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Atlanta's dance scene steps up 

A vibrant and singular local movement takes shape

MAKING A SPLASH: Zoetic performs in the fountains at Centennial Olympic Park, one of countless public performances by local companies that have dominated the local dance scene recently.

T. Lynne Pixley

MAKING A SPLASH: Zoetic performs in the fountains at Centennial Olympic Park, one of countless public performances by local companies that have dominated the local dance scene recently.

In September 2010, Atlanta choreographer Blake Beckham was driving down Moreland Avenue when she spotted an old pickup truck filled with sod. "It looked so fluffy and pretty," she says. "I thought, 'It's a truck bed, a garden bed, a funeral bed.'" The image stuck with her, and she knew she wanted to explore it. The idea blossomed into a vision for an elaborate evening-length dance work with the truck and sod as part of the show. It would be an ambitious undertaking, and a dispiriting question hovered over its possibility, the same question that often perplexes the minds behind Atlanta dance productions: Even if she managed to pull off such a performance, would she be able to sell tickets to anyone in Atlanta other than her friends and family?

Atlanta can feel like a city with no place for dance. In the most literal sense, finding rehearsal and performance space is a major challenge for emerging young contemporary artists like Beckham. Costly venues and scant audiences can lead to a dispiriting loop of problems. Quality should be its own calling card, but seats remain empty at shows both good and bad. It makes it difficult for new talent to break into the field and gain the experience that builds a career. Such problems certainly aren't unique to Atlanta, but they're particularly ingrained here. In a city where the arts have long been an underdog, dance has been the underdog among the arts.

But the past few years have witnessed changes. Local innovators are finding ways to short-circuit Atlanta's feedback loop. In particular, gloATL's Lauri Stallings, Dance Canvas' Angela Harris, and Dance Truck's Malina Rodriguez are clearing the way for new creation methods and helping transform the Atlanta dance landscape. The changes are small and the challenges persist, but recent efforts are eking success out of such odd places that even top dogs such as the Atlanta Ballet and Portland, Ore.'s illustrious Time-Based Arts Festival are taking notice. What's starting to take shape is not just a pleasant version of the offerings available in other cities, but a vibrant and singular Atlanta dance scene.

Atlanta's dancers keep popping up in the most unexpected places: They daringly zip through traffic to embrace each other at the center of a busy intersection. A flatbed truck pulls up at the state Capitol with a cargo of dancers to protest a cut to arts funding. A former cotton gin becomes the setting for an elaborate installation performance piece examining the cycles of the natural world.

"From the very start, our going to the public was never about 'bringing dance to the streets,'" says Stallings. "It was to meet everyone halfway in a shared backyard. Everyone could take part ownership and share in the experience. We've gone out to the public, and they've come to us."

Stallings, a classically trained ballet dancer, arrived in Atlanta in 2005 as the Atlanta Ballet's choreographer-in-residence. When the three-year stint ended, Stallings decided to stay here, and in 2009 founded the new dance company gloATL. The company quickly established itself as a major player in Atlanta in just two seasons, and stoked a citywide appetite for contemporary dance in the process.

Using various spaces as raw material, Stallings' busy group has performed in Lenox Square mall, the streets and alleyways of Castleberry Hill, MARTA's Lindbergh Center station, and the High Museum lawn among other places. With each performance, gloATL's backyard extends further and a curious public follows.

gloATL is primarily influenced by a movement system called Gaga (no relation Lady), which seeks to find hidden potential for bodily movement through relational aesthetics, theories that place social relationships at the center of artistic creation and consideration. That's a long way of saying "they dance outside for free." But somehow neither the long nor short version quite captures the effect of a gloATL performance.

The group's dancers move freely through a space: There is no fourth wall (and no first, second or third), and no division between audience and performers. gloATL's work has a sense of shared exploration, of lived experience. Not presented or performed, but unfolding. On the right day, at the right time, the effect can be mind-altering. Returning to a space where gloATL has danced, you see it differently. The group's performances can break a rut in perception of place, which is especially powerful in a city like Atlanta where such ruts run deep.

"Lauri Stallings is a pioneer," says Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker.

Next:The Catch-22 that ends many choreographers' careers

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