aviv to Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts to annual presenters’ conferences in New York — forged a place for the Rialto within these international networks. She often spotted talent and brought them to Atlanta before they became famous. 

Gordon discovered the Trey McIntyre Project when his company was in its first year and not yet a full-time internationally touring company it later became. After he formed a globetrotting world-class company, Gordon continued to book the troupe and eventually commissioned a new work, inspired by the artwork of Edward Gorey, which carried the Rialto’s name to Jacob’s Pillow.

In 2010, the Loridans Foundation gave the Rialto a $100,000 grant to support an initiative in collaboration with other Atlanta dance presenters and performing companies to bring top American dance troupes to the city for concerts, open rehearsals and master classes. 

The Rialto as a center of dance

The first year, 2012, the Rialto partnered with Kennesaw State University and glo, whose founder Lauri Stallings curated the debut of the Off the EDGE festival. Stallings helped conceive of a “swarm” of performances, workshops and other initiatives, designed to connect the local dance community with such notables as Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC, New York’s Keigwin and Company and Gallim Dance, and Israeli dance pioneer Rina Schenfeld.

Dance performances at the Rialto gathered momentum in succeeding years, with a plethora of performances curated from around the globe. 

There was James Brown: Get on the Good Foot, presented in partnership with New York’s Apollo Theater and the City of Lafayette, Louisiana. With choreography and direction from Otis Sallid, the production was the first tribute to James Brown’s movement. It featured work by four choreographers, performed by dance company Philadanco and several solo performers, including B-girl Ephrat Asherie and Derick K. Grant as James Brown. 

Gordon is now executive director of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.

The production received its world premiere at the Apollo in 2013, then hit the Rialto in Atlanta before touring to Louisiana and Germany. At its Rialto performance, two of James Brown’s daughters were in the audience. By the show’s end, they were singing and dancing, an invitation for the rest of the crowd, which followed suit, and the theater was filled with music, rhythm and celebration. Gordon said, “We could have sold five nights of that.”

Gordon recruited Ilter Ibrahimof to curate three more Off the EDGE dance festivals as Atlanta-based companies gained prominence in its concerts. The recent fourth iteration reflected thoughtfulness on Ibrahimof’s part, a kind of maturing and flowering of local dance companies. Each of the five Atlanta-based groups shared a stage with notables from the region, country and world.

In each case, Atlanta dancers held their own. KSU Dance Company performed on the same bill with the venerable London-based Company Wayne McGregor, upping their game. Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre shared a program with BalletX, a company with a similar history that is now appearing at such national venues as Vail Dance Festival and the Joyce Theater. On that evening at the KSU Dance Theater, Terminus showed its potential to follow a similar trajectory.

All of which made the fourth Off the EDGE festival a bittersweet celebration. With Gordon leaving the Rialto, what will that mean for the community the Rialto helped nurture?

Changing of the guard

Maybe it’s time for others to step up to the plate, or carry the torch farther and longer. Stallings’ glo is currently appearing in an immersive installation at the High Museum of Art and will represent Atlanta at the Florence Biennale in October. Atlanta Ballet will bring in Complexions Contemporary Ballet as part of its fall production and will present the company’s new Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Ballethnic Dance Company continues to strengthen its artistic core with ties to Dance Theatre of Harlem, the University of Georgia and the dance-steeped Athens community. KSU will present Charlotte Ballet — a regional powerhouse — at its Dance Theater in September. Staibdance will present a new work, fence, at Emory University in October with national funding to take the work on tour. Terminus, which just announced a new partnership with KSU, will perform Heath Gill’s Lore at Serenbe in October and will present Everything Is Waiting in Carrollton and Columbus this fall.

Refuge Dance’s 3 Contemporary Dance Project will offer a showcase of local choreographers’ works in the northern suburbs in October. The Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech will offer two shows featuring dance, and Core Dance will offer new work, if . . . a memoir, in November.

This leaves us with a lot to see, without the central hub the Rialto provided. The Rialto has one dance program among fall offerings — Ailey II, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s well-traveled second company.

As for the dance community, will we find another central meeting place such as the Rialto provided Downtown? Can we continue to network Atlanta into the national and international dance scenes with the focus, intention and impeccable taste that Gordon brought to her presenting?

The Rialto has begun a search for a new director. In the meantime, an emailed statement from the Rialto said that under interim director Jennifer Moore, it is “business as usual.” But everyone knows that under Gordon, the Rialto’s presenting transcended the pragmatic transactions of business. And it was anything but usual.

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