ArtsATL > Dance > The ArtsATL Q&A: Atlanta Ballet’s John McFall and the art of creative boldness

The ArtsATL Q&A: Atlanta Ballet’s John McFall and the art of creative boldness

Atlanta Ballet Leadership (left to right behind Twyla Tharp) Board Chair Allen Nelson, Executive Director Arturo Jacobus and Artistic Director John McFall.
Atlanta Ballet's leadership (left to right behind choreographer Twyla Tharp): Board Chairman Allen Nelson, Executive Director Arturo Jacobus and Artistic Director John McFall.

There’s vitality and vigor among more than a dozen male dancers of Atlanta Ballet as they rehearse “Carmina Burana,” a pop interpretation of Carl Orff’s work by David Bintley, artistic director of Britain’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. Bintley, warm and approachable in faded jeans and a T-shirt, looks on as dancer Jesse Tyler leads the ensemble.

A pianist pounds out a melody as Tyler begins a series of turns, fists beating on his chest and back. Ape-like, he lopes forward and sinks to the floor as about a dozen men tear across the room from both sides. With reckless aggression, they hurl themselves through the air, landing with a clomp, as Tyler springs to his feet. A few pantomimed tequila shots later, the room is filled with dancers punching and kicking; it’s organized chaos with the look and feel of a drunken brawl.

Next April, Atlanta Ballet will present the work’s North American premiere. When Bintley was asked during a break what made him feel confident that the company is up to the task, he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “John McFall.”

McFall, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director since 1994, is coming off of an extraordinary past season that featured works by high-profile choreographers Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo and James Kudelka, among others. The company also partnered with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet to produce a full-length world premiere by Twyla Tharp.

This season’s programming boasts new acquisitions including Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16” and a world premiere by Gina Patterson. The usual October show has been moved to next April in a strategy to attract more people to “The Nutcracker” in December, build momentum with the blockbuster “Dracula” in February, then keep dance fans in a groove and coming back for concerts in March, April and May.

ArtsATL recently sat down with McFall and asked him to reflect on the highlights of last season, his hopes for the coming season and his perception of Atlanta’s arts community.

ArtsATL: What are your thoughts and reflections about last season?

John McFall: There is a collaborative spirit that is, frankly, extraordinary and unique here at the Atlanta Ballet. In my personal experience, as an artistic director or choreographer or dancer, it is very fulfilling to finally be at a place where the leadership of an organization . . . I’m referring to trustees, patrons, donors, our executive director, Arturo Jacobus, [and] our board chair, Allen Nelson. We also had a donor who provided a new line item for us. It’s called the Innovation Fund. So it’s pretty fulfilling as an artistic director to have the capacity and the support to bring those works to the stage.

ArtsATL: How has this level of repertoire affected the dancers?

McFall: I just can’t imagine what it feels like, frankly. I was a dancer for 20 years, and there were those highlights in a dancer’s career, but this was cornucopia. You talk about a wave of abundance, and it’s a meaningful experience because not only is it stimulating, it’s extremely challenging. And the focus, the dedication, the commitment, it’s deep and wide. And you have to have some real mettle; you have to have a strong core in you to fully respond to that level of capacity and expectation. Suddenly, it was a whole other dimension of potentiality.

And the choreographers, in the process of working with the dancers — there’s that self-realization. Because it’s a very dense process; it’s very brief and it’s very heightened. And it was fascinating observing choreographers who were relishing this process, and it was mutual. They were driving each other. The first simple word to describe it is exhilarating.

ArtsATL: Last season’s stellar repertoire was part of an initiative to shape a distinct company profile. But beyond that, what prompted the decision to invest in such a high level of work? 

McFall: Artistic directors dream of presenting and producing and manifesting all kinds of things that can really build a profile for a season. It can be astounding, but very few times are they realized, because of the practical challenges. The economy is in throes, you know, and the world is so distracted; there’s so much contentious disagreement. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything pulling together to build ideas that can move the culture forward.

And that permeates everything. And it permeates attitudes at not-for-profits. It can affect your leadership, your trustees. Because all of a sudden, everybody’s insecure: “Well, that might be too ambitious, because you don’t know if you’re going to sell enough tickets.” There are all these questions.

That’s what I said before when I talked about the leadership. I talked about our trustees, and Allen Nelson and Arturo Jacobus. These ideas that I put on the table, we were able to run with them. It’s not so “bold” as it is, you just don’t get distracted. Because when you look inside of what your mission is, and the vision that makes it possible, you realize, okay, what are we? We’re an arts organization. So let’s be an arts organization.

ArtsATL: Looking at the arts in Atlanta in general, where do you think Atlanta stands in the arts world? How do you think the arts community here is perceived by others?

McFallWhat’s more important is your relationship in your community. I think the perception — at least from what my personal experience has been — is that it’s stimulating to realize that the perception is very positive, actually. And that was not an accident in the making. You’ve got to salute the community, who embrace and help provide support for the symphony and theater, for ballet and music on all kinds of levels.

But it’s really more about the context of looking at the relationship of the arts, living and thriving in the community. Engaging and enabling ideas to come to fruition, the discipline, the artists who are actually playing the music, dancing the steps, or singing — that’s what really matters.

Something that has changed is that people don’t have to leave Atlanta now. If you were an aspiring artist in whatever the genre happened to be, it was pretty typical that you had to get the heck out of town in order to pursue it. And that’s no longer true. So that’s something to be said, in the context of one generation.

We had a meeting yesterday about a theater we’re putting in, a 200-seat black-box theater, in the early fund-raising stages of a five-to-seven-year plan, and the whole purpose of the theater, and that’s another dialogue. There again, we talked about the leadership. And that’s not an accident, either. I’ve been trying to get Arthur Jacobus here for years.

Coming Friday: An interview with Atlanta Ballet Executive Director Arturo (Arthur) Jacobus.

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