After a shakeup at Atlanta Ballet this past April, several leading dancers chose not to renew their contracts. Led by John McFall for more than 20 years, the company's direction and repertoire had favored contemporary ballet. When McFall retired in 2016, former San Francisco Ballet principal Gennadi Nedvigin took over as artistic director with a more traditional approach.
While it is not unusual for dancers to be let go or move on after a change at the top, many were surprised when Tara Lee, Christian Clark, Rachel Van Buskirk and Heath Gill revealed where they were going. Along with veteran AB dancer John Welker, a runner-up in the company's search for a new artistic director, these tenured dancers had planned quietly to form their own company: Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. "We were all at a point in our careers where we were asking 'What do we want?' " says Welker, who had directed AB's summer company Wabi Sabi. "And we were aware that time in this career is short. This city has an energy here. I think Atlanta is ready for another dance company to thrive."
Om at home: Three days a week, Van Buskirk spends about 20 minutes waking up with yoga. “I build muscle easily,” she says, “so I like to balance it out by stretching and lengthening.” She moves through sun salutations and warrior poses to get her heart rate up but pauses when her body needs a deeper stretch. “If my psoas is sore, I usually hold my lunges.” Yoga’s breathing techniques also help her connect with her breath during demanding choreography.
Stability secret: “My left knee has been giving me problems, so I do a lot of stabilizing work,” she says. Between allégro combinations, she builds strength around the joint with this exercise: Standing in parallel with one leg in a turned-in passé, she slowly lowers into a lunge and tries to touch the ground with her hand before returning to standing. The focus is on tracking the standing knee with correct alignment.
Outdoor action: Van Buskirk admits that the gym bores her. “I prefer outdoor activities like walking, biking and swimming.” Each time she hits the pool, she tries to swim at least one lap farther than she did previously to build stamina. “And anytime I have an excuse to hike in the woods, I’ll take it.”
Scaling walls: She enjoys indoor rock climbing with a group of fellow Atlanta Ballet dancers. “That is some cardio,” she says. “You don’t realize it until you’re halfway up a wall and every muscle is shaking. You’re breathing so heavy and holding on for dear life. It’s exhilarating.” She relishes climbing for its similarities to dance, including the subtle weight shifts, whole-body coordination and problem solving.
Backstage elixir: When she’s in the theater, Van Buskirk always has a local cold-pressed juice made of pineapple, cranberry, ginger and lemon—called a Hot Shot—which she adds chia seeds to for a pre-performance boost. “The seeds help with long periods of energy and fullness,” she says.
Nighttime stretching: Van Buskirk winds down by foam-rolling her muscles and releasing her IT bands with slow stretches from yin yoga. “As dancers, we often approach stretching aggressively,” she says. “Instead of pushing through pain in 20 seconds, I let it happen passively over a few minutes. It gets into the deep connective tissue, and the difference is amazing.”