“A thief wanders into an Amazon jungle. … It’s pretty easy to imagine what might happen [to him],” chuckles Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall, describing the plot of Lou Christiansen’s 1950-era ballet Con Amore. Well, not that easy: For those of us who cling to quaint, outdated notions of what ballet should be (namely, The Nutcracker), it’s a struggle, indeed, to imagine such a spectacle brought to life through ballet.
McFall views the work as “one of the few truly humorous ballets, one where you can really laugh from the belly.” Under his direction, the Atlanta Ballet has increasingly included modern — even cutting-edge — pieces in its repertoire.
Colin Connor’s Streets and Legends, written in the mid-’90s, explores its author’s Celtic heritage and reflects what McFall calls the “exuberance” of Scottish culture. “This piece came from a special place in [Connor's] heart,” continues the director. “The story conveys how we’re affected by our myths. … I believe that [the] ‘Streets’ [section] stands for today’s world, while ‘Legends’ refers to the myths of our past.”
The piece is an obvious choice for today’s Atlanta Ballet; the current company breezily couples beloved classics with works by rising choreographers from around the globe.
“It’s certainly important to honor our rich heritage by showing [traditional ballets], but in order to capture today’s audience, we strive to present a body of work that not only reflects our past, but also celebrates the present and speaks to the future,” McFall explains. “And people have embraced this approach; in [expanding our repertoire], we’ve broadened our audience, and we now sell more tickets than ever before.”
The Atlanta Ballet is the country’s oldest continually operating ballet company; but that didn’t stop McFall from implementing major changes upon his arrival in 1994. Among other coups, the ballet has doubled its budget; purchased a new Peachtree Street facility that boasts five studios, administrative offices, a costume shop, a boutique and a box office; increased ticket sales by 125 percent; added 32 new pieces (including 11 world premieres) to its repertoire; and opened the Centre for Dance Education, which enrolls 1,000 students on two campuses.
Spectacular as these changes may seem, McFall — a former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet who has choreographed works for Mikhail Baryshnikov — is reluctant to take more than a working credit for them.
“The process [for change] was pretty clear before I came on,” he notes modestly. “A research committee … was responsible for the new direction, and they did a great deal of work in determining where the ballet was going to go. … I would credit the [company's success] to the compelling work the committee did in crystallizing [the notion of] how important dance was to the community.”
McFall’s own interpretation of this vision resulted in an extensive outreach program that eventually touched the lives of more than 25,000 Atlanta youth through progressive educational programs. In addition, the director launched the “Family Classic Series” — a project that aims to draw younger children into dance by putting favorites like Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Peter Pan on pointe.
McFall is understandably proud of the increasingly noticeable results of the company’s educational endeavors. “We’ve been active in bringing arts into the neighborhoods,” he affirms. “We try to make it a participatory experience. Although you might become stirred while watching a ballet, the experience is typically passive. The way we approach dance gets kids on their feet.”
And envelops fans of all ages in the magic. “Dance is so successful at [breaking down age barriers],” McFall declares: “With [classical] music, you’re listening to something that was composed 300 years ago, and that’s fine — but it doesn’t reflect what’s going on now. Dance is able to stimulate the imagination and make connections on a dynamic level.”