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Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director Says Goodbye After 20 Years

We sat down with John McFall, the artistic director of Atlanta Ballet, as he says goodbye after transforming the company into one of the nation's best.

After 21 impressive years transforming the Atlanta Ballet into one of the world’s most celebrated dance companies, Artistic Director John McFall will drop the curtain on his tenure in June 2016. In this exclusive interview, the acclaimed dancer, choreographer and director walked down memory lane with Where and discussed why the arts should play more of a leading role in children’s educations. Catch McFall’s final "Nutcracker" through Dec. 27 at The Fox Theatre.

Which performances are you most excited for in your last six months?

We have two world premiers, one’s Douglas Lee ["20|20"] and the other one’s Andrea Miller [part of "MAYhem"]. Those are the things I always favor.

Why did you decide to take on the role of artistic director for Atlanta Ballet in 1994?

I wanted to be able to bring creative people together in a dance studio where they were unencumbered, where they could imagine, they could work together with abandon, with trust, with a sense of joy and adventure and take it somewhere. … I wanted to find a place where we assembled dancers where there was an absence of distraction and soap opera and they were there for what mattered. What mattered that had intention and meaning was to immerse yourself in the creative process and just really take it where it hasn’t been before.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
McFall guides Kiara Felder and Heath Gill through a rehearsal of "THREE." (©Charlie McCullers)

How is that different from the status quo?

It’s tunnel vision. These young people are honed in on about three or four variations, a couple of pas de deux, and they cut their teeth on that ... but outside that realm they’re lost.

I don’t want lost dancers. I want dancers that have affirmation; that when they get up in the morning they can’t wait to get to the studio because it’s an adventure; that develop a capacity to work in many styles and aesthetics.

Atlanta Ballet is a group of individuals. You’ll notice that no two [dancers] are alike. A lot of companies have body types, where everybody looks very similar. … To me, anyway, it’s not as interesting.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
John McFall (second from left) and major supporters, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (third from right), cut the ribbon on Atlanta Ballet's new Michael C. Carlos Dance Center in 2010. (©Jim Fitts)

Is that what you found at Atlanta Ballet when you first joined the team?

I arrived on Nov. 11, 1994. I didn’t print business cards, because the facility was dreadful. I was familiar with it. It was the worst one I’d ever witnessed anywhere in the world. … We got out of there right away.

It was a dual mission—the performing arts and arts education. I was able to get us out of there in a hurry with the help of a lot of good people and foundations, all Atlantans. We went to West Peachtree Street. It was a three-story building, 35,000 square feet, so we were able to then start the Atlanta Ballet Center for Dance Education because we had the space. We were also able, at the same time, to raise money from Nations Bank, which funded a new "Nutcracker."

We did this all over the spring and the summer—we moved, we had a building, we outfitted it with all the studios, we opened the doors on a school and we did a new "Nutcracker".

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
McFall and Twyla Tharp join Atlanta Ballet's young dancers on stage after a performance of Tharp's "The Princess and the Goblin." (©Charlie McCullers)

Why was it important to create the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education?

Unfortunately, in the Southeast there’s very little arts education unless you send your children to a private school—most people can’t afford that. Where’s the artistic voice? There’s no arts education, so children are separated, they’re distanced, from something that is extraordinarily influential and valuable to them, because it’s about self-expression. It’s about developing and discovering yourself—that’s why you play music, that’s why you dance, that’s why you do visual arts. It’s also a reflection of your culture, your society, your civilization. Children now have electronics and it’s worse than ever. That’s why arts education is so valuable. That’s why the school is so important.

Today, we have 1,200 students—one of the largest schools in the country.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
John Welker as Dracula and Brian Wallenberg as Harker in Atlanta Ballet's performance of "Dracula" (©Charlie McCullers)

How has the ballet changed most significantly throughout your 21-year tenure?

It’s about the artists. There are dancers here today that I hired when I arrived. I knew [John Welker] as a boy at Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio—he was in the school. He followed me here.

The repertoire is like a treasury. John and Tara [Lee] and others have been collaborating as dancers with choreographers we invite from around the world … who are the youngest, brightest, greatest voices in our field. They work with them, they create new work, they perform it—that’s why they’re a treasury. Then they are the mentors for these 1,200 kids in the school and for the audience. … That’s the legacy that I am more inspired by than anything else.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
Most of Atlanta Ballet's productions are performed at the Cobb Energy Centre in Northwest Atlanta. (©Gene Phillips/AtlantaPhotos.com)

What have been your favorite performance venues?

A great performance venue is the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Woodruff Park downtown. We do things outdoors. We had residency in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia, for a whole week. … We’ve done a lot of great stuff at the Fox.

The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center [CPAC] is a venue that enables us to do many things, because the stage and the acoustics and the offstage space, it’s all very well thought out and designed. It’s a great place to perform and it’s a great place to see dance, because you’re not very far from the stage. Distance dissipates energy and emotional value.

Why do you think Atlanta Ballet was chosen as the only company to represent the U.S. at the International Ballet Season hosted by the National Ballet of China?

The artistic director of the National Ballet of China, her daughter happened to be graduating from Emory University, so she piggybacked that with a May program that we were doing and saw us perform—and it knocked her out! She helped select the repertoire [for the International Ballet Season festival] … and so we got the invitation.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
McFall guides young dancers through a "Peter Pan" rehearsal in 2007. (©Kim Kenney)

How would you describe yourself as an artistic director?

I’m pretty loose. I really enjoy watching people participate and collaborate. I like to support it from the periphery. I make the choices, but then pretty much, I let them go. I’m a cheerleader, I’m a supporter. I find the money. I listen to what’s going on. I help them. I respond by solving problems. I’m, in a way, kind of an entrepreneur of the arts. I’m a voice and I’m an advocate. … 

We bring dance to Atlanta. People don’t have to get on a plane and go to Paris or Russia or China. We bring it right here. It’s a struggle with arts in the Southeast. It’s a void.

Do you find getting new support difficult?

It’s always difficult in this region getting support for the arts. There’s a lot of wealth, but people make their choices. And, of course, there’s lots of demand for philanthropic dollars. It’s kind of behind. It’s very challenging.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
Atlanta Ballet's world premiere performance of "Camino Real" (©Charlie McCullers)

What were some of the biggest risks you decided to take that resulted in the most success?

When we did "Camino Real," that’s a big risk. We started out and all the right ingredients weren’t in place, so I postponed it. I took the time to help identify the appropriate collaborators who could enhance the risk taking and make it a little more likely that it might work.

It’s very subjective, the arts. You never know what kind of product you’re going to have when the curtain goes up in front of an audience, especially if it’s a world premier—it’s got a new score, it’s got new costume designs, etc. You enhance the success opportunity because you have incredible dancers. You enhance it because you have an incredible production department. You enhance it because you choose the right people, the right composer, the right choreographer. Those are all critical components. And we did that.

Do you consider "Camino Real" a success?

It was a huge success! Absolutely huge. If you weren’t there, you missed something that was, frankly, a big event for this region.

Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta, GA
Atlanta Ballet's collaboration with Outkast's Antwan Patton in "Big" (©Charlie McCullers)

How do you think the Atlanta Ballet captures the essence of the city it calls home?

We certainly have collaborated with many artists in the city, like the Indigo Girls, Antwan Patton (Big Boi from Outkast), The Red Clay Ramblers from the Carolinas. We have reached into the community many times, whether it’s a lighting designer like Rebecca Makus at Kennesaw State University or Kat Conley at Alliance Theatre, who is such a good scenic artist. We commissioned a composer at Georgia State University to write music for a Tara Lee piece. … 

When we did "Big," which was with Antwan Patton, The Fox Theatre was filled with people from every neighborhood, and very young people—really young—and really old people—very senior. That says something. That captures the city. Indigo Girls was full of women. A lot of them came in from all over the world—that represents Atlanta. There’s a gay/lesbian culture [in Atlanta]. There’s everything! We had the New Missionary Baptist Church choir sing for Transcendence. That was a big choir from Lithonia. We’ve done all kinds of stuff like that. That’s just business as usual for Atlanta Ballet.

What are some other Atlanta dance companies you support or admire?

I support and admire them all. It’s hard here. Any effort is something we embrace. Just because we’re probably the largest-budgeted dance company in this part, especially in Atlanta, so what? They’re all really important—Fly on a Wall is important. Moving In The Spirit—that’s unbelievable, their contribution to the community. They’re all important.

Moving In The Spirit, Atlanta, GA
Moving In The Spirit mentors children through the art of dance to young minds develop a sense of self and realize their full potential. (Courtesy Moving In The Spirit)

What do you never leave home without when travelling?

What I always have is a sense of joy. It’s about living more than anything. When I walk out the door, it’s not what I have in my hand, it’s how I feel. I like to embrace joy. I’ve realized over time that we all have that choice. You can be heavy in your heart or you can have a sense of lightness and you can look at the sky—that’s a gift! … Wherever you go there’s joy. It’s there. We just don’t look for it.