Lauri Stallings: The Choreographer 

How the choreographer who vowed never to live in Atlanta and never start a dance company has helped transform Atlanta's art scene

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"I never fit in," she recalls of those early years in classical ballet. "And for some reason I was always the front swan. They screamed at me for hours to try and get me to look like everyone else. I don't think I was able to remove those parts of myself. I couldn't detach them. It was very challenging for the classical choreographers and directors."

Things improved when she moved to Ballet British Columbia in Vancouver, known for taking on relatively more contemporary work. Stallings thrived. "I didn't have to try to separate and be something else," she says. "I began to find what I might be as a moving species."

Stallings committed to performing more contemporary work, eventually joining Chicago's renowned Hubbard Street Dance Company in 2000, where she stayed for five seasons, the rest of her performing career. Dancing with Hubbard Street is intense. With 130 performances a year, dancers must constantly be available, working, learning new material, traveling, taking direction from some of the world's greatest choreographers, and becoming efficient about the whole process. Stallings absorbed it all, also learning about the day-to-day non-dance aspects of running a company. "I was always engaged with the organization," she says, "not just as a dancer. I was always interested in the relationship of the various components."

The many injuries that Stallings sustained through the years started to accumulate. Some required treatment and recovery, others went undiagnosed, and others she hid because she didn't want to miss a show. "Someone else's ligament and two screws are in my knee," she says. One day in rehearsal, her femur slipped out of its socket. The stage manager came and pulled it back into place. "I was like, 'I'm fine. Let's go back. Start the music again,' I started my solo again — I can't believe how foolish this was — and my hip dislocated again," she says. It took three months for Stallings to recover, and she wore tape around that hip for the rest of her dancing career.

In 2000, Hubbard Street brought the work of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin to the United States for the first time with the piece "Minus 16." Stallings discovered that Naharin's system of movement, called Gaga, allowed her to work around her injuries. "The movement philosophies were so helpful for me," she says of the yoga-like technique that seeks to establish fluidity throughout the body. "Working in the philosophies of Gaga, I was able to begin finding new paths, new channels that up until then had been blocked."

In 2005, Stallings premiered her first independently choreographed evening-length work, Moody Hollow (the title takes its name from the spot in Georgia where her family met for reunions). The run sold out and was met with standing ovations every night. Moody Hollow made the cover of the Chicago Tribune, and Stallings was named Chicagoan of the Year.

Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall traveled to Chicago just to see the show and was so impressed that he invited Stallings to create a piece with his company. That invitation turned into Stallings' three-year contract as choreographer-in-residence at the Atlanta Ballet. "You can't categorize someone like her because she's always in motion," McFall told Creative Loafing in 2010. "That's what's so special. You celebrate the fact that it's always unexpected."

"I guess we're a company."

Initially, living in Atlanta never crossed Stallings' mind. She says Atlanta made her feel "unsettled and uncomfortable." Her partner Richard Carvlin, former Hubbard Street production manager, was working in New York with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and she lived out the first part of her residency in short stints, mostly in Atlanta hotel rooms as she traveled around the world to fulfill a growing roster of commissioned works in Hong Kong, Germany, New York, and South America.

But in 2008, Stallings began work on big and was introduced to Atlanta's thriving hip-hop community. "That year I fell in love with the city," she says. She found herself welcomed into a community of artists. "There's always this quiet quaking that's going on with them," she says. "These are hungry people. They realize there's always more to do, and there's always better ways of doing it. And they were some of the warmest people I've ever met. I felt like I was part of this huge family. That was a first for me in the city."

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