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Ballet departures, Exposed festival mark eventful year of dance

This year brought significant change to the Atlanta dance scene, most notably at the city’s largest and most prominent dance institution. John McFall, the popular and personable artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet since 1994, officially retired at the end of the 2015-16 season. His replacement, Gennadi Nedvigin, formerly a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, takes the helm as the 2016-17 season begins.

Atlanta Ballet Principal Dancer John Welker, who has danced with the company for 20 years, will also retire at the end of 2016. It marks the end of an era not simply because Welker performed lead roles in many of the company’s most memorable productions under McFall, but also because Welker was founder and director of the Ballet’s contemporary “company within a company,” Wabi Sabi, which has become well-known for its site-specific outdoor performances since its creation in 2012.

There were plenty of events and performances, both from the Atlanta Ballet and beyond it, that helped mark 2016 as a memorable year of transition:

John McFall farewell. As artistic director, John McFall often sought to expand the Atlanta Ballet’s repertoire beyond classical ballet, challenging both his dancers and his audiences with boundary-breaking contemporary work. The last show of the season in May, a mixed program of contemporary work called “Mayhem” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, was a touching and fitting send-off. The eclectic and eccentric performance included work by contemporary choreographers Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, Andrea Miller and Yuri Possokhov, plus a loving and bittersweet work for six company dancers by choreographer and Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee. In all, it served as the perfect tribute to the man who had led the company for more than two decades.

Exposed. A sprawling and ambitious new dance festival, Exposed brought a broad spectrum of contemporary Israeli dancers and choreographers to venues across Atlanta. Created by Decatur-based dance company CORE’s artistic director Sue Schroeder, the new festival featured work by leading artists including Ofir Nahari, Niv Sheinfeld, Oren Laor, Ido Tadmor, Anat Grigorio, Hillel Kogan, Yossi Berg, Oded Graf and Vertigo Dance Company to venues across Atlanta throughout the fall. The work was fresh and invigorating, pushing forward the possibilities for contemporary dance in Atlanta.

Lucky Penny. Atlanta dance company the Lucky Penny, founded by choreographer and Emory grad Blake Beckham and her partner Malina Rodriguez, continued its mission to foster new work by supporting the city’s independent choreographers. Artists of the Work Room, the company’s innovative program that provides Atlanta dancers with ample time to develop new ideas in studio space in East Point, had an especially impressive group show at Emory’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts in June. But it was also individual shows by the program’s independent artists — including Anicka Austin’s “Chroma” in May, Beckham’s own “OneAnother” at Emory’s Mary Gray Munroe Theatre in August and MaryGrace Phillips’ “Stairs” at the B-Complex at the end of September that truly showed how the studio program creates crucial opportunities for collaboration and innovation.

Glo. The small but mighty Atlanta dance company had a busy and engaging year of programming, both in the city and around the state. The innovative site-specific troupe created performances along the Chattahoochee River, at St. EOM’s newly restored folk art environment Pasaquan in Buena Vista and at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, as well as an on-going program to engage Georgia communities around buildings that once housed the Rosenwald Schools. The crown jewel among the many works was the meditative, spare and elegant collaboration with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano, who composed and performed a stunningly beautiful new piano work for the company’s performance of “Cloth(field)” at the Goat Farm Arts Center in September.

Dance Theatre of Harlem. The iconic dance company performed at the Cobb Energy Centre in late October, presenting a mixed program that included memorable works by Elena Kunikova, Darrell Grand Moultrie and resident choreographer and former principal dancer Robert Garland. But it was choreographic legend Dianne McIntyre’s work “Change,” celebrating the historic tenacity and courage of African-American women, that truly made the evening a stellar highlight of 2016. Atlanta audiences got to hear the Spelman College Glee Club perform the music live.

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