For a professional ballet dancer, dancing on a grass lawn presents certain challenges.
On the plus side, just as with a professional athlete, grass is more forgiving and easier on joints and muscles. But it also comes with its own perils. Uneven ground can affect balance and footing. Pointe shoes, the traditional attire of ballet, don’t work on grass. And woe to the dancer if the ground is wet from rain.
“It can be like dancing on a wet sponge; you step on the grass and water seeps up through your toes,” says John Welker, the Atlanta Ballet dancer who founded and directs the troupe’s summer off-shoot, Wabi Sabi.
But that’s nothing compared with trying to rid costumes of mud and grass stains. “There were a couple of wet summers we had, and it was full on mud,” Welker says with a laugh. “We had quite the time getting out the stains so the costumes could be used again.”
Wabi Sabi — starting its 5th season — returns to the green lawns of the Atlanta Botanical Garden Thursday for its annual summer performance. The program, “Trip The Light Fantastic,” will tip its hat to the garden’s new installation, “Light in the Garden,” and includes one piece that will be staged after sundown under the lights. The performance starts at 8 p.m.
The four scheduled pieces feature the kind of contemporary movement that translates well to outdoor performances, even on grass.
“Thank goodness [that style] is very forgiving,” says Welker. “The rigor and structure of classical ballet is not there, and there’s a definite fluidity you can achieve. The kind of dance we present is always apt to being performed outside.”
Wabi Sabi focuses on presenting new modern works from emerging choreographers. On tap Thursday are new pieces choreographed by Atlanta Ballet dancers Tara Lee and Heath Gill, along with Sara Hillmer, a founding member of glo and now a ballet mistress for Atlanta Ballet. There will also be a performance on the trapeze by Meaghan Muller, founder of the Backside of the Tent troupe.
Unlike last year, when the performances were all staged on the Great Lawn, this year the audience will be on the move. And like the time a Wabi Sabi piece incorporated a dancer in one of the fountains, Thursday’s performance will make use of the natural setting.
“The location of the piece is the choreographer’s call,” says Welker. “We do site visits. It’s always a fun and nerve-wracking experience for me. The whole world of possibility is open, and the choreographers love to push the envelope. We had Heath Gill, Sarah Hillmer and Tara Lee all asking all these out-of-the-blue questions. Heath saw a tree and asked if he could have a dancer up in the tree.”
Gill’s piece will not incorporate a dancer in a tree. Hillmer, however, decided to stage her piece on a 40-foot-high suspension bridge in the Storza Woods, above the location where Muller will do her performance.
On Thursday, Hillmer was still constructing her work in rehearsals with Welker and Atlanta Ballet fellowship dancer Lydia Redpath. At one point, the three went outside to the handrails at the entrance of the ballet complex to replicate the rails of the suspension bridge. “I love it,” says Welker. “I love that give and take, and pushing the envelope.”
In addition to showcasing emerging choreographers, Wabi Sabi also puts the spotlight on young dancers. Jackie Nash, Yoomi Kim and Kiara Felder — all of whom were given feature Atlanta Ballet roles last season — first made their marks dancing at Wabi Sabi shows.
“One great thing is we all get opportunities we wouldn’t normally have to perform and be showcased in ways we can’t during the ballet season,” says Welker, who will leave for China on Friday to teach for three weeks.
Aside from its usual annual stops at the garden, the High Museum of Art and Sautee Nacoochee in North Georgia, the troupe will also perform in August for the first time at Serenbe.
“I love what I do with Wabi Sabi; it’s definitely a driving passion of mine,” he says. “I seek to have fun with Wabi Sabi. I definitely feel a very important part of it is the good nature, the good humor and the informality of the process.”
Other Wabi Sabi performances this summer:
— August 1, Sautee Nacoochee, Sautee Nacoochee Historic Gym
— August 21, High Museum
— August 23, Serenbe’s Open Air Function Room
— August 29, Atlanta Ballet Block Party, Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre
— TBD, a collaboration with Backside of the Tent at the historic Rhodes Theatre. This performance was originally scheduled for mid-August, but will likely be pushed back to September since the Rhodes has no air conditioning.