John McFall has made Atlanta Ballet an incubator for innovative choreography.
In John McFall’s teenage mind, nothing equaled the enchantment of ballet. He remembers being cast as a swashbuckling supernumerary in Scheherazade when Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo visited his hometown of Kansas City. “I was leaping around the stage, sword in hand, swiping at people,” says McFall, 64. “The director was screaming ‘Stop! Stop! ’ I was having too much fun. I felt like I truly belonged to something important.”
Today, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director feels that excitement again as his company starts a new era of growth, exploring innovative choreography. “We love the classics,” McFall says, “but we’re really thinking about the dance literature of tomorrow.”
Aiding the company is a successful $21 million capital campaign, spearheaded by executive director Arturo Jacobus. New opportunities include a $500,000 “Innovation Fund” for new works, and a 200-seat black box theater. Jacobus has said that the money allows what some perceived as a “kind of vanilla, all-purpose community ballet company” to make bold artistic choices.
The repertoire now boasts a number of abstract contemporary ballets by choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and even Ohad Naharin. McFall also hired William Forsythe disciple Helen Pickett as resident choreographer. Collaborations with the Indigo Girls and OutKast rapper Antwan André “Big Boi” Patton have attracted fresh audiences: Atlanta Ballet has one of the youngest fan bases of any major performing arts group in Atlanta.
Launched in 1929, the company is one of the oldest dance troupes in the U.S., though it didn’t gain professional status until 1967. Founder Dorothy Alexander left the company to Robert Barnett, who led it for over 30 years, presenting many Balanchine works, including his Nutcracker. McFall took the helm in 1994, after 20 years dancing with San Francisco Ballet and eight years as artistic director of BalletMet. Having set work on Atlanta Ballet as a choreographer, McFall knew the troupe was primed to grow.
His first decision as director got people’s attention. “Right away we did a differentNutcracker,” he says. “They’d been looking at the same Balanchine version for 20 years. We wanted more people involved, and tons of children.”
McFall also got the company focused on dance education. Just a year after he started, Atlanta Ballet opened its Centre for Dance Education, now one of the largest dance schools in the country, with more than 1,200 students. “When you step into something that has a long history,” McFall says, “you must take a fresh view and go through a new door.”
Pickett’s recent appointment is notable not only because so few women hold similar titles in the U.S., but because it reinforces the company’s commitment to new work. She is currently contemplating a Tennessee Williams ballet, which would come with multiple selling-points: It’d be Southern, dramatic and also contemporary.
With any changes he makes, McFall strives to reflect the city, which he views as a global community. Out of 25 dancers, 11 were born abroad. “I’m looking for passion and imagination,” McFall says. “Technique is wonderful, but it’s not the soul of dance. I don’t look for body types. I don’t want a bunhead mentality. Are they here to collaborate? Do they want to explore all kinds of movement? Do they have a sense of adventure?”
At A Glance
Number of dancers: 25, including 4 apprentices
Length of contract: 35 weeks
Starting salary: $696/week
Performances: Five productions per season, including The Nutcracker; about 45 performances per year
Touring: No touring dates this season
“I’ve only ever hired one dancer directly from a cattle call,” says McFall. “It’s too big a decision. I have to get acquainted with you first. Sign up for a summer program. Come dance with us through the school’s Fellowship Division. Let us see your work.”