Editor’s Note: This story is the final installment of four articles written in commemoration of the 2017 ArtsATL Luminary Awards, our commemoration of the passionate, creative and innovative spirit of Atlanta’s arts community. John McFall is the recipient of the Beacon Award for Community Engagement — given to artists, organizations or individuals who have raised awareness of the arts. Learn more information about the Luminary Awards here.
For John McFall, the joy of art comes from the process of its creation. It’s the artistic journey that matters as much as the art itself, and for 21 years, McFall’s artistic path helped elevate Atlanta Ballet into an internationally recognized company and touched the lives of thousands of kids who have taken classes at the ballet’s Centre for Dance Education.
“John taught us to cherish the process and not beat yourself up when there is a failure,” says Christian Clark, the Decatur native who began taking dance lessons at Atlanta Ballet when he was eight years old. Under McFall’s mentorship, Clark evolved from a gangly eight-year-old into the company’s primary male dancer. “The culture at Atlanta Ballet was you become people and artists first, and then become better dancers.”
McFall, who retired last year as the ballet’s artistic director, is an inaugural winner of ArtsATL’s Luminary Awards, receiving the Beacon Award for Community Engagement. While the honor acknowledges his work guiding Atlanta Ballet to what’s been described as a “golden age” in his last five years at the helm, it spotlights McFall’s legacy as the founder of the ballet’s dance school that now serves over 20,000 people each year.
“Art is really about engagement, whatever the form,” McFall says. “What you have to do is inspire people, ignite something inside of them. Arts education is absolutely fundamental to that.”
When McFall arrived in Atlanta in 1994, the ballet’s modest school was owned by Robert Barnett, the previous artistic director, and housed at the Atlanta Ballet facility on Pine Street. “It was a private school,” McFall says. “It really had nothing to do with the performing arts ensemble as an institution. I thought it was vital to establish a dance education center. That was part of the mission that I put in front of the search committee before I was hired. I thought it was a dual mission: performing arts ensemble and the education center. They embraced that.”
A NEW YORK MINUTE
McFall learned the value of education at an early age, when his own life was changed by his mother’s decision to expose him to dance education.
His parents met in Europe during World War II. His father, John Francis McFall, was a US soldier; his mother, Nina Timoschenko, was a Russian who was captured during the war then taken in as a house maid by an affluent German family. She was released as the war was ending, met John Francis McFall at a circus, and they married. John McFall was conceived in Europe and later born in Kansas City.
Life was not easy for Nina McFall in her new country. The Cold War had just begun. Prejudice against Russians was at its height, and she felt ostracized from American society. When she saw a newspaper article about Russian dancer Tatiana Dokoudovska moving to Kansas City to open a dance school, Nina McFall saw a potential friend and enrolled her 10-year-old son in Dokoudovska’s school so she would have the opportunity to speak Russian with someone.
John McFall showed such promise that Tatiana Dokoudovska took him to New York City one summer to study with her brother, Vladimir, at the prestigious Ballet Arts school at Carnegie Hall. It turned into an annual trek for McFall. (He actually drove himself to New York City at the age of 13.) “That’s really where I grew up,” he says. “I was stimulated by the New York summer experiences. There was something exhilarating to fly in the air, to spin, to sweat. I was in classes with all these great dancers, and I was living in New York City. I had quite an adventure.”
That New York experience gave McFall a broader view of the world than he had received back home, and he intuitively understood that dance was his calling. “I didn’t know if I’d ever become a professional, but, conversely, I never thought of doing anything else,” he says. “When I grew up in Missouri, if I wanted to express myself it didn’t fit. They didn’t want to hear what I had to say. And what I learned is that as an artist, I could be liberated.”
In 1964, McFall received a Ford Foundation scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet’s school, and a year later, he joined the company. It was a heady time to be in San Francisco. The Summer of Love was on the horizon, and the influence of Beat Generation icons such as Allen Ginsburg and Timothy Leary was already being felt by the young people who were flocking to San Francisco.
For McFall, it was a time of artistic discovery. “When you have the license to think and to be thoughtful and not just go along with whatever the trend or the expectation is, that’s something that picks up momentum inside of a person,” he says. “And California was a real good fit for that.”
Within five years, McFall was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, where he danced for 18 years until retiring in 1983. He then became a choreographer, creating works for the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Cynthia Gregory with companies that ranged from American Ballet Theatre to the Hubbard Street Dance Company to the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1986, McFall became the artistic director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. Not long after that, he was commissioned by Atlanta Ballet to create an original work for the company.
When McFall came to Atlanta to stage his production, he was disgusted by the Atlanta Ballet facility — an old automobile showroom in a dilapidated neighborhood on Pine Street that the company had rented for one dollar a year for 16 years. “It was the worst facility I’d ever witnessed anywhere in the world,” McFall says. “They paid $16 for 16 completely miserable, stinking years. What a disgrace for a community to do that, seduced into something because it was a dollar a year.”
Clark began his ballet training in the Pine Street facility under Barnett. “Yeah,” he says with a chuckle. “It was pretty rough.”
When McFall was named artistic director of Atlanta Ballet in 1994, he was keenly aware of the company’s history as the oldest ballet company in the country, founded by Dorothy Alexander in 1929 as the Dorothy Alexander Concert Group. It became the Atlanta Civic Ballet in 1941 and, finally, Atlanta Ballet in 1968.
“She was a real leader,” McFall says, “when women got the right to vote, and she was one of a whole generation of women who really changed communities. She had live music for the Atlanta Civic Ballet before there was even a symphony orchestra in Atlanta.”
But what he admired most about Alexander was her devotion to dance education. She took arts education, using dance as the vehicle, into the public school system. “The woman was a visionary,” McFall says. “She was a pioneer and she impacted thousands of lives. And then a lot of people she influenced took on responsibilities when their generation came of age.”
Alexander ran a private dance school from her home in the Ansley neighborhood, which was later picked up by Barnett. With McFall’s arrival, teaching dance to new generations became a priority for Atlanta Ballet. “In less than a year, I got the ballet out of Pine Street,” he says. “I got funding for a new Nutcracker ballet, and I started a new dance education center.”
He also hired three dancers who would form the foundation of Atlanta Ballet for the next 20 years.
A NEW ENERGY
John Welker was barely 11-years-old and a student at the BalletMet school in Ohio when he met McFall. Both Welker and his sister were taking dance at BalletMet in a space over a bagel shop, and McFall became friends with Welker’s parents. “He redefined that organization and turned it into a real professional company,” says Welker, who retired from the Atlanta Ballet last December. “He was highly energetic, highly ambitious and emotionally charged. And part of the way he did that was with the dance school there; the education aspect was very important to him.”
By the time McFall arrived in Atlanta, Welker was in Salt Lake City in his first season as a professional dancer at Ballet West. McFall called him and invited him to join Atlanta Ballet.
Welker replied, “John, that would be great. I’d love to. But there’s another person now. I found a girl, and she’s amazing.”
“Great,” McFall said. “Bring her, too.”
That’s how the soon-to-be-married Welker and Christine Winkler found their way to Atlanta. They were followed by Tara Lee, whom McFall spotted in a class at Joffrey II in New York City and offered a contract. “I was so young and naive, I didn’t even know how much of a good fortune that was,” Lee says.
Those three dancers, equally adept at classical ballet and the more contemporary styles that intrigued McFall, were his undeclared “principal dancers” through his 21-year tenure at Atlanta Ballet. “From the very beginning, I felt artistically [like] who I was supposed to be,” says Lee, who is leaving the company at the end of the season. “That first year, John brought in this really diverse repertoire for us to dance. I was so amazed by what we were doing, and I was so excited by the energy he was bringing in. He had this vision for the company and it was very exhilarating.”
Welker credits McFall with pushing Atlanta’s definition of what dance can be. “John redefined peoples’ expectations of the tutu, pointe shoes and Balanchine,” he says. “He broadened the scope of dance in this region. It’s impossible to overestimate what he’s done.”
LEAPING INTO THE UNKNOWN
McFall also brought some unorthodox ideas to Atlanta Ballet that helped mold the company. He believed ballet had to modernize. He believed that the dancers were all equal partners and declined to follow the tradition of setting up a formal hierarchy by naming principal dancers, demi-soloists and corps de ballet. He encouraged a feeling of safety in the dance studio that allowed failure without shame.
“He let you be yourself,” says Welker. “I can’t stress that enough. When you discover yourself and who you are and who you want to be, it’s empowering. And he lets you do that. He’s not asking you to be someone you’re not, and that’s the very reason he hired me in the first place. He told me, ‘I want you to be you, that’s why I’m hiring you.’ And in this business, you don’t get that. You just don’t. There’s a privilege there; you realized that this place is different.”
McFall often hired dancers, or didn’t hire prospective dancers, based on how they would fit into the personality of the company. “I loved how he had this weird ability in hiring dancers who are good dancers and good people who fit in,” said Clark, who will also leave the company at the end of the season. “One person can throw off the dynamic if they don’t fit in. And he saw that. He had a crazy skill at that.”
“He didn’t think about body type or experience with new dancers,” says Welker. “The first thing he looked at was their personality and sense of adventure, whether they were open-minded.”
Just as McFall was drawn to dancers who could challenge the status quo, he also took that point of view in the programs he put before Atlanta audiences. McFall says he “brought the world of dance to Atlanta,” and he did, bringing in works of internationally recognized choreographers: Christopher Wheeldon, David Bintley, Michael Pink, Helen Pickett and, of course, the legendary Twyla Tharp. He pushed the career of glo founder Lauri Stallings when he made her a resident choreographer. He staged shows around Big Boi of Outkast and folk icons The Indigo Girls.
As that list indicates, he was especially aggressive in giving opportunities to female choreographers. “Gender, sexuality, dogma, it doesn’t walk into the studio; it’s not welcome,” McFall says. “The studio is about humanity. It’s about vulnerability. You need to go into the unknown.”
The Atlanta Ballet company dancers who worked under McFall uniformly praise the atmosphere he created in the studio, where they could experiment and take risks without fear of judgment. “It’s a very vulnerable place to put yourself where you’re self-critical, the teacher’s criticizing and you’re judging your peers,” says dancer Rachel Van Buskirk, who also is leaving the company at the end of the season. “It’s a scary field, but I’ve never felt scared. I’m realizing that was a gift, that it wasn’t something that just naturally happens. It’s something he intentionally cultivated here. And that is precious, that is very precious and very rare.”
EMPHASIS ON EDUCATION
Equal to McFall’s quest to make Atlanta Ballet a world-class dance company was his mission to create a school that would foster dance for future generations. Less than a year into his tenure as artistic director, he founded the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, and soon put it under the leadership of Sharon Story.
“Art is about discovering things,” McFall says. “Art becomes a village that continues to resonate, and it expands. Education is critical, it’s primary to the development of art. Those are your future ticket buyers and future leadership and future trustees — the people who will advocate, who will broaden the base and build the infrastructure because they became inspired.”
McFall’s vision for the school was to make dance education available to anyone who had an interest. It was not a specialized school, with a focus on creating professional dancers, simply because that’s all its modest budget allowed it to be. “So you don’t audition, you don’t select somebody because of their body, or how they look,” he says. “You welcome them to come in and dance. It’s really more about heart and mind.”
The center has grown into one of the top-10 education facilities in the United States, and is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance. It celebrates its twentieth year May 20 with a student showcase and reception at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
A hallmark of the school is the inclusion of students in the ballet’s annual Nutcracker production, and their opportunity to rehearse with and observe the company’s professional dancers. McFall still remembers his initial encounter with Clark, who was then a young student at the school. “My first memory of Christian is the Nutcracker, him wearing a dress because that’s what boys wore,” says McFall. “He had on this teal-colored dress, which I think he was miffed about. But he was a professional, so he dealt with it.”
Clark now teaches at the dance center, as does Van Buskirk and other members of the company. Van Buskirk is a Canadian native who came to Atlanta as a teenager to attend the education center’s summer professional camps. She and Clark have taught together each summer at the company’s camp for aspiring professional dancers. “That’s always an intense experience for the kids and for us,” Van Buskirk says. “In that condensed five weeks, the amount of growth you see in those individuals, it’s incredibly inspiring. They just bloom, right in the middle of summer, right in front of our eyes. It’s really cool.”
SEARCHING FOR SIMPLICITY
Gennadi Nedvigin, the Bolshoi-trained former San Francisco Ballet star who became Atlanta Ballet’s fourth artistic director after McFall’s retirement last year, was a member of the panel that selected McFall as recipient of the inaugural Luminary Awards. “He maintained this company for 21 years, he brought his vision to the company,” Nedvigin says. “To receive the company where it is, it was a great gift of his. When John McFall came up for the Luminary, there was really no question that the man for so many years did such important work bringing ballet to the community and how much it affected Atlanta.”
Nedvigin laughs and says, “Very,” when asked how important the Centre for Dance Education is to the health of Atlanta Ballet and dance within the city. He has plans to strengthen the school, particularly the summer classes for aspiring professional dancers. He hopes the school will become a training ground for future Atlanta Ballet dancers.
“You cannot prepare a dancer better than if you nurture them at an early age, and then bring them into the company,” Nedvigin says. “If we’re going to grow the company, we need that source. That is my goal. That’s how it works, it’s a circle.”
McFall says arts education is like tossing a stone into a lake and watching the ripples flow across the water. “It becomes a village that continues to resonate, and it expands and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” he says. “Through engagement, you identify who you are. You’re introduced to the possibilities, the capacity and all the potential every one of us has. You get introduced to yourself.”
And the ripples continue through new generations of dancers. Van Buskirk takes the lessons she has learned and now passes them on to her own students. “John is a huge advocate for the education part, inspiring the next generation of artists, and I can attest personally with how much I identify with that,” says Van Buskirk. “As a dancer, to make it work, you have to be a little self-absorbed. It’s all internal. As soon as I started teaching, I realized how much it tests your own understanding.”
That’s why giving away what she knows to students has made her a better dancer herself. “Looking back at my career, I can see teaching as one of the big shifts in confidence and in learning what works for me and what doesn’t,” she says.
It’s all part of the process that McFall loves to talk about. He believes education is the only defense against the dumbing down of America. “That’s why arts education is so critical,” he says. “Think of all the potential when you have a culture of thinking individuals who are thoughtful about others, who actually pause long enough to think about others and what they bring to the community. Artists are free, real artists. That’s why artists are humble. They don’t need to be showy; they are the show because they’re free.”