On a sultry Thursday evening in late April, only three weeks before the Atlanta Ballet season finale, five current and former company dancers gathered in an enclosed parking garage inside the Westside Cultural Arts Center to greet their future.
The hard, bare concrete floor was hardly optimal for dance — far removed from the state-of-the-art dance studios they were accustomed to. There was no massive stereo system to pipe in their music, only an Apple laptop and a set of computer speakers. There wasn’t even air conditioning to dampen the sweaty heat, just the slightly cooled night air from outside.
And yet they formed in a tight circle in a corner of the garage and began to loosen up under the direction of Tara Lee, in her 21st season as a star with Atlanta Ballet. Around her were some of the most recognizable faces of the company from the past decade: John Welker (principal male dancer for 21 years; retired last December), Christian Clark (15 years and the company’s principal leading man), Rachel Van Buskirk (10 seasons and star of the season opener Carmina Burana) and Heath Gill (seven seasons and the star of the season finale Camino Real).
The four active dancers had spent the day in rehearsals for their final show for Atlanta Ballet, Camino Real; tonight, moonlighting beneath a cloak of secrecy, they staged their first rehearsal of their post-Atlanta Ballet lives for the new company they have collectively formed: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre.
Lee and Gill worked to form a move that Lee had envisioned, then demonstrated it to Clark and Van Buskirk. At one point, it required Van Buskirk to fall back into the chest of Clark, like the trust game, where he was to grab her and lower her toward the ground. Instead, she slipped through his arms and, laughing, sprawled to the floor with the overdrawn panache of a silent film actress. Clark looked down at her and smiled. “Was that not good for you?” he deadpanned.
About 20 minutes later, Lee was crouched on the floor, intently watching as Clark and Van Buskirk smoothly executed the series of moves she and Gill had just taught them. “Nice, nice, nice, nice, nice,” she said.
Welker, sitting off to her side, nodded and smiled. “It feels like it’s becoming something,” he said.
Lee chuckled. “It takes a minute to channel back into that,” she replied.
Gill walked up to them. “Mark it,” he quipped. “On April 26, we had our first rehearsal for a piece that, well, we don’t know what it is quite yet.”
They laughed with the giddy energy of knowing something new was being born. After months of off-hours clandestine meetings plotting business strategy and keeping minutes and designing logos and websites — this was their moment of joy. They were at last doing what led them here: creating dance in their own image.
Before Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre even puts a pointe shoe onto a Marley floor, it is already one of the most prominent dance troupes in Atlanta.
First, there’s the star power of their five company dancers — perhaps the most recognizable faces in the Atlanta dance community from their tenures at Atlanta Ballet.
Terminus has established significant partnerships right out of the gate. For at least the first two years, the home headquarters for Terminus will be the Westside Cultural Arts Center. There, they will rehearse, offer educational programming to the public and make their debut performance in October. They are also eyeing future performances at Tyler Perry’s new development at Fort McPherson and the new theater devoted to dance on the Marietta campus of Kennesaw State University.
Most significantly, Terminus has entered into a partnership with the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and the Environment, where they will eventually be housed in a new arts facility Serenbe has on the drawing board. Their second performance will be another world premiere staged outdoors at Serenbe, likely in November.
What will Terminus be as a dance company? Welker cautioned against expecting a continuation of Atlanta Ballet under former artistic director John McFall. Lee, who will both dance and choreograph for the new company, said they are still defining what Terminus will become. “We’re trying to avoid labeling ourselves and where we’re going; that’s what we would like to learn on this journey,” she said. “There’s a certain confidence about it that we all have, and I don’t know why because this should be a terrifying moment for us. We all have big ideas about what it’s going to be, and for some reason, it’s not daunting. It feels like: okay, let’s do it. There’s a certain peace about it.”
Collectively, they see a large fertile ground between Atlanta Ballet’s move toward more traditional ballet ethos, and the more avant-garde contemporary leanings of such independent companies as glo. “It’s right there,” said Welker.
In late January, Welker reached out to ArtsATL to disclose their plans for Terminus and to offer to embed a writer with them as they worked to form their company. For the past four months, ArtsATL has sat in on the weekly meetings where the five dancers planned and plotted strategy for their new dance company with no restrictions other than to keep the proceedings secret until the end of the Atlanta Ballet season.
SEPTEMBER 2, 2015: THE BEGINNING
The genesis of Terminus dates back 18 months when Atlanta Ballet announced that John McFall was leaving and the company mounted a search for a new artistic director. Lee, Clark, Gill and Van Buskirk were selected by their peers to be on a dancer search committee to vet the three finalists and make a recommendation to the ballet’s board of trustees.
During their conversations as they evaluated the final candidates, including Welker, the four dancers began to talk about what would constitute an ideal company. “We were talking in the wee hours about things that we value, not just in the art, but in the leadership,” said Van Buskirk. “And we recognized we all had the same thoughts.”
The dancers’ unanimous choice for the position was Welker, who had aspired to replace McFall and prepared himself by founding Wabi Sabi — Atlanta Ballet’s popular summer troupe that performed modern works outdoors — and by pursuing a degree in dance from Kennesaw State University, followed by a master’s degree in business. The dancers felt in tune with Welker, who is beloved among the Atlanta Ballet company, and with his vision of what Atlanta Ballet could be.
Early in the process, however, they had a growing belief that it was a done deal to bring in Gennadi Nedvigin, a retiring principal dancer from the San Francisco Ballet who is steeped in traditional classical ballet from his training at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet School.
They began to talk about going to “Plan B” if Nedvigin was hired, which was starting their own company. “It started as a joke: well, there’s always Plan B,” said Gill. “It kind of came through thinking about what we wanted Atlanta Ballet to be, and through that we discovered how we’d run things if we ever had that opportunity.”
After Nedvigin became artistic director in August, they felt the freedom they’d had in the studio under McFall was being taken away, and they preferred the modern edge in repertoire the company had become known for performing. Over time, the discussions about “Plan B” began to take on serious tones. There was just one hitch. “We knew we couldn’t do it without John,” said Clark. “We also knew he needed some time to redirect.”
Added Lee, “We knew that decision was a wound.”
Welker said he was “devastated” not to be named the ballet’s artistic director. He decided to retire from the company following the Nutcracker run last December, and take some time to heal and refocus. “I’m not completely recovered from it,” he said. “But there’s a growing part of me that now feels this was meant to be.”
SEPTEMBER 12, 2016: THE MEETING AT CHIC-FIL-A
Although he was still undecided about forging ahead with a new dance company, Welker was intrigued enough to invite the four dancers to KSU’s Marietta campus for a tour of the space that was under construction to be converted into a theater devoted solely to dance. While it was earmarked for KSU’s dance program, it would also be available to area dance troupes to stage productions. Afterward, they gathered at the Chic-fil-A downstairs in the Student Center.
There, they began a hard sell to Welker. Here at Kennesaw would be a performance space waiting to be filled, and they were all excited by the possibilities.
None of them were happy with Atlanta Ballet’s new direction. They talked about how there was room for a new modern dance company in Atlanta. And the one thing they’d learned from the search committee was that they meshed as a group even in a setting outside the dance studio, using different skills. McFall had preached about empowering oneself; this was their opportunity to live that legacy.
One thing that Welker had to be sure of was their collective motivation. This had to be about their vision for dance, and bringing something meaningful to the city, not a reaction to what Atlanta Ballet was doing. Welker emphasized that they are all part of Atlanta Ballet’s legacy, and none of them wanted to tarnish that.
At last, Welker told them he was in, and they even had a photo of themselves taken outside the Chic-fil-A to mark the occasion. “These guys brought me around,” Welker said. “This is what I needed, really. What was lovely about it was that it was reassuring that the past 22 years were not all for naught. Their faith in me was telling. If I would’ve let that go, I would’ve really regretted it. But I also knew the breadth of work we were taking on, and the uphill battle that we were going to be facing.”
OCTOBER 1: FINDING A HOME
Just three weeks later, Joseph Guay — Lee’s boyfriend — opened an art exhibit at the Westside Cultural Arts Center. He liked the vibe of the space and encouraged Lee to talk to the building’s owner, Dr. James Chappuis, an orthopedic spine surgeon; Guay thought a part of the complex could easily be converted into a dance studio.
Lee, in turn, encouraged Welker to attend Guay’s opening party because Chappuis would be there. Late into the party after most of the guests had left, Lee introduced him to Chappuis, who invited the two of them to walk up to a large space upstairs. As they took in the spaciousness of the room, Chappuis said the magic words: “This could be a dance studio, right?”
They quickly agreed to a deal with Chappuis, and the first major hurdle was passed: a home for their company. “Once we had a home and a space, that changed the financial outlook,” Welker said. “After that, everything had a platform. There was a foundation to build upon, and that changed the whole dynamic.”
They settled on the name of their new company: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. They liked its history; “Terminus” was one of Atlanta’s original names because the city grew around the terminus point of a railroad that linked Georgia to the Midwest. Terminus, literally, means “end of the line.”
That spoke to the dancers because an ending is also the starting point of a new journey. “A terminus is an intersection and meeting point of ideas,” said Lee. “It’s people coming together to create something new. And that’s us.”
JANUARY: A WELL-KEPT SECRET
As the five principal dancers of Terminus began to meet on a weekly basis, they agreed to keep the project secret until the end of the ballet season; beyond spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, they told virtually no one. “For me, I knew it would have to be this way,” said Welker. “I kind of laid down those rules right away. I said, if we really want to succeed, we have to keep it under wraps. We have to keep it amongst us. There’s no other way around it. We were all very disciplined about doing that.”
“I think the hardest part was not being able to share it with our fellow dancers,” said Lee. “That definitely took a toll on all of us.”
The group did discreetly approach a few potential donors, and soon had $55,000 in seed money, including $50,000 from Atlanta Ballet supporter James Weis.
Weis said Welker’s vision for a dance company is in line with what Atlanta dance audiences want. “He has his hands on the pulse of a city that is very sophisticated and knows what they want to see in contemporary ballet,” Weiss said. “When John approached me with his ideas, I was thrilled. I think with five great minds and excellent dancers like these, this company will soar.”
They didn’t even tell McFall until just before he moved to Amsterdam in April. Welker met him at a coffee shop and faced a moment of telling his mentor that they wanted to do this on their own, without him, and wanted his blessing. “That was incredibly hard for me,” Welker said. “It was a coming of age moment. I think he saw that and understood that. We knew that if we were to really fly, we had to cut the tethers that bound us.”
FEBRUARY 23: SHAPING THE FUTURE
The five launched their weekly Thursday night meetings at Westside. By now, their application to form as a nonprofit 501(c)3 was already in the process, and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre was about to formally exist.
There were countless logistics, small and large, to figure out: How many performances would they have the first season? When should they debut? When should they make the announcement? Where would they find ballet barre rails, and where should they go? What was the most cost-effective way to line a wall in their studio with mirrors so they could see themselves rehearse? What kind of sound system would they need for the studio, and how much would it cost? What would their daily schedule look like? And what about a website? Not to mention a Facebook page?
Although Welker is their leader and final arbitrator, the five consider themselves equal partners and almost all their decisions are based on the unanimous agreement of all five of them.
The sprawling parking garage attached to the facility was envisioned as their performance space, and they spent much of the evening measuring and imagining where to set up their Marley dance floor and where to sit the audience. The first challenge was how to deal with the series of support beams that stand 24 feet apart and would be flush in the middle of any stage area.
“It’s manageable,” Clark said, studying one of the posts.
“Well, we can always hide behind them,” joked Van Buskirk. Moments later, she bent down and drew a heart of the floor with a piece of chalk, then wrote “TMDT” in the middle. Their territory was marked.
A couple of weeks later, they learned the parking garage has its own zoning designation, which only allows use for cars, not dancers or dance performances. Instead, they agreed to use the event center downstairs as their Westside performance space, with their dance studio on the second floor. They also decided to launch a modest first season with one performance at Westside in the fall and then another in the spring at KSU.
On April 6, ArtsATL broke the news that 13 Atlanta Ballet dancers — including Lee, Clark, Van Buskirk and Gill — would be leaving the company at the end of the season.
Lee Foster, who was giving the dancers acting lessons for the spoken-word parts in Camino Real, also is on the board of Serenbe’s film branch. She called Diane Harnell Cohen, Serenbe’s board chair, with the news and told Cohen it could be the opportunity Serenbe was looking for to start its own dance company. “Let’s give Heath Gill a call, see what he’s going to do and if he’d be interested in working with us,” Foster told Cohen.
With that call, the game was about to change for Terminus.
APRIL 13: SERENBE STEPS IN
When Gill reported back about his conversation with Serenbe, there was a noticeable stir from the others. They were all familiar with Serenbe and its artistic mission — Wabi Sabi had performed there the previous summer. “It was a very positive conversation,” Gill told them. He didn’t fully explain Terminus to Serenbe, but told them enough that they wanted a meeting.
Welker immediately liked the idea. “In terms of performances, we could do Wabi 2.0 down there,” he said.
The group decided to send Welker and Gill to meet with Cohen and other Serenbe officials.
When they reported back the following week, they were cautiously optimistic that a deal was reachable. The good news was that Serenbe wanted them — with enthusiasm. The meeting had included members of Serenbe’s board and even the mayor of Chattahoochee Hills. Serenbe already had plans to build a facility with rehearsal space and storage facilities for Serenbe Playhouse and its other programs. Terminus would be a perfect fit there, and Serenbe was holding off on its feasibility study until the dancers reached a decision.
The bad news was that in order to cut the deal, they would have to give up their 501(c)3 status and fold themselves under Serenbe’s umbrella. Welker also cautioned that doing so might mean they’d have to change their name to something like “Serenbe Modern Dance Theater.” The final potential hurdle was that Serenbe wanted them headquartered there, and they had just inked a deal to be headquartered at Westside.
The dancers were hesitant to give up their 501(c)3. For them, it represented their autonomy and ability to govern themselves. They feared folding into Serenbe’s tent might compromise the thing they valued the most: their artistic freedom. They also hesitated because they wanted a presence in Atlanta. They agreed to meet as a group the following week with Cohen and Gretchen Butler, formerly the managing director of Serenbe Playhouse who had just moved up to a position with the institute.
In that meeting, Cohen and Butler enthusiastically sold the benefits Terminus would see as a member of the Serenbe community. “Serenbe’s mission is to be the standard of arts culture,” Cohen said. “And we’re trying to put an emphasis on the arts in South Fulton. We’ve long wanted to include dance but just couldn’t do it. We see this as serendipitous for us, especially because we’ve worked with all of you with Wabi Sabi.”
A partnership with Serenbe also offered numerous other benefits: substantial seed money, bookkeeping, grant-writing services, fundraising, marketing and health insurance for company members.
More importantly, Cohen calmed their fears. Both Cohen and Butler assured them that Serenbe places high value on artistic freedom. They wouldn’t have to change their name, only figure out a way to incorporate “Serenbe” into it. And Serenbe was fine with Terminus having dual headquarters.
After the meeting, the members of Terminus quickly agreed that it would be an ideal union. At a follow-up meeting, the deal was sealed when Westside officials signed off on a three-party partnership. The company can maintain headquarters at both locations. Terminus will keep its name. For performances, however, they will formally be known as Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, presented by the Serenbe Institute in cooperation with the Westside Cultural Arts Center.
With Serenbe’s entrance, the dancers realized they might have the capital to present a full season of shows in their first year. In fact, the new challenge they faced was to make sure they don’t overextend the five-member company in its debut season. For now, they have decided to stick to two certainties: one world premiere at Westside in October and another, outdoors, at Serenbe in November.
“Serenbe changed our entire conversation,” Welker said. “And it bolstered our confidence that what we’re doing is right.”
Still, Welker said he takes nothing for granted and knows that considering the company’s pedigree, expectations will be high. He nervously laughed when asked how he will measure success. “Are we still a legitimate company after one year?” he replied.
MAY 15: THE GRAND FINALE
Lee, Clark, Van Buskirk and Gill performed their final show with Atlanta Ballet last weekend in Camino Real, based on the Tennessee Williams play, along with eight other dancers who are also leaving. They spent the week telling many of the other dancers about their plans for Terminus. “So much for the big secret,” Lee said afterward. “They all knew something was up, they just didn’t know the details.”
As Lee bowed to a sustained standing ovation at the end of her final Atlanta Ballet starring role after 21 years, Nedvigin walked onstage with a large bouquet of roses and handed them to her. Audience members tossed roses to her as Lee burst into tears. “I was certainly feeling emotional, but not necessarily sad,” Lee said. “My heart feels heavy, but also filled with so much love and gratitude.” She paused to laugh. “This past week has had a bit of gravitas, you know?”
Lee’s final moments on an Atlanta Ballet stage were spent as Esmeralda reciting one of Williams’ best lines, a prayer to the poets and con men and hustlers who fight and lose, then get up to fight again. For Lee, the circumstances gave the final lines a charged and emotional edge: “Visit with understanding and something almost tender those fading legends that come and go in this plaza like songs not clearly remembered,” Esmeralda said. “Oh, sometime and somewhere, let there be something to mean the word ‘honor’ again.”
The troupe universally felt a kinship with the story behind Camino Real, which is about characters who seek redemption and a new beginning. For the five dancers, that story fit symbolically with the reason they choose “Terminus” as the name of their company. For them, Esmeralda’s soliloquy marked a melancholy finale, but also the bold beginning of a new journey. “Everyone was in the zone for Camino,” Clark said Tuesday. “There was a lot of emotion in the air. We finished on a great note, and I’m really excited about that. But we’re ready. We are so ready. Let’s get going.”