In a Peachtree Battle storefront, 14 dancers, their technical prowess and youthful vitality as palpable as their enthusiasm, rehearse three nights a week. One of them, Justin O’ Ferrell, glides across the glossy black floor in athletic shorts and high-top sneakers. His insouciant solo mixes the intricate footwork and muscular undulations of hip-hop and house with balletic leaps and smooth, jazzy turns.
It’s exuberant, uplifting and playfully flirtatious, and it epitomizes a new troupe known as the Atlanta Dance Connection.
About 18 months ago, Allyne D. Gartrell and Le’Von Campbell moved from Dallas to Atlanta. Both are seasoned dance professionals who share a vision: a company where they can blend their experiences in classical ballet, modern, jazz and African dance into a fusion of styles as entertaining as it is artistically elevating. They’ve since attracted a troupe of young and aspiring professional dancers to form the Atlanta Dance Connection, an exciting addition to the local dance scene.
This Friday and Saturday, June 1 and 2, the group will perform “The Fresh Allure” at North Atlanta High School. The company’s third mainstage Atlanta concert will include upbeat works by Gartrell, former Philadanco member Tracy Vogt, Dallas-based choreographer Keith Clark and Atlanta dancemaker Jai McClendon Jones.
Gartrell’s reputation and his knack for nurturing young talent attracted the dancers, said Campbell, the company’s manager, who’s a veteran of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s trainee program, Alvin Ailey II and Broadway musicals. Five dancers followed Gartrell from Dallas; others come from Atlanta, Florida, the Carolinas and Alabama.
Spend time with Gartrell and it’s easy to understand the attraction. His lilting voice and clear-driving focus inspire ease and confidence, even at the end of the day, when dancers come in to rehearse after their various day jobs.
“We introduce the idea of the space as sacred ground, a place of solace and refuge, where they can exhale and let go,” Gartrell explained during a break between technique class and rehearsal. “We teach them professionalism. We give them ownership of their careers. We tell them, ‘What you decide to get out of it is what you decide to put into it.’ ”
Gartrell grew up in Atlanta and has maintained teaching ties to his hometown even as he has enjoyed a career as a professional ballet dancer elsewhere. He was a fixture on New York’s Broadway musical theater scene, then went on to be lead dancer, instructor and rehearsal director with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and the Dallas Black Dance Theatre.
Those two modern dance companies are among several founded in a tradition that goes back to Alvin Ailey’s historic 1958 performance at New York City’s 92nd Street YM-YWHA. Many view that concert as the start of a modern dance genre that’s broadly accessible yet distinctly African-American.
Gartrell came to Dayton Contemporary with a strong background in ballet and jazz techniques. Inspired by his teacher James Truitt, a former Lester Horton dancer, Gartrell became “inebriated” with modern dance, he says. He has since developed a signature style that combines both influences: the artistic, more serious subject matter of Horton-based modern dance with the polish and popular appeal of commercial work, grounded in ballet and jazz.
In 1999, Gartrell began a four-year stint directing the Milwaukee Dance Connection. During that time, he founded Atlanta Dance Connection under the nonprofit umbrella of the Arts Unlimited Project. He returned to Dallas in 2003 and, after about three years, became artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s second company, a group of advanced students from the school. His teaching and coaching elevated the students to a professional level.
“All they needed was a lot of shaping and molding,” Gartrell recalled. He introduced a repertoire of popular works based in ballet and jazz techniques, while the first company performed weightier modern dance works. As demand for the second company’s performances increased, the group began to add significant income to the organization, Gartrell said.
“Originally, Ann [Williams, Dallas Black’s artistic director] wanted to embrace the idea of having two companies that were able to tour and whatnot,” Gartrell explained. “But just like with any organization, trying to manage two companies maybe did not suit her as well as she may have thought from the beginning.”
Budget cuts were the official reason Gartrell was laid off in 2010. (Campbell had departed in 2005.) After a gig assisting Tony Award-winning choreographer Hope Clark in a national production of “Porgy & Bess,” it appeared that nothing was holding them back from pursuing their Atlanta dream.
Jones was an old friend of Gartrell’s in Atlanta; he had mentored her since she was around eight years old. Now a choreographer and entrepreneur, Jones had opened a multidisciplinary performing arts studio called AREA (Atlanta’s Resource for Entertainment & Arts) in 2009. Atlanta Dance Connection became the studio’s official professional dance company, with Gartrell as artistic director. More than 50 dancers came to its first audition.
What sets Atlanta Dance Connection apart from companies such as Dayton Contemporary and Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Gartrell said, is equal emphasis on artistic and entertainment value. “I think sometimes with modern dance companies, they can become so heavy and serious that they forget about the audience per se, that the audience is really paying money to be entertained,” he said. “And we will educate them about modern dance through the entertainment. But you can’t just force-feed them and say, ‘Here, you’ve got to like this’ when they don’t know anything about it.”
Watching the dancers rehearse, the appeal is irresistible. In Vogt’s lushly romantic “Between Two Worlds,” three couples cast a textured palette of emotions with luscious, suspending leg sweeps, full-body gestures and gorgeously shifting sculptural shapes. In Gartrell’s “Caribbean Sunset,” dancers crest and tumble like surf to bossa nova rhythms. Like whirlpools and eddies, they toss off multiple pirouettes that spread out spiraling, capoeira-style, into the floor. Later, in a beachside bar scene, the performers spring into a heady mixture of balletic feats spiced with salsa moves and cha-cha steps.
The dancers, part-timers for now, benefit from Gartrell’s and Campbell’s professional coaching as well as Campbell’s expertise as a licensed massage therapist. With the Arts Unlimited Project’s nonprofit status nearly reinstated, Gartrell aims to secure funding in order to pay the dancers more substantially. He hopes to build a professional ensemble that reflects the city’s diversity.
“My vision is for the city of Atlanta to adopt the company as they have done for the Atlanta Ballet,” Gartrell said. His ambition is high: to “bring contemporary dance back to Atlanta, to show that there’s a market for it and that there’s a company that has the expertise and professionalism to represent the city as ambassadors for Atlanta.”