In his final months as artistic director of Atlanta Ballet, John McFall is not interested in a nostalgic trip down memory lane, at least not right now at this moment. He is in the studio, mentoring young artists.
McFall watches as Brooke Lyness and Ransom Wilkes-Davis dance a romantic pas de deux. With passion, courage and tenderness, they move through a series of supported leaps. Each lift rises higher than the last, as if they are ascending a mountain path with new vistas at each turn.
“Think of a quicksilver quality,” McFall coaches Lyness on a series of fast turns moving in a circle. “Not so gravity-like; think of the air under your feathers.” Lyness whirls weightlessly through another orbit. “If you can have that lightness,” McFall suggests, “But at the same time, it has to have an exhilarating patina.”
These dancers will soon take the Fox Theatre stage in the last production of “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” under McFall’s watch. The company plans to mount McFall’s version again in 2016; after that, McFall’s as-yet-unnamed successor will determine the next steps.
On Dec. 11, Atlanta Ballet celebrates McFall’s 21-year tenure and the 20th anniversary of McFall’s “Nutcracker” with a pre-show red carpet event and post-show reception. It will be a time when invited guests, including community leaders, collaborators and dancers past and present ,can rally ‘round the artistic leader and celebrate a career filled with creativity and innovation.
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It is fitting that the largest public celebration currently planned during McFall’s last season takes place around “The Nutcracker.” His first full-length ballet during his initial year as director, the production has provided essential thrust as the organization has reached new heights in revenues, infrastructure and artistic quality under his watch.
McFall’s journey reflects what he once described as the company’s “fall-down, get-up, keep-going spirit.”
In 1994, the Atlanta Ballet had no executive director, no music director and no development department. Rehearsal space was inadequate, and while the company had recently recovered from a near-devastating debt load of $1.6 million, it anticipated a $600,000 deficit when the current season closed.
Into that grim scenario stepped McFall — mentored at the San Francisco Ballet by Willam Christensen, whose Russian-flavored “Nutcracker” pre-dated George Balanchine’s well-known version by 10 years. McFall had some significant choreography commissions to his credit — two for the American Ballet Theatre, commissioned and performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, and one commissioned by Danish international star Erik Bruhn for the National Ballet of Canada.
McFall arrived in Atlanta after eight years as artistic director of BalletMet Columbus in Ohio, where he tripled the budget and significantly expanded the company’s repertoire. Earlier that year, following disgreements with a faction of BalletMet’s board of directors, he was asked to resign.
“There was no way to go but out the door and into a new beginning,” McFall said.
As for Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” it was time for a fresh face, said Lynda Courts, then chairman of the board of directors. The board trusted McFall’s artistic choices, Courts said, but one thing was clear: “It had to be a blockbuster that would make a lot of money.”
McFall resolved to create a work that would reflect the culture of its home city — traditional, but with contemporary relevance — and on a scale of opulence with magical effects. The company took up residence at 1400 W. Peachtree St. in a generous lease deal with philanthropist Erwin Zaban, and McFall moved “The Nutcracker” from the Civic Center to the Fox Theatre. The ballet’s Russian setting — a natural outgrowth of the theatre’s Moorish architecture — paid homage to Tchaikovsky and the collaborators who built the first production in St. Petersburg in 1892.
Atlanta Ballet had produced Balanchine’s full-length “Nutcracker” annually since 1961. The highly regarded version has influenced productions across the country for decades. But McFall’s version emphasized storytelling over neoclassical dancing, believing that people go to the ballet to be “swept away emotionally,” he said, “on a fuller, deeper experience.”
McFall’s “Nutcracker” strikes drama through the actions of each character, vividly drawn and tightly woven into the story of a young girl, with dreams and aspirations, who matures into a young lady. He stretches ballet’s dynamic range, picking up the emotional surges of Tchaikovsky’s music with surprising angles, off-vertical lines and forward momentum.
Over the years, the production has seen some highs and lows — from musicians’ picket lines outside the theater to a dancer’s fall into the orchestra pit. It has been rivaled in ticket sales by Michael Pink’s “Dracula” and overshadowed by McFall’s “Peter Pan,” which soared at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Nevertheless, little updates each year have kept “The Nutcracker” fresh. In 2010, McFall recast the young protagonist, Marya, with a company member rather than a student, elevating the level of performance. McFall has since enhanced storytelling with illusionist’s effects.
Each role poses specific challenges, and most company members perform several roles a year in preparation for the rigorous and eclectic season repertoire. McFall invites dancers to interpret their roles differently each year, with freedom to change steps and say something new, said dancer Tara Lee.
This is part of a collaborative approach McFall has cultivated, in an environment where creative process is unencumbered. It’s what makes Atlanta Ballet artists unique. “They’re multidimensional people that you see on stage, that are interesting,” Lee said. “Because he encourages everyone to be who they want to be, who they should be. It promotes a self-driven artist.”
Over the years, McFall’s rapturously inventive partnering has filled traditional story ballets such as “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella” — miraculously engineered for a company of only 24 — keeping loyal fans of the classics happy. Collaborations with Indigo Girls and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of OutKast have attracted new audiences, spurring steady growth until the recession hit, Courts said.
But even as audiences grew, so did the company’s accumulated debt. By 2006, the organization owed $2.7 million. Some worried the Atlanta Ballet wouldn’t be able to “get up and keep going” again. Then it sold the West Peachtree building for $12 million (The organization had paid $2.75 million for it in 1998). The debt was retired and a capital campaign raised $20.7 million, doubling the endowment and paying for a spacious new headquarters in West Midtown. With that came a strategic plan to update the company profile with an international repertoire, new commissions and a fund for creative risk-taking.
Since then, choreography by the likes of Ohad Naharin, Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor have stretched dancers’ artistry while keeping Atlanta audiences connected with today’s international dance scene. The world premiere of “Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin” in 2012 garnered national attention and forwarded acquisition of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s luminous “Romeo et Juliette.” Helen Pickett’s “Camino Real,” a world premiere last March, is one of the company’s greatest creative achievements.
“These challenges elevate the capacity of our dancers to do more and more,” McFall said. “We’re a small company full of great artists.”
Looking back, it seems clear that “The Nutcracker” became the blockbuster the board expected. Last year’s ticket sales of $2.1 million broke a box office record for the second straight year. And the organization’s annual operating budget, which is tied directly to “Nutcracker” revenues, has increased from $3.3 million in 1994 to $9.8 million last season.
From any of these viewpoints, McFall, 69, is retiring at a peak in the company’s history.
“That collaboration that we’ve worked together on for a couple of decades — it’s an astonishing feat in this part of the world,” said McFall. “Forty-ninth state for contributions per capita to the arts? That tells you a lot right there.”
At season’s end, McFall and his family will move to Amsterdam, where his wife, Paige, will join a holistic healing community. He’d like to continue to stage ballets, and he looks forward to spending time with his daughters, Stella Blu, 11, and Tallulah, 8, who taught him — more than anything — that life is in the moment.
“It’s always in motion,” he said. “And the unknown and what you haven’t done, is probably the best adventure you can step into. It keeps it vibrant; it keeps you alert; it keeps you inspired.”