ArtsATL > Dance > Q&A: Atlanta Ballet’s John McFall creates his own place for dreamscapes in “Mayhem”

Q&A: Atlanta Ballet’s John McFall creates his own place for dreamscapes in “Mayhem”

McFall watches as Kiara Felder and Heath Gill rehearse "Three."
McFall watches as Kiara Felder and Heath Gill rehearse "Three."
McFall watches as apprentice dancer Kiara Felder and company dancer Heath Gill rehearse “Three.” (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

MAYhem is a fitting finale to Atlanta Ballet’s extraordinary 2013–14 season, with two world premiere works by in-house choreographers and a repeat of a much-praised work by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo first performed here in 2012.

Atlanta Ballet resident choreographer Helen Pickett debuts her new modern work, “The Exiled,” which draws influence from existentialism and creates a surreal world where three criminals are trapped for eternity and tormented by a pair of “Reckoners.” It is Pickett’s second original piece for Atlanta Ballet; her “Prayer of Touch” was performed in 2012.

Artistic Director John McFall has put together “Three,” his first Atlanta Ballet piece in five years. McFall, who has served as the ballet’s artistic director since 1994, was a successful choreographer before coming to Atlanta — including two pieces commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov for American Ballet Theater.

John McFall
John McFall

McFall discusses his new work, which is inspired by how dreams and the subconscious interact with consciousness, and his role as a mentor to dancers and students at Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education. Much of the cast of “Three” is made up of students from the ballet’s dance school.

ArtsATL: The first thing I noticed when I went to the rehearsal is that you had your dance shoes on. It’s been five years since you’ve choreographed a piece for Atlanta Ballet.

John McFall: I did go to China in the spring of 2011 and spent two months doing a new version of Don Quixote. So it’s not as though I haven’t been active. But I haven’t been as engaged as a choreographer, there’s no doubt about that. Fortunately, I’ve been investing more time in the studio teaching.

I’m director of the school. I brought together a group of youngsters who had extraordinary talent and put them all in a room together, and I started teaching them. I also started teaching the men’s class for the company a couple of times a week. As well as coaching.

Frankly, part of that is due to [president and CEO] Arturo Jacobus and his leadership — the strategic planning, the day-to-day. I’m not in nearly as many meetings. Which affords me the privilege of not only investing more of my time here in the studio in Atlanta, but have a dialogue with colleagues around the world, exploring reps and partnerships and what’s happening and thinking of who to invite here in the future.

ArtsATL: I spend most of my time editing stories and when I’m able to write, it’s sort of like going home. I’m imagining when you choreograph a piece, it’s like that for you as well.

McFall: It is. The pleasure is that we’ve all known each other for a while now, and these dancers have collaborated with a number of different choreographers — some of the most interesting choreographic voices from all over the world. And they’re such wonderful collaborators, it’s an adventure when you get into the studio with them. Everything takes flight. It’s not like you’re going to learn to sail the boat. When you walk into the studio, the sails are already full of wind and you’re already soaring across the waves.

ArtsATL: You mentioned the student dancers. The piece has company dancers Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper. But there were a lot of faces I didn’t recognize.

McFall and Felder.
McFall and Felder.

McFall: That’s right. There are a lot of dancers from the school that are in the ballet. They’ve been focused on training for a number of years and here we are together, doing what it’s all meant to be — and that’s to do it. You really learn to dance on stage.

There’s no better opportunity than to be in a room with professional dancers who have been doing it for a while, and the artistic director. We’re all exploring this together. It’s a pretty stimulating process. It’s got a lot of vitality. There’s an empowerment in that process for all of us. And the more I teach, the more I realize I have to learn.

There’s something about the idealism that’s really churning inside a really young individual. They’re stepping out into the world, and everything is fresh. It’s all available. And there’s a certain level of intensity, deep curiosity, enthusiasm, passion. It’s in their heart to jump off the cliff and it’s a compelling experience when you give them access to that, because you end up sort of flying off with them.

ArtsATL: There’s an old phrase: in order to keep it, you’ve got to give it away. And you’re giving it to them, and getting it back from them.

McFall: And that’s how dance is. It’s a shared experience. There’s no other way it happens. It’s in that studio. You can’t hand somebody a book with illustrations. You can’t do it through Arthur Murray, where you get a chart with the footprints on it for where to put your feet. That may be a great idea, but that’s not how it really works.

ArtsATL: Your piece is called “Three” and it focuses on how dreams and subconscious affect us. How did it evolve?

McFall: The first spark was thinking about what music I wanted to use. I had a blank screen. I’d listened to Alexander Scriabin when I was a young person, and I loved his stuff. But I didn’t know what to do with it, I wasn’t ready for it. For some reason, one day I thought, well, maybe I’m ready for it; let’s dig out the Alexander Scriabin.

What was different this time was I’d really gotten into Scriabin’s life and found out he was a mystic. He was very metaphysical. And his music was embued deeply with that awareness. That’s where I started to go off into this realm of mysticism and dreams. I’ve been interested in dreams since I was a toddler. I used to have nightmares. I remember being in my crib and standing up, and those vertical bars. I was really disturbed by this recurring nightmare, and my father would come in and console me.

I’ve been deeply fascinated by that aspect of our life ever since. I thought, let’s do something and bring the curtain up on this thing we all live with — the subconscious. There’s reams of information in science and academia and Freud and Carl Jung, how our subconscious partners with us and influences us in so many ways.

McFall demonstrates while Gill looks on.
McFall demonstrates while Gill looks on.

But how do you convey that? Dreams are so fragmented. I thought, well, I’m not going to know until I try. Immediately, I realized I needed a host of composers and a host of aural experiences. I ended up using Scriabin’s sonatas, and we’ve got Radiohead and Steve Reich and David Wang.

ArtsATL: At the rehearsal, you told the dancers you want the audience to almost reach a spiritual place in the first eight minutes, then you used the analogy of the crash of a shattered mirror.

McFall: There’s always a bit of a narrative thread, no matter what the idea is, even if it’s a plotless ballet. There’s always an undercurrent. What I do is establish this transcendental, Zen-ish inner tranquility and peace. It starts with a female who finds a place to get into a lotus position. And while she’s meditating, a gentleman happens upon this setting. That’s how the ballet begins. That’s the first seven minutes.

We have three dreamers; that’s why it’s called “Three.” Dreamer One (Tara Lee) is love and compassion. Dreamer Two (Stephanie Hall) is mind and knowledge and intelligence. Dreamer Three (Jessica Guda) is will and action. Those are three things we all endeavor to balance. Then we have three suitors. The suitors are enablers, they enable these dreamers to travel and pursue things like out-of-body experiences and astral traveling and deja vu.

Usually when we’re so immersed in mind and knowledge, we’re not even going to think about getting distracted by the esoteric, the sublime, the poetry of life, the beauty, the aesthetic, the love. We won’t take a moment to even consider. Dreams are full of this stuff, and they really are a partner with us.

So here we are. Atlanta Ballet dancers are going to be commenting on dreaming. Helen Pickett is going to be immersed in existentialism, that’s her interest right now. Then we have Jorma Elo using the music of Jean Sibelius. Of course, he’s Finnish, and what a great work that is. It should be a pretty interesting evening.

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