In a move that dramatically changes the future face of Atlanta Ballet, 13 dancers — almost 50 percent of the company — will not be back for the 2017–18 season.
The departures include the company’s four star-level dancers — Christian Clark, Tara Lee, Rachel Van Buskirk and Alessa Rogers. They will all leave the company at the end of the season in May. Eight others were not offered contracts to return.
Multiple sources within the company told ArtsATL that the departures are the culmination of a culture clash between the open and modernistic atmosphere fostered by previous artistic director John McFall that was embraced by the dancers, and the classical ballet ethos favored by Gennadi Nedvigin, the new Bolshoi-trained artistic director.
Dancers have often said McFall viewed them as “visual poets” with their own individual artistry, and he gave them permission to experiment and even bring their own personalities into their performances. Nedvigin was hired with a mandate from the ballet’s Board of Trustees to return the company to a more traditional and structured repertoire steeped in ballet traditions.
Many of the dancers brought in by McFall said they have found the sea change in company culture to be too extreme to endure.
“We don’t stand behind the mission anymore, or find it relevant to Atlanta,” said one veteran dancer, who asked not to be identified. “We were all drawn to the company’s versatility and family feeling. Atlanta Ballet had its own identity; we were versatile enough to go from contemporary to classical. This turn to pure classical is not what we were told would happen. I’ve been in the company for a long time, and it’s definitely not the place for me anymore.”
Several dancers said the atmosphere in the rehearsal studio has changed since Nedvigin’s arrival. “The joy and the pleasure is not in the studio anymore,” said another dancer, who also asked not to be identified. “I can’t be a dancer without joy. I have been sad this year, unmotivated and angry. That isn’t sustainable and I don’t think Gennadi’s energy is something I will get used to. [My partner] noted that [they] could tell I wasn’t as happy at work this year because I don’t dance in my sleep anymore.”
ALLEN W. NELSON, CHAIR of Atlanta Ballet’s Board of Trustees, said change within the company was not unexpected with new leadership and a new vision. He said he wishes well the dancers who are leaving and expressed appreciation that they were stewards of the organization, but said the company will move forward. “It’s not a blow at all,” Nelson said. “We obviously have to find several dancers to do lead roles, or move current dancers up to those roles. We are holding auditions around the world, and a heck of a lot of dancers want to come down to Atlanta Ballet. We’re on a journey here. I see this as the next stage of the journey.”
That journey, as Nelson envisions it, is to build upon the legacy of McFall to raise the stature of Atlanta Ballet to an upper-echelon American and world-class ballet company. With new leadership, a clash of cultures is sometimes inescapable, and Nelson pointed out that McFall also reconfigured the company when he became artistic director. “It’s pretty clear that new leaders are brought in with expectations by those who have hired them and a new vision,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to go higher and hit a new level. It’s not news that new leaders come in and make decisions.”
Nedvigin is in London meeting with choreographer Yuri Possokhov, whose version of The Nutcracker the company will begin performing in the 2018–19 season. Nedvigin did, however, respond to questions sent via email. He said it’s important that the artistic vision of each dancer aligns with the company’s new artistic vision. While he acknowledged that losing the company’s four top-tier dancers is a significant blow, he said it also presents an opportunity.
“Losing four leading dancers this season was unexpected and might present some challenges at first; however, it also offers an opportunity to groom a new generation of leading dancers for Atlanta Ballet,” Nedvigin wrote. “While it is a great challenge to find experienced dancers to join Atlanta Ballet next season, it creates an opportunity to engage a young generation of talented dancers that we are able to groom and nurture into professional artists. We will have the chance to not only maintain the level of the company but to push it to new heights.”
CLARK, THE COMPANY’S PRINCIPAL male dancer who has danced at Atlanta Ballet since he was eight years old, is perhaps the most striking loss. Clark, who played the lead in two runs of the acclaimed Romeo et Juliette and starred in last month’s production of Vespertine and Paquita, is renowned for his partnering skills. He was recruited by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2013 to perform the lead role in a feature film version of their production of Moulin Rouge.
After he informed the company of his departure last month, Clark was invited to appear in a limited number of Atlanta Ballet productions as a “guest artist” next season.
The ballet will also lose all three of its principal female dancers: Lee, Van Buskirk and Rogers.
Lee, in her 21st season, is a fixture at Atlanta Ballet, known for both her finesse and fierceness onstage. She is also a rising choreographer, and the company has commissioned her to do an original work next season.
Van Buskirk, in her 10th season with the company, has had lead roles in three of this season’s productions: Carmina Burana, Vespertine and Paquita. She made Dance Magazine’s prestigious “25 to Watch” list of rising young dancers in 2012.
Rogers, in her ninth season, emerged as a star for the company after her performances in Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin and dancing with Clark as Juliette. Rogers also has a lead role in this month’s performance of Firebird. After this season, Rogers will leave Atlanta to join Ballet du Rhin in Alsace, France.
Clark, Lee and Van Buskirk have not announced their future plans.
THE TOP FOUR ARE NOT the only dancers who will be leaving. The company’s other long-time principal male dancer — John Welker — retired from the company in December following the run of Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker.
In addition, high-profile dancer Heath Gill was not offered a position for next season. Gill, in his seventh season, will have the lead role as Kilroy in May’s restaging of resident choreographer Helen Pickett’s Camino Real. Gill was named as one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2014.
The company’s only African-American female dancer, Kiara Felder, will leave the company to join Les Grands Ballet Canadiens in Montreal. Felder was named to the “25 to Watch” list in 2016.
Dancers work on one-year contracts, and the renewals come up each February. Eight dancers in the company were not offered contracts for next season by Nedvigin — in essence, fired: Gill, Brandon Nguyen (sixth season), Sara Havener (third season), Devon Joslin (second season), and rookies Ransom Wilkes-Davis and Otar Khelashvilli. Two apprentice dancers, Kristen Marshall and Laura Morton, also were not offered new contracts.
The Pennsylvania Ballet garnered headlines last year when 40 percent of the company either left or was fired when a new artistic director came aboard. In Atlanta, the loss will be nearly 50 percent of the company.
THE COMPANY DANCERS WHO SPOKE to ArtsATL for this story, all of whom are leaving, said they expected Nedvigin to want to bring in a number of new people who better fit his vision of the ballet. “The job of an artistic director is to hire and fire, and it’s not unheard of for a director to clean house; McFall did when he came here,” said one company member. “It’s the dancers who are leaving voluntarily who are more telling.”
The dancers who were brought here under the eclectic blend favored by McFall have bristled with the company’s turn back to more classical ballet, and Nedvigin’s more traditional ways. “It’s sad to see what McFall tirelessly built be pulled apart,” said another company member. “Atlanta Ballet was set apart by the repertoire we were doing. We weren’t just another mid-sized company doing Swan Lake. We had [acclaimed Israeli contemporary choreographer] Ohad Naharin coming to Atlanta to teach us one of his works. That’s a big deal.”
Another said they believe the dancers gave Nedvigin and his new vision a fair shot. “I knew the compassion and respect with which McFall treated us would spoil us for any other director we worked with,” the dancer said. “But I think it created a great product on stage. I think we were open-minded coming in. We wanted Gennadi to do well. But it’s not the Atlanta Ballet that it once was and it won’t be again.”
Nelson said Nedvigin has “100 percent support” of the board, as do the dancers who are leaving the company. “Life goes on,” he said. “We all make decisions to take new opportunities and new directions, and that’s great for the dancers who will leave us. It shows a level of strength, independence and character. The board is in absolute support of the dancers who made those decisions. We also are in complete support of Gennadi’s decisions and direction.”
Nedvigin said he also wishes the dancers who are leaving success in their new lives. “While we will miss seeing some of these beloved and well-known faces on stage, we are grateful for their time with our company and wish them all the best as they transition into their respective next chapters,” he said.
Nedvigin said in the email that his mission is to mold the company to reflect its new direction. “I learned very quickly that the contract renewal process is one of the most difficult components of my new position,” he said. “While it’s not easy, I must look at the dancers objectively, without being personal. The company’s artistic vision for the next three-to-five years has shifted.”
He said his goal is to recruit new dancers who fit into that new vision. “In general, I am pursuing dancers that have physical and artistic appeal in the esthetics of classical and contemporary ballets equally,” Nedvigin said. “This is vitally important in achieving the vision that I have laid out in building a balanced repertoire that will attract a new audience and expand our Atlanta Ballet family in the future.”
ANOTHER SORE POINT FOR many dancers was Nedvigin’s decision in February to shut down Wabi Sabi, the popular summer dance troupe founded by Welker that performed contemporary pieces outdoors at such venues as the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Serenbe and the Ponce City Market. The troupe, which completed its sixth season last summer, was supported by Atlanta Ballet’s staff and largely funded by the company. When Welker retired last year, he appointed Rogers as the new director of Wabi Sabi.
Rogers experienced pushback from Nedvigin when she told him about a contemporary dance choreographer she wanted to bring in for Wabi Sabi’s now-cancelled summer season. According to a source with knowledge of the conversation, Nedvigin replied that he didn’t see how contemporary dance would benefit the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. Rogers was informed of the demise of Wabi Sabi the day before she flew to France to audition for Ballet du Rhin.
When asked about Wabi Sabi in an interview last month, Nedvigin said he hopes to resurrect the troupe in a different form but was not ready to discuss specifics. “It’s not shut down, there’s a transition to it,” Nedvigin said. “We want to keep the idea of it and the inspiration, but we will transition it into something else. Right now, we’re in the preparing process.”
His statement was later clarified by Atlanta Ballet’s public relations manager, who said, “Wabi Sabi will no longer be a part of AB’s company repertory.” The ballet will now use the Centre for Dance Education to take dance into the community through outreach programs.
Rogers said many of the dancers are disappointed by Nedvigin’s decision to end Wabi Sabi. She noted that the troupe gave choreography opportunities to such company dancers as Tara Lee and Heath Gill. It gave the company’s foreign-born dancers, who are on restricted work visas, a summer paycheck. It also put the company in front of new audiences in often-picturesque outdoor settings where the crowd was only a few feet away.
“When you are surrounded 360 degrees by an audience, when they can see your sweat and you are close enough to them that you can hear a little girl say, ‘That’s so cool,’ then that is a vulnerability that makes you feel so alive and so grateful,” Rogers said. “At the end of the day, bringing art to the people in the most accessible way possible is going to help our art form survive this century. It’s disappointing that Wabi will not be a part of that anymore.”