This weekend marks the symbolic end of the John McFall era at Atlanta Ballet. The company performs the ballet version of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which the former artistic director commissioned from his last resident choreographer, Helen Pickett. It also marks the final performance of 13 dancers from the McFall era, including five of the company’s top dancers.
Eight company dancers, including Heath Gill — who stars as Kilroy in Camino Real — were not offered contracts for next season by new artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin. Four other principal dancers of the company — Tara Lee, Rachel Van Buskirk, Alessa Rogers and Christian Clark — elected not to return and will be taking their final steps for Atlanta Ballet. A fifth, principal male dancer John Welker, retired from the company in December after the run of Atlanta Ballet’s The Nutcracker.
Rogers will go to France next season to join Ballet du Rhin. The others have not announced their future plans.
It has been a season of turmoil for many of the company’s longtime company members. Many of the veterans rebelled against the company’s turn toward more classicism in the repertoire and a more traditional ethos. “We were all drawn to the company’s versatility and family feeling,” one veteran dancer told ArtsATL last month. “We don’t stand behind the mission anymore, or find it relevant to Atlanta.”
For the Bolshoi-trained Nedvigin, the departures offer the chance to remake the company in his own image. “It creates an opportunity to engage a young generation of talented dancers that we are able to groom and nurture into professional artists,” Nedvigin said last month. “We will have the chance to not only maintain the level of the company but to push it to new heights.”
Lee’s retirement from the company after 21 years helps mark the end of the McFall era; Lee, Welker and Christine Winkler, who retired in 2014, were among the first dancers McFall brought to the company and became his star dancers. Lee, 41, says she will continue to dance but will now focus on being a choreographer. Nedvigin has commissioned a new piece from her that will debut next season.
Lee brought a fierce sensuality and physicality to her roles — including break-out performances in 2002’s Madame Butterfly and 2008’s Big with Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of Outkast — and she is spellbinding on stage. In her final role, Lee stars as Esmeralda, the wise and sad gypsy girl whose prayers sum up what desperate circumstances can drive people to do.
After the original production in 2015, ArtsATL’s Cynthia Bond Perry called Camino Real “an extraordinary creative achievement.” She said Lee “was Esmeralda — vibrant, tragic and beautiful.”
During a lunch break from rehearsals for Camino Real last week, Lee sat down with ArtsATL to discuss her career at Atlanta Ballet, her plans for the future and the moments she’ll cherish the most.
ArtsATL: This is your last show with Atlanta Ballet. You have the starring role. What kind of emotions are you going through?
Tara Lee: Strangely, I’m even and calm right now. Sometimes through the day, I get glimpses of all sorts of assorted emotions. I’m quite certain everything will be quite magnified this week as we do the shows. But right now, it’s a mixture of being able to focus on the work like normal, business as usual. And the work itself is about the community and everyone’s different stories within that community. So it’s an interesting reflection of our company, and I can’t help but compare art and life. And there’s definitely been a couple of times I’ve gotten emotional.
I say that prayer at the end, and it’s about blessing and protecting everybody — I can get pretty emotional. And that’s a nice thing because it’ll mean something very real.
I feel wonderful gratitude when I look around and see my best friends ever. A little bit of nostalgia, of course, because I realize these are our last few days in the studio together as this particular family. That’s always heart-wrenching. But in a way, it’s still not very real (laughs). This is how we’ve been operating for so long. Knowing there’s a new chapter coming soon hasn’t really sank in yet.
I don’t know what will happen on stage, but it will be full-on and it will be beautiful because it will be real.
ArtsATL: Do the other dancers bring this up at all?
Lee: Not every five minutes or anything, but, yes, there’s been lovely moments with everyone. For a lot of us, this is our farewell show with the company and especially me, because I’ve been here the longest. I think a lot of people are taking extra moments to give me some love and appreciate what they’re seeing in rehearsal. Which is really nice. I’m trying to accept the love and compliments. I think when you know something is fleeting, you look at it with more care at what’s in front of you.
ArtsATL: I know that when you came here 21 years ago, you didn’t really expect to be here 21 years later.
Lee: I didn’t. I’m not a future-driven person. I never thought I’d be dancing until this age. But here we are, and I feel like it’s been at least five different lives because I’ve changed so much and things around me have changed so much.
ArtsATL: John McFall found you at Joffrey II in New York City. You said once that you intended to come here for a year or two, and then wound up staying for 21 years.
Lee: I did. I was 18 or 19, I was in New York City and I was ready to go to the main company. I had it in my mind that was what I was going to do. They had offered me a half-year contract because they were having financial problems. Then I met John and he invited me to come down here. I was so young, and you don’t know what you’re going to do. You think you’re going to bounce all over the place. But that first year, it clicked immediately with the other dancers and with what we were doing and with the energy. And I got some big opportunities my first year. So it just felt like, “Oh, this is where I should be.” So I let go of my attachment to staying up north pretty immediately.
ArtsATL: You came here the same year as John Welker and Christine Winkler.
Lee: He gets an extra year seniority because I left that one year to go to Vancouver to dance. So in the program, it looks like he was a year longer. But we came the same year (laughs). I danced with Ballet British Columbia for one year in 2006. It was a personal decision, and it was a good season. One of the highlights of my career was working with Crystal Pite and doing a premiere with her up there. I’m always talking about that process because I respect her so much, and she is such a badass choreographer. That was an honor to work with her.
But I came back because there was something special here that was not anywhere else. There was some type of alchemy between people in this organization. And that year, we did Big.
ArtsATL: What moments stand out for you?
Lee: There’s a lot. I remember opening night the first time we did Madame Butterfly when I was 24 or 25. It had been a grueling process and intense, and it was one of my first roles where I had to carry the narrative. I was so exhausted every day, I’d fall asleep in my bed with my coat on (laughs). And opening night, when I heard the reaction and knowing that my family was out there to be a part of that, I remember breaking down as soon as I came out to bow and felt the support from the audience. That’s a very memorable moment for me. I remember turning to someone and saying, “Oh, my parents are here to see this!” And I wanted them to be proud, so that was cool.
I also remember Big. That was another special moment. The audience was so diverse. We had a traditional ballet audience, and we had people from the hip-hop world. It was such a mix, and the energy in the room was so awesome. Everyone was up and standing and dancing together by the end, and that felt really magical. That was a beautiful energy.
And definitely the times I’ve shared a program as a dancer and as a choreographer. That is amazing. I felt very crazy and delirious and extremely full because I was completely using every capability I had at all times. And then opening night, it’s the first time I see my own piece. I can let it go and sit there, and I’m kind of in awe of how that all came together. I can’t beat that feeling. I can enjoy it. It’s almost the opposite of being a dancer on opening night; your adrenaline’s going even crazier. But as a choreographer, you go, I can’t do anything else, so I’m going to enjoy it.
And doing Odette in John McFall’s Swan Lake was a big deal for me, too. That was another role that exemplifies a lot, and the second time I did that, I partnered with John Welker, and it was beautiful to do that. But there’s been a lot of wonderful moments on stage.
ArtsATL: Do you still get stage fright?
Lee: Stage fright, as you get older, does not go away for me. There’s a certain skill set that I have to cope with that, but it’s like an excitement-slash-dread when I go on stage. And I guess that means I still care. I still feel that. You have to take a moment to decide what your mental state is going to be, and focus your mind and defuse that energy. It’s different than when I was younger because you have this adrenaline that makes your body go faster. That doesn’t happen now, but it’s more internal. I think it just means I’m ready to be on the other side a little more, be in front of the studio a little more and creating things.
ArtsATL: Your plan now is to move toward choreography?
Lee: Yes. I want to do a lot more of everything, but especially choreography. I definitely feel compelled to create more; it’s time for me to follow my own instincts without compromise. It feels right for this time in my life. I want to do more acting. I have an agent, and I’ve done some TV and film stuff when I had the time. And with dance, I want to be collaborating and performing. I want to do a little bit of everything, just in a different way.
There are some exciting things in the works that I’ll be able to share soon; things are still getting finalized and figured out. But I’m very excited about being scared (laughs). I feel very optimistic about it. Whatever I do, and however I collaborate with my fellow artists wherever I am, I’m ready to help elevate the arts community in Atlanta and to support each other in what we do.
I’m excited to do a new piece for this company next year and to come back and collaborate with them. I still have a lot of lovely things that I can do here and artists that I treasure who are here.
ArtsATL: You’ve had the opportunity here to pursue that, and to create works that were staged by Atlanta Ballet.
Lee: It’s been ideal, to be able to do that in your home company. I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario.
ArtsATL: There’s a lot of controversy in the ballet world about opportunities for female choreographers. But here, John McFall gave them a platform. How empowering and inspiring was that for your aspirations?
Lee: I’m very glad that has not been in my paradigm. John McFall has championed female choreographers, and both of our resident choreographers were female. And he always encouraged me. So I’m lucky that it’s never even been an issue. That was inspiring just to see that and to know that it exists. I wasn’t consciously thinking of that, but it was always my reality to know that I could do that if I wanted to. I’ve never thought of myself as a “female choreographer”; I’m just a choreographer. But that is a hot topic in the dance world.
ArtsATL: Are your parents coming down from Connecticut?
Lee: Yes, they are. My parents and my brother. They’re going to be here for opening night and my last show on Saturday night. That will be really cool. Full circle. My parents have come a long way with me, since the beginning when they said, “You’re not going to be a ballerina.”
I want to make sure we celebrate all of us. There’s such a big graduation celebration, people coming and going. It’s about all of us, really. I’m just the oldest. At first I wanted to be under the radar, but my friends and family kept saying, “Tara, have that moment.” And it’s been 21 years. Pretty awesome. And I’m excited for what’s to come, what’s on the horizon. That makes it less sad.