Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee describes “Pavo” as a story of transformation, the struggle to recognize the unhealthy cycles we adopt in life and the greater struggle to break free of them.
The ballet’s world premiere of “Pavo” marks the third time that Lee, one of the company’s leading dancers, has stepped out of her dancing shoes to choreograph a piece for her company. Her choreographic debut came in 2003 with “Sixteen String,” which grew out of an Atlanta Ballet choreographers’ workshop. She followed that with “Poem” in 2004, which was later performed by the New Orleans Ballet Theatre. Lee has also had two commissions from the Emory Dance Company.
In the first part of an exclusive two-part interview with ArtsATL Deputy Editor Scott Freeman, Lee talked about her childhood in Connecticut and how Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall discovered her in New York as a dancer with Joffrey II. In this second part, the focus is on “Pavo,” which is part of the “New Choreographic Voices” showcase that will run May 18-20 on the Alliance Stage at the Woodruff Arts Center. Here, Lee talks about the importance of having enough paint, how she drew inspiration from the peacock and how this piece represents the beginning of her personal transformation from acclaimed dancer to fledgling choreographer.
The accompanying slide show features the gorgeous work of Charlie McCullers, the official photographer of Atlanta Ballet. Many of these photos of Lee are from McCullers’ private archives and have never been published before. One photo — the fifth — was shot by amateur photographer and Atlanta Ballet dancer Jonah Hooper.
ArtsATL: How did “Sixteen String,” your first choreographic piece, come about?
Tara Lee: We had a choreography workshop, I think in 2002. It was the first and only one to date, and they opened up the opportunity for anyone who wanted to try choreography. I think it was only two dancers and our ballet master. I was one of the three. I knew immediately I was going to try. I felt like, for some reason, there was an inclination towards that. So I didn’t even hesitate to jump at that.
Each of us put together a studio showing of our works, and it was a great opportunity because we got to use company dancers, professional-level dancers, for our first go at it. John McFall saw an incomplete version, because we basically presented whatever work we’d gotten done. Several months later, he invited me to finish the piece for one of our company shows the next season. Which was a huge honor; that was a big deal. That was a company piece with six dancers.
ArtsATL: Did you also dance in it?
Lee: I did not. It was a following piece that I danced in, a duet.
ArtsATL: And obviously that second one wasn’t real successful, because they didn’t ask you again for nearly 10 years.
Lee: [Laughs.] Yeah, maybe he said, “Let’s take a break from that [laughs]. We’ll try again later.”
I’ve realized it was a combination of opportunity meeting my desire. I knew energetically I wasn’t necessarily putting it out there, being proactive about opportunities. Usually, hungry young choreographers will submit their stuff all over the place — to companies, to competitions for grants — really being proactive about it. For some reason I shied away from that, and I think it had to do with being so young and really identifying as a dancer exclusively.
And part of me wasn’t ready to redefine myself yet. I was very much in the dance world as a dancer. And I wasn’t done yet. I knew that something about growing out of that into a different category would maybe dilute my experience as a dancer a little bit. That’s how hard-core I was about it.
ArtsATL: Is choreography what you’re looking to for the future?
Lee: It is. Not in a planned way; I don’t have a plan. But I would love more opportunities to work at a professional level with this company or others. That would be fantastic. It feels right. Now it feels right. I don’t think I was ready before.
ArtsATL: Tell me about the evolution of “Pavo.”
Lee: It came about because of another fabulous opportunity given to me by John McFall. He’s been the instigator a lot of the time to really propel me. This time I was overwhelmed with gratitude, and I really wanted to embrace this one. So that was in the fall. He asked me if I was interested in doing a premiere for the company, and I started crying [laughs]. “Uh, yes!”
ArtsATL: Your dance piece is set to a new work of music by Nickitas Demos of Georgia State University. Live musicians will perform it. How did that partnership come about?
Lee: John McFall set up the meeting between me and Nick. We met a couple of times and we were on the same page about a lot of things, so we decided to go for it. We had a lot of similar interests in terms of themes. We talked about the nature of time, and about cycles and different realities and all that interesting stuff.
Somewhere along the way, after he started sending me some samples of his music, I read an article about the symbolism of peacocks. It rang a bell immediately. The peacock can digest poison: poisonous plants, poisonous snakes. Its plumage becomes even more beautiful and more colorful as a result. I thought that was fantastic symbolism, digesting one’s own poisons and transforming into something else. In the middle of reading it, I knew: this is what the piece is about. Each paragraph spelled out to me what Nick’s music was saying: “Oh, that section of music he just handed me, that’s the poison section.”
He had given me another section that sounded kind of crazy, which intimidated me right away. I didn’t know what to do with that; it was really complex music and I didn’t know how to dance to that. I realized when I was reading the article, “Ah, I know what that section is now.” The peacock does this wild, restless dancing in anticipation of rainstorms. I went, “Ah, that’s what that is.” I wasn’t sure what the music was telling me initially. The article almost illustrated it for me. The crazy dancing before a rainstorm, that could be a metaphor for anticipation of a huge change or some type of transformation.
ArtsATL: Or being washed clean.
Lee: Exactly. Our initial idea was talking about cycles and how the end leads to the beginning, and it’s another cycle. This article gave me a way to see it in a different way. It’s breaking out of a cycle, actually. Breaking out of the cycle that we keep on repeating when we keep on making choices that keep us in pain or an addiction. That’s the human experience. And I thought, something that actually takes us out of that repetition, that’s what the peacock represents to me.
And then the third paragraph of the article was about how peacocks mate for life and represent fidelity. And I went, “Oh, that’s that other section that he’d handed me. We have a duet section and … that’s what that is.” It just kept focusing me more and more on what the piece was about.
ArtsATL: I was in a coffee shop yesterday watching a video interview where you talked about “Pavo” and the symbolism of the peacock. I happened to look up and right in front of me was a vase full of peacock feathers.
Lee: Oh, really? That’s been happening the whole time. I go to a meditation class and two days after I read that article, the teacher all of sudden started talking about peacocks. He said, “Do you know peacocks can digest poison?” My hand went up and I said, “I actually do know that. I read this article two days ago. It’s a sign” [laughs].
There’re so many weird synchronicities that have been happening with the peacock during this process. It keeps reinforcing that it’s the right direction.
ArtsATL: In the video, you mentioned that there was going to be paint involved in this dance if you could get it to work. Did you get it to work?
Lee: We had one rehearsal with the paint. I didn’t want to stress out the production team too much, because they were going, “Oh, it’s going to be a mess and there’s going to be a piece after this.” I said, “I know, but let’s just try it [laughs].”
The paint deals with the idea of the woman who represents the most adult version of the peacock to me. So she’s very outside the cycle that we were talking about; she’s been freed from it. She dances with a man who is very much in the cycle.
She comes onstage with paint, peacock blue. Which also represents the heart chakra color, like a greenish-blue color. So it represents love to me. And she comes painted in this color and starts dancing with the man. She slowly starts to spread it over him as they dance. So the idea is for that color, which represents liberation or love, to transform him.
It was actually very successful. We just have to use more paint so that more of it gets on him [laughs]. Yes, it’s going to work!