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
Similarly, Rodriguez's Dance Truck hauls right over an old dynamic. Dance Truck is a simple, scrappy idea that turns Atlanta's trademark hassles — sprawl, a diffuse car-based culture, acres of parking lots and asphalt — into a setting for creation. Since 2009, founder and artistic director Rodriguez has presented mixed programs of Atlanta-based independent dancers and choreographers using the back of a flatbed truck as a stage platform.
"Dance tends to be an insular subculture," says Rodriguez. "But we were engaging a large, diverse group of people in the production of a contemporary dance performance. That's pretty rare."
Rodriguez is referring to Dance Truck's most recent production, PLOT, Rodriguez and Beckham's collaborative effort to make the choreographer's aforementioned sod-filled dream a reality. As the pair set about raising funds and support for their new project, unusual things began to happen. The pair discovered that people were as excited about their vision as they were. "So many people started jumping into the project with as much passion and enthusiasm as we had. It became even bigger because we realized all the possibilities," says Rodriguez, who was just awarded Emory University's Community Impact Award, which recognizes significant contributions in creativity and the arts in Atlanta.
The July show involved a small army of contributors: 20 crew members, dozens of visual artists, seven interns, four dancers and more than 100 volunteers. Cotton gin-turned-artist-colony the Goat Farm donated space. A local garden shop helped with promotion and fundraising. Home gardeners planted hundreds of seedlings in shoes used as planters, a central image of the show. Visual artists designed elaborate sets, including an industrial, oversize swing set, and a vintage truck collector lent his '76 Chevy Scout.
With so many people involved, buzz about the show spread quickly. PLOT's four-performance run — a long one by Atlanta dance standards — almost sold out. In fact, some performances were oversold. PLOT, in which the audience was led from setting to setting around the Goat Farm by the sod-filled truck, was unusual in many regards. But perhaps the most unusual thing about it was the audience: The show managed to attract a diverse group of nearly 400 viewers, a feat practically unheard of for a contemporary dance production by a new company in Atlanta.
There's a curious Catch-22 that's ended the careers of many aspiring Atlanta choreographers before they've even begun. In 2007, Angela Harris was trying to make the transition from dancer at the Georgia Ballet to choreographer when she discovered the conundrum: For choreographers to create work in a professional setting they need a solid résumé of past work, but new choreographers can't build a solid résumé without creating in a professional setting. It's a frustrating challenge even for the well-funded and connected, but for under-resourced talent, it's an absolutely dismal scenario.
Harris sought out others in Atlanta fighting a similar battle and discovered many like herself. So she organized a group of 10 choreographers that pooled resources and worked together with professional dancers and crew to create an original show at the 14th Street Playhouse. The primary goal was to build résumés, present work and leave with that precious commodity for aspiring choreographers: a professional dance reel.
In the process, Harris became enamored with creating the possibility for others to create.
Dubbed Dance Canvas, her new model would be a way to help bring to Atlanta the vibrant atmosphere she'd enjoyed as a dancer in New York. "I didn't want it to be about me and my work anymore," she says. "I wanted it to be about creating more dance options in Atlanta. Atlanta is really fertile ground for dance."
Dance Canvas provides choreographers with access to professional dancers, rehearsal space, contacts and development workshops. In only three seasons, Dance Canvas has positioned itself to be a crucial training ground for Atlanta's vast but under-resourced talent: 2 Kids and a Dream, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance, the LIFT annual showcase of male choreographers, and City Dance Contemporary Ballet are some of the new organizations that trace roots and leadership back to Dance Canvas. Harris' efforts recently earned her Americans for the Arts' prestigious Emerging Arts Leader award. She is the only Atlantan ever to win it.
"We have so much talent here," says Harris. "We have a huge opportunity to make Atlanta a big dance hub on a national level."
Next: How Stallings inspired the Atlanta Ballet
By national standards, the Atlanta Ballet is a small company, but in terms of the Atlanta dance scene, it's huge. It has resources that far exceed the scope and possibility of any other Atlanta dance company: permanent rehearsal space in its $10.9 million headquarters, publicity and development departments, permanent production staff, fundraising galas, a center for dance education. The Ballet is familiar to many Atlantans for its hugely popular Nutcracker and other story ballets, but it's no stranger to boundary-breaking contemporary work. It brings in world-renowned and cutting-edge choreographers, commissions major new works from dance world legends such as Twyla Tharp, showcases up-and-coming choreographers from across the nation and sets it all on an incomparably graceful company.
The Ballet recently announced the formation of a new company within a company called Wabi Sabi, named after a Japanese aesthetic of impermanence. Modeled in part after Stallings' revelatory approach, the new chamber-performance group will bring the Atlanta Ballet's classic artistry to contemporary site-specific performances. "She's really paved the way," says Welker, who's spearheading the new initiative. According to Welker, who's in his 16th season with the Ballet, the organization has long been seeking ways to reach new audiences, particularly young audiences.
On Sept. 8, the Ballet will unveil Wabi Sabi at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens with some help from Dance Canvas as well. At a 2009 Dance Canvas show, Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall was struck by the talent of young Atlanta-based choreographer Juel Lane. He asked Lane then to create a piece for the Ballet. Lane's short work will have its world premiere with Wabi Sabi's. There are tentative plans for Lane to be featured in the Atlanta Ballet's annual showcase of emerging young choreographers from across the nation, which typically caps off the company's season.
The Rialto Center for the Arts, one of Atlanta's major presenters of national and international touring acts, recently received a grant for more dance programming, and director Leslie Gordon went straight to Stallings with the idea of an annual dance festival. But the reaction she got may not have been the one she was hoping for. "I told Leslie I'd rather be dead than have another dance festival," says Stallings.
The inaugural Off the EDGE, slated for January 2012, intends to move far beyond the trappings of a typical dance festival's rotating presentation of distinguished visitors' performances. Round tables, workshops, classes at all levels, a visual art exhibition, behind-the-scenes immersions for high school students, collaborations, residencies and exchanges between Atlanta-based and visiting artists will lead up to two evenings of free outdoor performances and a mixed program on the Rialto stage. A broad range of Atlanta schools, universities, and dance companies will participate in what promises to be a milestone for Atlanta dance and for the city.
Similarly, the significance of Dance Truck's slot at Portland's Time-Based Arts Festival shouldn't be underestimated: Presenters often overlook companies from the Southeast, even when trying to broadly represent trends in American dance and performance. Few of us will be there to see it, but when the Dance Truck rumbles up to the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, it's a moment all Atlanta should be proud of.
And Atlantans have begun to show an ardor for their local dance scene: When 100 volunteers gather to hang swings for audience members to sit in as they watch PLOT come to life; when a packed house at Dance Canvas gives a standing ovation to a talented young choreographer whose work might never have been produced otherwise; when spectators decide they won't budge during a summer downpour because they want to stay with gloATL as it performs, they are all participating in something extraordinary.
"This is the only place in the world where this is happening," says Stallings. "And we're all a part of it."
Next: 19 dance companies with upcoming performances
Local dancers are on the move, performing on stages, in the streets and even in the beds of trucks. As the local dance scene becomes more robust, the number of companies in Atlanta is growing. Local organization Dance ATL keeps detailed tabs on all the dance happenings in town at DanceATL.org. Here's our list of local groups with upcoming performances.
If you hear the word "ballet" and think only of tutus, sugar plum fairies and dying swans, think again. The Atlanta Ballet shakes things up with its boundary-busting collaborations with hip-hop artists, cutting-edge contemporary choreographers and dance world legend Twyla Tharp.
Founded in 1990 by Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas II, both former members of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet, Ballethnic's Urban Nutcracker at the Ferst Center for the Arts is a annual favorite. Ballethnic offers performances, classes and workshops throughout the year.
Brooks and Company Dance
Last summer Brooks and Company performed with aerialists and cyclists over, under and hanging from a bridge on the Beltline. This summer the dancers dove into the pond at Serenbe to choreograph movement in the water for a production of The Ugly Duckling.
CORE Dance Collective
One of the mighty oaks of the Atlanta contemporary dance scene, CORE is celebrating an incredible 25 years of contemporary dance in Atlanta in 2011. The company's permanent home, a studio on the square in downtown Decatur, is one of Atlanta's most invaluable spaces for dance.
Crossover Movement Arts
The company fuses martial arts, offbeat humor, performance art and contemporary dance. Its upcoming season includes performances for Art on the Atlanta Beltline and at the Wren's Nest and collaborations with poet Kodac Harrison and experimental jazz band Zentropy.
Not a company per se, this new dance community service organization holds bimonthly meetings that serve as an important, and previously lacking, communication hub for Atlanta's dancers and choreographers. Dance lovers use their performance calendar to keep up with all the shows in the Atlanta area.
This cirque-style company takes dance off the floor and into the air. The seven-member, three-year-old Atlanta company combines aerial dance, floor work and theatrics.
Dance Canvas is an annual showcase for emerging Atlanta choreographers, encompassing everything from ballet to tap, and contemporary to hip-hop. The next event is slated for January 2012 at the 14th Street Playhouse. The company also organizes "DC Next," a mini-Dance Canvas for high school students that provides an opportunity for the students to try their hands at choreography.
If Atlanta is reluctant to come see dance, we'll put dance on a truck and bring it to Atlanta, says Dance Truck's founder Malina Rodriguez. Using the back of a rented flatbed truck as a performance stage, Dance Truck delivers the talents of emerging young artists such as Helen Hale, Corian Ellisor and Onur Topal-Sumer right to Atlanta's doorstep.
Great faculty, great visiting artists, and a great space at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Dance Studio translate to lots of opportunities to check out top-notch dance at Emory.
Full Radius Dance
Full Radius works in the field known as "physically integrated art," which means many in the company are in wheelchairs due to various disabilities. Full Radius also organizes the annual Modern Atlanta Dance Festival in January, an evening's mixed program of contemporary work from Atlanta-based companies.
Gardenhouse presents the intimate works of Nicole Livieratos, one of Atlanta's most thorough, personal and witty artists in any medium. Her work has included choreographing with lawn mowers, children's wagons and a live horse.
An energetic all-female company presenting traditional African dance. Its performance at the recent Dance Africa! Event at the National Black Arts Festival brought down the house.
Led by renowned choreographer Lauri Stallings, gloATL has been instrumental in reenergizing Atlanta's dance scene. The group's public site-specific performances are daring, and often downright trippy.
Kennesaw State University Dance
If we were in charge of turning Atlanta into the next dance hot spot, we'd hire Ivan Pulinkala to start a huge dance program right outside the city. Fortunately, someone already did that for us. Started just six years ago, the program at KSU already has more than 100 majors and continues to grow under Pulinkala's leadership. Lauri Stallings is artist-in-residence, and there are ongoing partnerships with the Atlanta Ballet and gloATL. Its new dance center is the largest in Atlanta, and there are already plans to expand.
This new, energetic annual showcase presided over by Daryl L. Foster and Dance Canvas alum Terry Slade presents Atlanta's emerging male choreographers and dancers each May at the Woodruff Arts Center.
2 Kids and Dream
Led by two driven and intriguing "kids" — Juel Lane and Ursula Johnson — this one-year-old upstart already has people talking. Its latest production is a showcase for Atlanta's female choreographers titled SHE Created It.
The pointe shoes are off. The Atlanta Ballet brings its classic style to the current Atlanta trend of site-specific performances. Look for them on the streets, at Atlanta's festivals, in the park and at charity events, but start at the Botanical Gardens where the group will have its unveiling Sept. 8.
Zoetic Dance Ensemble
Zoetic began the summer by splashing into the fountains at Centennial Park for a piece about the scarcity of water as a natural resource. The group finished the season with a stunning collaboration with New York performance artist ChristinaNoel Reaves in a studio of the Atlanta Ballet. Always inventive and smart, look for this all-female troupe tucked away amid the rocks and debris at Flux in Castleberry Hill on Sept. 30.
Next: What's coming up on Atlanta's dance scene in September
September 8 at the Botanical Gardens
The Atlanta Ballet brings its inimitable style to the latest Atlanta trend of site-specific performances with a new "company within a company" called Wabi Sabi. On entering the Botanical Gardens, visitors will receive a map they can use to find the dancers: from a tea party pas de deux on the oval to a dance in the waterfalls.
September 9-10 at Symphony Hall
Though it usually performs in public places, gloATL's next "migration" will be at Symphony Hall. Dance maker Lauri Stallings asks, "Who's to say we can't bring a sense of organic materials and public space into Symphony Hall?" Damn straight. The stage will be covered in grass, naturally.
September 17-18 at Decatur High School
CORE Performance Company celebrates its 25th birthday by giving an awesome gift back to Atlanta: a weekend of free performances at Decatur High School.
SHE Created It
September 17-18 at Tri-Cities High School's Viola Turner Theater
A mixed program by Atlanta's emerging female choreographers and dancers.
2 Kids and a Dream
September 23 at Underground Atlanta
This new 20-member company gives a free performance as part of Elevate: Art Above Underground.
Dance in Progress
September 20, 27, and on-going at Emory's Schwartz Center Dance Studio
Peek inside the choreographic process with this on-going Tuesday series in which faculty members and guest artists share their work and talk about the steps that went into creating it. On September 20, faculty member George Staib and on September 27, guest artist Kyle Abraham.
September 30 in Castleberry Hill
An outdoor event presenting a wide range of visual arts, installations and performances in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood. See if you can spot Zoetic dancers among the rocks and rubble, look up for the aerial dancers of D'Air Project, and wear comfortable shoes: Choreographer Lauri Stallings says gloATL plans to lead spectators on a migration for a mile.
September 30-October 2 at Fabrefaction Theater Emily Christianson presents a multimedia dance and performance piece offering her sly take on the iconic James Bond films.
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