Lore, a world premiere from Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, was one of the year's highlights. (Photo by Ben Rawson)
ArtsATL > Dance > Year in Review: Atlanta’s dance scene is transforming into a destination for creatives

Year in Review: Atlanta’s dance scene is transforming into a destination for creatives

The year in dance in 2017 was marked by the ripple effects of the spring shakeup at Atlanta Ballet that sent a number of skilled and talented dancers out into the community, invigorating Atlanta’s dance scene with artists eager to dig in to the city’s creative culture.

ArtsATL dance editor Cynthia Perry and critic Kathleen Wessel recently sat down to review what turned out to be a very busy, and creative, 2017 in Atlanta dance.

Cynthia Perry: Kathleen, how do you think the fallout from this seismic shift at Atlanta Ballet has changed the local dance scene?

Kathleen Wessel: I think it revealed a hunger for innovative work by local choreographers. I also think it brought the Atlanta dance pockets together to rally under the battle cry of contemporary work. New companies emerged, but more notably, the already rich network of choreographers, dancers and multi-genre artists cross-pollinated to foster fascinating collaborations and fill a void left open by Atlanta Ballet’s return to a more classical aesthetic. Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre and Kit Modus, both founded by former ballet dancers, made their debuts this year, and I’m interested to see how they will fare among the many established companies and seasoned contemporary choreographers.

Perry: Terminus certainly has the public eye now, but they met in secret at first while four of the five founding dancers were still under contract with Atlanta Ballet. Over several months, they formed a solid infrastructure and built out a studio over the summer, and by the fall, Terminus had produced two full-length world premieres, Exstasis and Lore. Both works tapped the artists’ histories with Atlanta Ballet’s contemporary repertoire and narrative works, and as a result, Terminus quickly established a unique voice in the community, richly endowed with technical expertise, stage magnetism and storytelling gifts. 

The new troupe will present another world premiere by Israeli-born and Los Angeles-based choreographer Danielle Agami at Kennesaw State University’s new Dance Theater, which opened last spring. KSU Dance has since launched a professional presenting season, which started auspiciously last fall with Horses in the Sky, a surreal and visceral work by Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company.

Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre: (left to right) Heath Gill, Tara Lee, John Welker, Rachel Van Buskirk and Christian Clark debuted with two striking original productions. (Photo by Felipe Barral)

Kit Modus formed over the past seven months at Callanwolde, with its own niche as a group of dancers who co-create works and invite choreographers to stage works on them. Artistic director Jillian Mitchell aims to develop a choreographer’s residency program at their home base at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. Callanwolde director of dance Jerylann Warner has been a force behind that.

Warner co-produced An Evening of Three Works at Agnes Scott this month, featuring Kit Modus’ debut, a new work by Sean Nguyen-Hilton and the debut of ImmerseATL, Sarah Hillmer’s new program for pre-professional and emerging artists. Nguyen-Hilton’s Secular Suite applied theories of quantum physics to the choreographic process and showcased former Atlanta Ballet dancers Devon Joslin and Brandon Nguyen, along with Scott Wheet of CORE Performance Company. Nguyen-Hilton’s vocabulary, an intricate network of long-limbed penetrating lines, propulsive steps and fluid torso wiggles, comprised a complex language that revealed the space’s virtual architecture. Combined with physicist David Bohm’s voiceover text, this sensibility spoke of an invisible dynamism of possibilities all around us.

Wessel: I like that we were able to witness Nguyen-Hilton’s creative process over the course of a month — beginning with his premiere on Emory Dance Company, then with professional dancers at the Kit Modus concert and, most recently, at the ImmerseATL showcase with a solo he created for Mitchell. Though I found the core concept — brief movement vignettes appearing in light then disappearing in darkness set to a male voice musing about art and the nature of human perception and consciousness — most fully realized for Emory Dance, I appreciated this innovative process of developing work in the public eye.

The Fly On A Wall performance troupe pushed the boundaries of dance and sound. (Photo by Bubba Carr)

Perry: It was fascinating to watch Nguyen-Hilton’s ideas evolve. With that solo, “A sketch on movement, thoughts and consciousness,” Nguyen-Hilton drew striking qualities from Mitchell [with] the poetic syntax of his movement language, which amplified Mitchell’s exquisite long lines and fluid intelligence on stage. I hope to see more from this partnership. Coincidentally, Mitchell left the Georgia Ballet around the time several dancers with Atlanta Ballet joined Nguyen-Hilton to form Fly on a Wall in 2014, an “idea house” for innovation. The group has since completed a number of collaborations that explore shifting perspectives on what constitutes performance and how we experience it.

Wessel: Fly on a Wall continues to push conceptual boundaries and challenge performance conventions in Atlanta. This year, the dance collective presented “Prism II,” which featured a tiny floating stage suspended from the ceiling by harp string and monofilament. They also remounted Dave at the High Museum and Hz at the Atlanta Contemporary, solidifying the collective’s commitment to gallery and nontraditional spaces as shifting entities in the development of a work over time. What did you think of Hz, Cynthia?  

Perry: Hz was unforgettable. Set in the Atlanta Contemporary’s outdoor pavilion, the work explored how binaural beats, tones that encourage the brain to enter altered states of being, influence a performance experience. On the evening I attended, the Lambda beats opened my mind to the whole sensory experience — from the soft rustle of Nicole Johnson’s dazzling gold ballgown to Jesse Tyler’s futuristic score. Three men in black moved around Johnson like celestial bodies orbiting the sun, and their whirling reflective panels flashed golden light all around the space to an overwhelming effect.

For this version of Hz, Fly on a Wall added dancer James La Russa, who also brought his passion and ample facility to Terminus’ Lore and Staibdance’s w i s h d u s t, one of the year’s most complex and elegantly conceived collaborations. It was particularly compelling when a cluster of dancers moved en masse like a wave crashing against a coast, almost pitching Emma Lalor toward the audience. With each forward-charge, Lalor covered her face as if trying to avoid the inevitable.

Devon Joslin (Photo by Alan Kimora Dixon)

Another notable dancer in George Staib’s work was Devon Joslin, one of the most visible Atlanta Ballet exiles outside of the Terminus Five. If I had to choose “One to Watch,” it would be Joslin. Equally comfortable in classical and contemporary work, she moves with specificity and fearlessness with an emotional coolness that gives her dancing both intensity and edge. And she brought those special qualities to Staib’s w i s h d u s t, Heath Gill’s Lore and Nguyen-Hilton’s piece.

Wessel: My “One to Watch” this year is definitely Jazmine “PhaeMonae” Brooks, a multifaceted movement artist who seems to pop up everywhere and never disappoints. Since moving to Atlanta last year, she has worked with Greg Catellier, T Lang Dance, Core Performance Company and SCRAP Performance Group. She is also a guest artist with glo and was a featured performer at Wussy Magazine’s “Femme: a celebration of women + art.” I won’t soon forget the incredible moment in T Lang’s POST when PhaeMonae crouched in front of a line of women and stared at Scott Wheet for at least four minutes — a black woman confronting a white man. With unwavering commitment, she softly shifted, cocking her head as if scanning through every memory and thought he’d ever had.

Perry: Yes, it was unnerving, as was much of POST, T Lang’s fourth work in a series inspired by Heather Andrea Williams’ book, Help Me Find My People, on how post-Civil War emancipated slaves used newspaper ads to find lost loved ones. POST dug deep into the human psyche, calling up sensations and raw emotions associated with loss, yearning and isolation. To me, it seemed POST gave voice to the voiceless, and the musty Fort McPherson chapel seemed a sacred space for calling up those unheard voices.

PhaeMonae brought a similarly raw intensity to Core Performance Company’s Human Landscapes, which transformed B Complex’s empty warehouse into a shadowy, interior world, where choreographer Germana Civera’s memories of growing up in a repressive regime in Spain melded with the migrant’s experience and questions of identity, power and exile. The work included an extended section in full nudity, and Core dancers rose to the occasion, upping their game as risk-takers. For me, the work imbued a profound sense of the vulnerability and resilience of the human condition.

Helen Pickett’s Camino Real stands as one of Atlanta Ballet’s greatest achievements. (Photo by Kim Kenney/Atlanta Ballet)

As with Life Interrupted earlier this year, Human Landscapes showed this group of Core dancers is coming into its own. In general, their work has gained polish while remaining authentic. It’s more cohesive, and continues to expose each artist’s uniqueness.

Wessel: Human Landscapes was wild and wonderful. I took a master class with Civera as part of Core’s open class series at their Decatur studios and found her to be an eccentric artist capable of conjuring magic in the studio.

Perry: That’s exciting, because Civera will continue to “transmit” her process to the artists of Core, for them to carry into the future. We’re likely to see more projects with Civera and Core Dance.

Wessel: I’m jazzed that Core Dance has expanded into riskier repertory and committed to bringing international choreographers to Atlanta for longer creative processes that utilize the wealth of local talent. Those multilayered experiences enrich the city and inspire more fruitful collaborations.

This year’s collaborations, especially among artists working in multimedia forms, renewed my faith in the sustainability of dance in Atlanta. Newcomer Dr. Julie B. Johnson, who moved from Philadelphia to join the dance faculty at Spelman College last year, partnered with acclaimed visual artist Charmaine Minniefield to present Remembrance as Resistance: Digitally Mapping the Ring Shout outside the Auburn Avenue Research Library in September. Bolstered by an evocative score by soundscape artist Muthi Reed, Johnson and Minniefield transformed an urban parking lot into a space enlivened by African diaspora dances that transcended time and place, creating a sanctuary which audience members eventually entered, dancing in celebration together.

Blake Beckham (left) and Malina Rodriguez of The Lucky Penny (Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks)

Perry: Remembrance bodes well for Spelman College’s new Department of Dance Performance and Choreography, with its focus on teaching dance and choreographic processes through the lens of black feminist theory. [Full disclosure: Wessel is a member of Spelman’s dance faculty.]

Speaking of enlivening spaces, Lauri Stallings, with her platform, glo, has continued to activate dormant spaces, as she has done for several years, both in town and across the state of Georgia. This year, these ranged from Atlanta’s Interlocking Tower to a historically black church in downtown Griffin to a hillside meadow in northwest Georgia. The distances glo has traveled should not diminish the impact of works in Atlanta, particularly, her tableaux vivants for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s “theater of a concert” production of Orfeo ed Eurydice. Standing between orchestra and chorus on Daniel Arsham’s monumental set, glo performers appeared in golden light, like an ancient Greek chorus commenting on and responding to the main players’ situations. Their statuesque shapes and group forms recalled composer Christoph Gluck’s era as well as frescoes of antiquity.

glo artists evoked Furies of Hades, then heroes of the Elysian Fields. They foretold Orfeo’s future and made visible the inner churnings of the hero’s mind — his fears, desires, joys and heartbreak — not just in a visceral way, but as a whole moving organism. The work resonated with warmth and generosity, even as the group embodied the music’s volumes, cadences and emotional textures. The overall production may have pushed glo off to the side at times, but Stallings clearly carried her craft and message to a higher plateau.

The snow scene from Ballethnic’s Urban Nutcracker.

The Georgia Ballet’s production of La Fille Mal Gardee also harked back to the 18th century, bringing an important historic ballet to Atlanta area audiences. Artistic director Daet Rodriguez has clearly elevated the company’s skills in English-style storytelling — in particular, Kelsey Stanhope gave the lead role, Lise, the right balance of understated technique and modest humor with endearing and unforced sincerity.

Wessel: Across a variety of genres, spaces and communities, dance in Atlanta is quickly gaining notoriety as an art form capable of telling stories and driving cultural movements. Thanks to the thriving LGBTQ community here, we have artists, patrons, critics and muses who continue to inform and shape the conversation around dance. This fall at the Work Room, the Lucky Penny hosted “Queer Thursdays,” a weekly movement practice for all bodies, and Blake Beckham and Hez Stalcup presented Fails, an examination into the nature of failure. Corian Ellisor, also known as Ellasaurus Rex and the “mother” of the East Atlanta Village drag queens, ventured into new territory with the premiere of On My Mind in November. With a mix of drag, contemporary dance and live singing, the one-person show played to a packed audience of admirers at 7 Stages. Ellisor unpacked and examined his layered personal history as a queer black man growing up in the South, touching on enough complex and varied themes to merit a larger body of work.  

Perry: On My Mind was Ellisor’s MFA thesis performance, and he’s been steadily building new material at the Work Room, The Lucky Penny’s East Point space for select independent dancemakers to build their work over the long haul. Committed to long-term, rigorous choreographic development, the group doubled its creative output in Heads Up, the Work Room group’s second annual summer showcase. In September, Bella Dorado’s Faest featured Anicka Austin whirling in and out of the Woodruff Arts Center lawn, her body conducting an electric force it seemed she had conjured up from the ground. We’ll continue to see Work Room artists showing their choreography in different spaces around town.

Venues around town came alive with Alvin Ailey activities as part of the Ailey organization’s new Destination Dance initiative to bring year-round programming to Atlanta. In October, Ailey II performed at ELEVATE Atlanta and the Rialto, where Atlanta-based choreographer Juel D. Lane made his Ailey II debut withTouch and Agree.
Christian Clark and Alessa Rogers, who each departed the company this year, starred in Vespertine, a highlight of Atlanta Ballet’s 2016–17 season. (Photo by Kim Kenney/Atlanta Ballet)

The year 2017 saw some major milestones. Full Radius Dance marked its 25th anniversary at 7 Stages Theatre last spring. Ballethnic Dance Company celebrated the Urban Nutcracker’s 25th anniversary in the production’s birthplace at Morehouse College’s King Chapel. Staibdance hit the 10-year mark with its retrospective, X. In 2018, Dance Canvas will celebrate 10 years’ producing works by emerging choreographers.

Which brings us to our beginning and end — Atlanta Ballet, in Gennadi Nedvigin’s debut season as artistic director, and also the farewell season for a number of company members. During this time, what performances stood out to you?

Wessel: Liam Scarlett’s Vespertine, which appeared on the triple bill “Gennadi’s Choice” in March, was a highlight of Atlanta Ballet’s 2016–17 season for me. It felt like a sort of last hurrah by dancers like Kiara Felder and Alessa Rogers whose range of technical expertise spans from classical to contemporary and who have, sadly, since moved away. Clad in rich burgundy velvet and sometimes almost nothing at all, the dancers explored a range of human emotions — vulnerability, aggression, loneliness — through a sumptuous, sweeping movement vocabulary expertly crafted to a Baroque score.

Perry: Vespertine was formal and intimate — it evoked the Renaissance yet felt spontaneous and breathtakingly new. From one inevitable moment to the next, Vespertine seemed to reach into antiquity and draw meaning, texture and breadth from the past into the present.

It was fitting for Atlanta Ballet to close last season by reviving Helen Pickett’s Camino Real. The dramatic masterwork gave artists and audiences a chance to revel one last time in the adventurous and innovative spirit that helped define the John McFall era. After the final show, some dancers stayed with Atlanta Ballet. Others moved elsewhere. Those individuals who left the company, but remained in Atlanta, are raising technical standards while nourishing creativity in dance across the city.

Wessel: People used to say Atlanta has the “potential” to be a destination city for the nation’s great dancers and choreographers. Like a L.A. with Southern hospitality or a New York City with affordable housing and better weather. I would argue that the sophistication and quality of the work puts us in a world class. The work is here.

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