Since its inception as a performance dance in the fifteenth century in Italian Renaissance courts, that later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia, classical ballet has become a well-known, highly technical form of dance.With its home on the proscenium stage, ballet performances were often catered to elite members of society. Over the past fifty years, however, ballet has moved outside of the theatre and, in many cities, into the community. Performing a work outside of the theatre requires a mature dancer and a receptive audience. Both performer and audience can no longer rely on the security of the stage. The dance floor becomes a field, or, in this case, a walkway in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens leading to a fountain. Dancers must prepare for potentially distracting natural elements: rain, wind, excessive heat or cold. But perhaps the most integral part of the performance becomes ever more transparent: the audience.
A recent trend in the Atlanta contemporary art world involves creating work uniquely specific to certain sites in the city. Dancemaker Lauri Stallings was the first to successfully bring dance out of the studios and theatre and directly into the community. Her performance company, GloAtl, is known for it’s exquisitely crafted works performed throughout the city. T. Lang, director of T. Lang Dance Company and Spelman College Dance Theatre, has also performed various works outside of the theatre throughout the city. Numerous smaller contemporary companies have caught on and presented works outside of the theatre and in the community. Atlanta choreographers are beginning to realize the key to changing the arts scene in this city: breaking down the barrier between performer and audience and bringing the power, joy and beauty of movement directly into the community in order to create change.
One such choreographer is John Welker, creator of Atlanta Ballet’s chamber contemporary company, Wabi Sabi. Welker created Wabi Sabi in order to foster creativity in the next generation of choreographic talent, providing artists with a platform where they can create and produce new work, and cultivate an environment where Atlanta Ballet company dancers could further explore artistry. The company name, Wabi Sabi, represents a comprehensive Japanese world-view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.”
I had the pleasure of attending the most recent performance on the evening of Tuesday, August 22nd at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Being my first trip to the gardens, I took some time to get lost in the lush blooms and towering trees. At precisely 6:45 p.m., Yoomi Kim, one of the dancers, beckoned watchers with her fluid technicality, as she glided down a walkway to the sounds of Camille Saint-Saens, N.E.R.D. and Ethyl and Mary Ellen Childs. Welker’s choreography left the audience feeling as though they had witnessed an exotic bird briefly resting before soon again taking flight.
Instructions regarding where to find each of the seven short pieces throughout the gardens were printed on the programs. The crowd of attendees next made their way to the Aquatic Plant Pond, where dancers Christian Clark and Miguel Angel Montoya performed a duet created by guest choreographer, Gregory Dolbashian. The two dancers guided each other with sinewy movements, taking turns directing the other’s focus and direction. Rachel Van Buskirk and Jackie Nash next danced Dark Embers, a work created by Rachelle Scott. The two dancers listened to each other’s movements, deconstructing walks and undulating in and out of each other’s personal space.
Rumination, choreographed by Atlanta Ballet company dancer, Heath Gill, and performed by Kelsey Ebersold, showcased whirling and churning movements. The three last pieces, choreographed by Michael Smith, Tara Lee and Jennifer Archibald, presented three starkly different styles of movement. The dancers’ abilities to tackle such varied kinds of movement showed versatility both in craft and performance ability. Smith’s choreography required total commitment from the dancers. A trio of three men captivated the audience as they bounced, vibed and jived across the green of the Botanical Garden’s Great Lawn. Lee’s En Route, convincingly danced by company dancers Jonah Hooper and Nadia Mara, portrayed a tender relationship between two yearning lovers. Hooper and Mara embodied the innocence and excitement of a relationship in bloom.
The evening of short works concluded with a compelling new work by guest choreographer Jennifer Archibald. Rachel Van Buskirk, Jackie Nash, Alexandre Barros and Miguel Angel Montoya swirled, circled, flew, and propelled through space, embodying varying degrees of abandon and restraint to the haunting music of Zoe Keating. Towards the end of the evening, Wabi Sabi founder and Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker thanked everyone for coming to the performance. Those present felt a genuine sense of thankfulness on behalf of Welker for coming to support the art form.
There is a pulse to the city of Atlanta. It lives downtown on the street, and on and off the stages in bars and in theatres, as well as in various performance spaces throughout Atlanta. It lives in the hearts of every musician who has ever played an instrument on the street or in a theatre. It lives in the movements of a little girl who couldn’t help but move her tiny limbs to the beat of the music while Wabi Sabi dancers turned and leapt about in the center of the Botanical Gardens. It lives in the heart of Atlanta, yes, but it is our job as artists and creative minds to keep it alive. Over the past ten years, Atlanta Ballet dancers and creative staff have shown a desire to add to the pulse of the Atlanta arts community, by taking risks to bring the beautiful art of ballet out of the theatres and into the city of Atlanta. Wabi Sabi is simply another example of that creative vision.
But this is only the beginning.