Atlanta Ballet leader John McFall plans final bow after 21st season

Atlanta Ballet already was planning to pay tribute to artistic director John McFall in different ways during its 2015-16 season, celebrating his two decades of leadership. Now the celebrations will also mark a farewell.

While avoiding the word “retire” in its official announcement, the company announced Tuesday that McFall, an energetic 68, will depart shortly after his 21st season at the helm of the country’s oldest ballet company. His last day as artistic director will be June 1.

McFall, who plans to move to Amsterdam with his wife, Paige, and daughters Stella Blu, 11, and Tallulah, 8, seemed reflective and proud as he discussed the mutual decision with the company’s board to step down.

He said he was honored to have served as only the third artistic director in the Atlanta company's history and felt he had managed to carry forward the mission, in very different times, of his predecessors, Robert Barnett (who led from 1962-1994) and founder Dorothy Alexander (1929-1962).

“Twenty-one years is a good spell,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Part of my tenure has been watching little kids go on stage in the ‘Nutcracker,’ grow up and become dancers in the company or whatever they desire to be. And being there for them in that process to enlighten, to mentor, to guide, be engaged, participate … has been the richest, most rewarding, fulfilling experience imaginable.”

McFall’s accomplishments of course extend far beyond his choreography for “Nutcracker,” which for 19 years has funded a gradual transformation of Atlanta Ballet from a tradition-bound classical ballet troupe to one recognized for its daring mix of new works by accomplished and rising American and international contemporary choreographers.

Under McFall, Atlanta Ballet dancers have worked with leading talents including Twyla Tharp, Ohad Naharin of Israel, British choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor as well as Yuri Possokhov and Alexei Ratmansky, both of Russia.

He also sought new collaborators outside the dance world, such as the folk-singing Indigo Girls, who joined forces with the troupe for 2001’s “Shed Your Skin,” and Big Boi of the hip-hop group Outkast for the 2008 world premiere “Big.”

In an exclusive interview with the AJC, Atlanta Ballet board chairman Allen W. Nelson praised McFall for being “at the peak of his powers.”

While McFall tried to deflect such praise — speaking at length about the community of dancers, staff, choreographers, board members, community supporters and others that it takes to make a dance company progress — he did claim the 2014-15 season as his creative peak.

Highlights included the March world premiere of Atlanta Ballet resident choreographer Helen Pickett's "Camino Real," based on the 1953 Tennessee Williams' play of the same name, an encore of French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Roméo et Juliette" and premieres by Possokhov, John Heginbotham and Alexander Ekman.

Atlanta Ballet’s strides were not just artistic.

The company recently announced that it racked up $3.1 million in box office sales last season, its highest ticket revenues in at least two decades (as far back as the company's records go).

Total season attendance approached 72,000.

A number perhaps even more important to McFall, however, is the 1,200 students enrolled in the company's Centre for Dance Education, which he founded in 1996. Now regarded as one of the country's top dance training facilities, it also reaches more than 60,000 students and adults yearly through its community programming.

McFall said that it was important for the dance school to achieve significant outreach, criticizing the state of Georgia and the Southeast in general for “coming up very short” in providing arts education. “We are dedicated to engagement and doing everything imaginable to bring arts into people’s lives,” he said.

As artistic director, McFall is credited with building a company of dancers without a star-system hierarchy, devoid of what he calls “soap opera” behavior.

"Every choreographer tells us how rare that is: 'You guys all get along, you're a family,'" said Christian Clark, 32, a Centre for Dance Education graduate who is entering his 14th season as a company dancer. "That really has to do with John, the way he nurtures people and makes people comfortable enough to take risks."

Nelson said that McFall’s “spirit of collaboration” will be one attribute he and a board committee, which will meet for the first time next week to begin a national and international search, will seek in a successor.

“We’re looking for a dynamic, visionary leader, just as John was and is,” the board chairman said, “someone who can take the organization forward and chart their own course, in a very positive way, for Atlanta and the dance world.”

Though an official future role with Atlanta Ballet has not been worked out, Nelson said he expects McFall to remain active with the company.

The outgoing artistic director said that is his wish.

“As far as my heart, my soul, my mind, I’m always going to have a connection to Atlanta Ballet,” McFall said. “I’ll do anything I can to assist in any way I might be asked to participate.”