In the role of Esmeralda, Tara Lee performs her gypsy dance under iron-fisted proprietor Gutman (John Welker) in Atlanta Ballet’s original 2015 production based on “Camino Real.” CONTRIBUTED BY CHARLIE MCCULLERS / ATLANTA BALLET
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

In ‘Camino Real,’ Tara Lee to retire from Atlanta Ballet amid farewells

Tara Lee, a leading dancer with Atlanta Ballet, is at peace as she prepares her final performance as a company member in Helen Pickett’s ballet based on Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real.”

As Esmeralda, the gypsy girl, Lee will close her retirement season with a poetic goodbye.

Atlanta Ballet’s Tara Lee and Heath Gill rehearse their final pas de deux in Helen Pickett’s original 2015 production based on the play “Camino Real.” The current staging of the show will be May 12-14 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. CONTRIBUTED BY CHARLIE MCCULLERS / ATLANTA BALLET
Photo: For the AJC

Recently at Atlanta Ballet studios, Lee and Heath Gill, as Kilroy, rehearse their final duet. In the Camino Real, a dead-end town where people must grapple with mortality, the desire to connect with each other and the will to live, Kilroy is a beacon of hope.

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Standing together at a stairway to an unknown land, Lee breathes with emotion as Gill lifts her veil. Tension builds as they reach through twists and countertwists. Their off-kilter balances recoil into embraces as their lives seem to intertwine. With Gill’s support, she vaults. She soars. Their paths will soon separate, but the only love she’ll ever need is right here, in this moment.

Lee moves with a startling clarity and an emotional intensity, developed throughout a 21-season career with Atlanta Ballet, where she performed a prodigious range of styles. Her ability to physicalize emotion makes her a spellbinding and riveting performer, one of the company’s most compelling artists.

Lee, 41, is retiring at a natural point in her career trajectory, but a number of dancers face uncertainty as a result of recent changes.

Many dancers were saddened, Lee said, in September 2015 when John McFall announced he would step down as artistic director. Dancers and staff felt unsure about the futures of their jobs and of the company. The board then hired Bolshoi-trained dancer Gennadi Nedvigin, who incorporated more classicism into the repertoire and implemented the Vaganova training system. Nedvigin established a more traditional company ethos.

This provoked a kind of insurgency among dancers, Lee said. “Our ideals about the art form had evolved over the last few years.” Nedvigin’s philosophy and approach were a match for some dancers; for others, the change prompted them to question and clarify their ideals about what art meant to them, and why each was pursuing the craft.

By mid-March, four other prominent dancers had chosen to leave, and eight dancers, including two apprentices, were not hired back.

Tara Lee and Heath Gill rehearse as Esmeralda and Kilroy in Helen Pickett’s original 2015 ballet production based on the play “Camino Real.” The Atlanta Ballet’s current staging of the show will be May 12-14 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. CONTRIBUTED BY CHARLIE MCCULLERS / ATLANTA BALLET
Photo: For the AJC

As the oldest company member, Lee was at a different place in her career trajectory. She knew, and had informed Nedvigin, that she would retire at season’s end to devote more time to choreography and other pursuits. Nedvigin has since has commissioned Lee to create a new ballet, slated for a premiere next April. So while many worried about their prospects, Lee focused on learning, and capped her career dancing in Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.”

Lee had wanted to dance Kylian’s iconic ballet since she first saw his company, Netherlands Dance Theatre, when she was about 18 and dancing with Joffrey II. Last April’s performances gave her a full circle moment that took her back to the day, 22 years ago, when McFall watched her take a Joffrey II class and subsequently hired her.

McFall instinctively sensed she had the capacity to become an artist.

“Tara Lee is a multidimensional individual,” McFall said. “She assimilates all the facets of a process or project and synthesizes them into a personal focus that informs her deeply.” McFall mentored Lee to become self-directed.

McFall’s teaching empowered Lee to become an independent thinker and a self-motivated artist, Lee said. He didn’t micromanage, nor did he ignore dancers, Lee said. “He pointed out things, and then he left it,” she said. “It was up to you to step up or not.” Over time, McFall began to entrust Lee with major roles in the company’s repertoire.

Lee’s dramatic power came to the fore with her 2002 debut as Cio-Cio-San in Stanton Welch’s “Madame Butterfly.” Lee found fulfillment as Odette in McFall’s “Swan Lake.” A wanderlust took her to Ballet British Columbia in the 2006-07 season, highlighted by an original role in Crystal Pite’s “Arietta.” After returning to Atlanta, Lee enjoyed a kind of rock-star status as Shee in “Big,” choreographed by Lauri Stallings with Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Outkast.

More recently, Lee led the company’s effort to update its profile, dancing principal roles in wide-ranging contemporary works — a favorite role, she says, is the hyper-mobile, bald-headed android-clone in Wayne McGregor’s “Eden/Eden.”

Dancing as Esmeralda, the gypsy girl in “Camino Real,” Tara Lee will take her final bow after 21 seasons with Atlanta Ballet. She’ll perform at the 8 p.m. shows May 12 and 13. CONTRIBUTED BY CHARLIE MCCULLERS / ATLANTA BALLET
Photo: For the AJC

Now as a gypsy girl in a town filled with lost souls, Lee’s character perpetually cycles between being an “old, weathered wise soul,” Lee said, and a “renewed, pure light.”

From her balcony, Esmeralda sees, and has played, in a way, all the townspeople’s different roles, Lee said. Esmeralda has felt afraid and trapped; yet with Kilroy, she has known freedom, love and hope.

Sometimes, in rehearsal, Lee looks down from her balcony at dancers, working below. Some are wondering what their next job will be like. Others are curious about who’ll dance beside them in Atlanta Ballet’s next season. Several remain uncertain about their futures.

Lee understands these feelings, because she’s been there. “People are in different places of their lives. Everyone has their own valid experiences.”

She found a way to express her feelings in a recent rehearsal when Esmeralda prays, “God bless all con men and hustlers and pitch-men who hawk their hearts on the street … .” To deepen the prayer’s meaning, she imagined the souls and faces of people she knew as the characters she was blessing.

For a moment, Lee felt so emotional, she couldn’t speak. She worried that she might not get the words out during the shows. She wanted to send blessings and love to everybody.

“With all the changes and comings and goings, that’s important because there shouldn’t be sides or this or that. Everyone is part of this family, and we’re all artists,” she said. “Whoever was part of my career and life, they’re all part of that prayer.”

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