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The 2016 dance scene showed Atlanta to be a city in flux. Where one group turned toward the conventional, others leaped into the unknown.

John McFall took his final bow as artistic director of Atlanta Ballet in “Bless,” a magenta-tinted performance tribute, lovingly rendered by choreographer Tara Lee and veteran dancers. This capped a 21st and farewell season, showcasing artists’ characteristic warmth, finesse and hard-won versatility. Gennadi Nedvigin, Bolshoi Ballet School graduate and San Francisco Ballet star, steps into the leadership role with plans to incorporate more classicism. But McFall leaves a dynamic legacy. In venues around the city, artists who’ve matured under McFall’s influence continue to offer adventurous works, furthering his philosophy that creativity inspires communities.

Support for Off the EDGE contemporary dance festival and EXPOSED, a festival of Israeli contemporary dance and physical theater, further showed that Atlanta audiences welcome thought-provoking choreography that’s often at the art form’s cutting edge. ArtsATL dance critics Kathleen Wessel and Cynthia Perry weigh in on season highlights.

McFall leaves a dazzling legacy for Atlanta Ballet. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

McFall leaves a dazzling legacy for Atlanta Ballet. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Cynthia Bond Perry: Let’s start with John McFall’s final months with Atlanta Ballet. What’s your take on the company’s season overall?

Kathleen Wessel: This year’s programming felt like a tribute to McFall’s legacy at the ballet: eclectic and risky coupled with a deep respect for classical technique and the art of story ballet. For me — and John may agree with me on this — the best thing about this season was watching the dancers tackle such diverse material and rise to the challenge. Jackie Nash was stunning in Douglas Lee’s Playground, a slick, sensuously dark piece about the more frightening aspects of childhood.

A few months later, her performance as a lead in Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony — a crisp, standout work for a fabulous ensemble — solidified her budding stardom. I’m also not afraid to say that I kind of liked Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin despite its simplistic storyline. As the Goblin Queen, Tara Lee astounded as usual, and the goblins, notably Heath Gill and Christian Clark, made me laugh out loud. In retrospect, the wild goblins personified McFall’s leadership — a sense of humor, bold originality, and fearlessness — and contrasted Classical Symphony, a symbol of the classicism to come under Nedvigin’s leadership. It’s hard to see the beauty in one without the other. I’m hoping the new artistic staff at Atlanta Ballet will recognize the power and relevance of versatility in today’s ballet world.

Perry: McFall exposed audiences to some of the most intriguing and exciting creative voices out there. That enriched dancers, particularly John Welker, who has helped realize McFall’s vision for the past 20 years and retired last week. Welker pushed himself to the highest possible technical standard, then he transcended technique, immersing himself in character. I’ll never forget Welker’s doppelganger role in The Princess and the Goblin — as the supercilious King Papa, and the power-hungry Goblin King. Here was a performer who brought every ounce of his heart, soul and viscera to the stage. The same was true for Gutman, ruthless and seductive ringmaster of Helen Pickett’s ballet based on the play, Camino Real. As with Pickett’s The Exiled, Welker excelled in a role that demanded extraordinary technical and dramatic power in both dancing and speaking parts — proving he was a top-notch danseur and a true man of the theater. Did you have a favorite John Welker character?

Wessel: Dracula is definitely on my list of Welker’s Greatest Hits. That image of him descending the stairs in a slow trance — nose in the air, pin-straight white hair hanging halfway down his back — will probably stick with me forever. So delectably creepy.

Welker's dramatic stroll down the stairs in Dracula. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Welker’s dramatic stroll down the stairs in Dracula. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Perry: Agreed. Welker’s brightened the city’s landscape with Wabi Sabi performances, with works by numerous talented young choreographers. Heath Gill’s “Rumination,” performed exquisitely by Devon Joslin this summer, captured a sense of indecision and introspection. Joslin carried out the exploration of ever-changing levels and directions with an enchanting sense of rhythm and musicality. Did any of this year’s choreographers stand out in your mind?

Wessel: I’m a little biased here because I work with Sean Hilton and Sarah Hillmer in Staibdance, but both are making obvious waves in the community. Both have choreographed for Wabi Sabi, and Hillmer recently took Emory Dance Company members to a whole new place with her super-athletic work “Path.” I’m also excited for the future of Fly on a Wall, which Hilton co-directs with former Atlanta Ballet dancer Nathan Griswold and former glo dancer Nicole Johnson. Though I missed their October performance of Hz, George Staib (my husband and an ArtsATL contributor) called it “a welcome and erratic dialogue between restraint and abandon, highly detailed and enticingly open-ended.”

Perry: Well said. Fly on a Wall has established a presence on the scene — this year, in residency at Eyedrum, which helped support Hz. Eyedrum has stepped up its support for dance, as the High Museum of Art has done for some time. The museum commissioned several dance/visual art collaborations this year, including CORE Performance Company’s 30th anniversary season closer, experiment: question: refine, crafted in conjunction with the exhibition, Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion.

Wessel: And T. Lang Dance’s raucous “Basquiat Bash” enlivened the High’s exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rare notebooks. Her dancers tore through gallery spaces wearing whimsical crowns by George Long. I love seeing dance up close and personal like that, and in non-traditional spaces. We saw a lot of that this year, didn’t we?  

Spano not only provided the music for cloth{field} – scenes from the still world and hereafter, he played piano and danced with glo. (Photo by Thom Baker)

Spano not only provided the music for cloth{field} — scenes from the still world and hereafter, he played piano and danced with glo. (Photo by Thom Baker)

Perry: We did. Lauri Stallings and her performance group, glo, spent a lot of this year in communities and outdoor sites in need of human interaction — from Griffin’s Main Street to a Rosenwald School; from Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights to sites along the Chattahoochee River. But in the spare, elegant intimacy of Goodson Yard, cloth{field} transported viewers into a rarified space and time. In glo’s third collaboration with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano, the Maestro played his own piano composition and joined dancers, who moved with crystalline clarity and voluminous sweep, particularly as they whirled a platform carrying Spano around the space: music, performers, choreography and moving scenery folded together in one transcendent moment. Any moments you recall, when sight, sound and movement created heightened experiences?

Wessel: This year saw some gorgeous but underutilized set design for local choreographers Blake Beckham and MaryGrace Phillips (also an ArtsATL contributor). Sculptor Dana Haugaard transformed Emory’s Mary Gray Munroe Theater into a white box with thin strips of mirror on the side walls and above the audiences, who sat on opposite sides looking at one another. Hence the title OneAnother, which cleverly referenced the curious nature of human pairings. Technical director extraordinaire Danny Davis built the glowing, oversized stairs for Phillips’ {stairs}, creating a visually arresting image in the sparse B Complex warehouse. But both choreographers seemed to prioritize “wow factor” sets over the exploration of virtuosic movement invention. That’s not to say minimalist movement can’t work when it’s framed well, and I think Melissa Word accomplished that with her thoughtfully restrained solo “Palisade” for Heads Up!, a showing of shorter pieces by various Work Room artists. I’m curious to see what all the Work Room artists will do in 2017.

MaryGrace Phillips' stairs. (Photo by Kelly Blackmon)

MaryGrace Phillips’ {stairs}. (Photo by Kelly Blackmon)

Perry: In Heads Up!, the promise of potential was electric, and many works reflected deep thought, consistent practice and individual authenticity. Standouts included Okwae A. Miller’s solo, “CARvedimages: all of the women. In me. Are tired.” With driving speed, articulate torso and potent gestures, Miller seemed a solitary, androgynous warrior, fighting for his identity. Anicka Austin’s “Paper Moon” depicted a contemporary Gilles or Pierrot Lunaire, as dancer Erin Anastasia sauntered onto the stage under a papier–mâché moon, gulping down pink ginger ale with gusto. Anastasia’s dervish whirls and detailed gestures were ever fascinating, part of a multifaceted character full of shifts and surprises.

A longer work showing unrelenting investigation — and Kathleen, you may have to recuse yourself for a moment, because you danced in it — was George Staib’s Moat, one of the year’s most rigorously fleshed-out productions. But back to highlights we can both discuss, what were some of yours?

Wessel: Off the EDGE was a spring highlight for me, and I credit Leslie Gordon (Rialto Center for the Arts director) and guest curator Ilter Ibrahimof for their willingness to take some programming risks. Though there were some lowlights and disappointments (for me, Kyle Abraham’s Absent Matter lacked movement invention), the concert featured some exciting young choreographers whose work I hadn’t yet seen. I really enjoyed the wildly provocative Beau by Madboots Dance. And big thanks to the dynamic soloist Myriam Allard’s for introducing me to the wonderful world of contemporary flamenco.

Perry: James Kudelka’s The Man in Black is one of my favorites — its expressiveness is so tightly woven into its structure. But I think Atlanta Ballet dancers brought more intensity to Johnny Cash’s songs when they performed the quartet in 2012. What else stood out to you about 2016?

Wessel: EXPOSED, a six-week festival of Israeli contemporary dance and theater sponsored by the Israeli Consulate, was responsible for quite a few of my favorite performances this year. Yossi Berg and Oded Graf’s Come Jump With Me, which featured a near 10-minute jump rope sequence as the performers chatted about the current state of Israel, and Hillel Kogan’s hilarious and politically provocative We Love Arabs — especially in contrast to Anat Grigorio’s Mr. Nice Guy, a scathing commentary on the male-dominated dance world — were some standouts. Through a partnership between CORE, 7 Stages Theatre, Emory University/Candler Concert Series, Rialto Center for the Arts and Kennesaw State University, the festival offered workshops, creativity conversations, and a film screening of the much-anticipated Mr. Gaga. I loved that all of these events stitched together Atlanta’s sometimes splintered dance community and brought many folks to venues and performances not usually on their radar.

Jerusalem’s Vertigo Dance Company was part of EXPOSED. (Photo by Gadi Dagon)

Jerusalem’s Vertigo Dance Company was part of EXPOSED. (Photo by Gadi Dagon)

I think EXPOSED bodes well for our community. Aside from Vertigo Dance Company (whose clever but somewhat disconnected work Vertigo 20 had a one-night engagement at the Rialto), the artists didn’t just drop in for a one- or two-night stay; they really took time to collaborate on creative projects and develop long-lasting relationships.

Perry: I agree. These collaborations deepened participants’ experiences, fostering dialogue and cultural understanding. They pulled these Atlanta organizations out of their little bubbles and tapped enormous possibilities for cross-fertilization and artistic exchange.

But it wasn’t just happening with EXPOSED. Last spring, Ballethnic Dance Company’s guest artists introduced new repertoire, stretching dancers’ potential. Paulette Brockington’s “The Third Side” elicited poignant performances from Laila Howard and Alicia Williams. In Salvatore Aiello’s “SATTO (Wind Dance),” Brandy Carwile and Roscoe Sales danced together with newfound subtlety and sophistication.

Dianne McIntyre, a strong and gently influential figure in the arts in Harlem and the African-American presence in modern dance, held residency at Spelman during the new dance department’s first year (2015-16). McIntyre choreographed a libation for the African dance and drumming group Giwayen Mata’s May performance, and McIntyre recently brought a new work, accompanied by Spelman Glee Club, to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s first Atlanta performance since the main company went on hiatus in 2004. I understand that Mozel Spriggs, founder of the Spelman College dance program, brought DTH to perform in Atlanta before that time. It was great to see Spriggs honored with the Pioneer of Atlanta Dance Award at the Modern Atlanta Dance Festival (MAD), which gave a strong showing this year.

The MAD Festival included Gathering Wild’s final performance, as Jerylann Warner folded her company after 20 years on the scene.

Room to Move Dance’s collaboration with Canada’s Penderecki String Quartet, which played on stage as dancers traveled in and around them — showed the company’s lushly visceral style and the holism of choreographer Amy Gately’s base in Erick Hawkins technique. (Disclosure: this concert inspired me to start taking Gately’s class.)

With so much growth, enthusiasm and community participation from area colleges with dance programs — KSU, Emory, Agnes Scott, Brenau and Spelman — plus local dance companies and presenters, Atlanta seems ripe for more guest artist collaborations and jointly produced festivals like EXPOSED. Beyond presenting individual guest performers, the colleges, theaters and companies worked together to create a festival far greater than the sum of its parts. I think we can thank Sue Schroeder, artistic director of CORE, and Yonit Stern, director of Cultural Affairs of the Israeli Consulate, for building the network and making it all happen.

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