Atlanta Ballet’s John Welker leaps in many new directions

John Welker has been a man in constant motion since he was, well, a boy in motion.

In recent years, though, all that motion has gotten fairly loco for Welker, who shares the title role of “Dracula” in the Atlanta Ballet production starting Feb. 8 and will dance perhaps life’s biggest part in April when he and fellow 18-year company dancer Christine Winkler welcome their first child.

It’s a boy.

Collectively, Welker’s is an act of career and life expansion, bordering on reinvention, for a dancer still very much in his prime at 36.

Welker, who began dancing at age 11 at BalletMet, is the son of high-achieving parents: His dad, Robert, is a retired professor at Ohio’s Wittenberg University and public school reformer who won’t quite retire, and his mom, Marilyn, is an accomplished “professional volunteer” and serious gardener. He was inspired by his older sister Sonia, who went on to a long career with the professional company in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

There, her limber, increasingly lanky little brother caught the eye of then-artistic director John McFall, who, a year after moving to Atlanta Ballet and beginning to reshape the company, plucked Welker and his girlfriend Winkler from the ranks of Utah’s Ballet West in 1995.

Along with close comrade Tara Lee, who also joined the company that year, Welker and Winkler became the public faces of Atlanta Ballet. That’s held true even in recent years as, under McFall and executive director Arturo Jacobus, the company has attracted top choreographic and remarkable young dance talent and opened a handsome Westside studio/headquarters — recession be damned.

When he was establishing himself and commanding a lengthening string of lead roles in his 20s, Welker felt, as many young dancers do, that he had to be laser beam-focused on his career. Of course, that included Winkler, his mutually supportive partner at the barre as in life outside ballet.

“I didn’t consider other things because I was living the life I dreamed of living,” said Welker, who speaks earnestly and straightforwardly about himself despite a lingering degree of Midwestern reticence that has him switching to second-person when matters turn personal. “There was no hole to fill, or outside goal to reach, beyond the present moment of being a dancer-artist.

“But as your world grows, so does your possibilities and your ability to recognize new aspects of yourself and life in general,” he continued. “That is where I find myself right now.”

Indeed, while still an undisputed star of a troupe where McFall always has insisted that that all are “company artists” and there isn’t the typical ballet company caste system, Welker has been moving at warp speed in multiple new directions:

  • Trying to create summertime work for fellow Atlanta Ballet dancers, he founded the contemporary ensemble Wabi Sabi in 2011. Atlanta Ballet leaders, who have helped support it while treating it as an independent entity, believe the offshoot already is playing an important part in helping focus the company’s evolving identity. Welker serves as Wabi Sabi’s ballet master, recruiting emerging choreographers and organizing logistics.
  • For five years, he has shaped and co-directed (with Winkler) the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education’s Professional Division Summer Intensive Program, which attracts talent in their late teens to early 20s from around the country who seek dance careers.
  • Through an Atlanta Ballet partnership with Kennesaw State University’s College of the Arts, Welker is pursuing an undergraduate degree in dance, with thoughts of tackling a master’s in arts administration.
  • And, of course, he’s planning for parenthood, a role that seemed remote to him a decade ago, but that he now embraces with growing anticipation.

“I’m just so excited,” he said. “I’m so ready to change those diapers like 10 or 12 times a day and wake up like every third hour to feed and to be sleep-deprived for many years to come. All that good stuff.”

It didn’t sound like he was particularly trying to persuade himself about the impending Pampers era, even if it did resonate like he was auditioning a new Dad of the Year speech. Known for a streak of mischief that has lightened up many a tense rehearsal, Welker laughed when this was pointed out.

“Everyone has their horror stories, and those are definitely things you have to consider, too. But I’m so ready to be a family with Christine and share that with her — to raise a kid, impart some of your values and learn from them as well. I can’t wait.”

Welker and Winkler haven’t decided on a name yet for that April special delivery, but it’s not for a lack of suggestions from their fellow dancers. There has been much lobbying lately for Luke Sky Welker, and it’s a sign of the company’s overall closeness that the couple didn’t reject the name outright.

Perhaps it’s because the Force will surely need to be with Welker as he attempts to juggle the demands of fatherhood, a dance career, raising up a new dance ensemble, college studies and teaching.

It helps that he thinks he can somehow do it all, and Winkler agrees, even as she has to occasionally shoo off to bed her driven, organized husband when he gets dark circles under his eyes.

“John manages quite remarkably, but I do get worried,” allowed Winkler, a blond Californian who always looks spotlight-ready, even on a serene Sunday morning at their red-brick Decatur home. “I’m like, are you going to rest? I do get worried because his father wakes up at 4:30 in the morning and goes straight to work, and John’s picking up those habits.”

McFall, whom Welker considers his mentor, said that the dancer’s “wonderful inquisitiveness” was apparent even as a 11-year-old new to the fold.

“John’s contribution to Atlanta Ballet is deep and wide,” the artistic director said. “He’s an exceptional dancer and artist, but he also does all these other things. Kids in the school look up to him and say wow, if he can do it, maybe I can. That’s important to have an individual who can mentor and be a shining example.”

Heath Gill, a three-year company artist who moved to the city six years ago at 18 to train in Atlanta Ballet’s pre-professional program, said Welker has a natural ease in helping younger dancers.

“In classes and rehearsals, he’s really great about helping out with little things on the side,” said Gill, who considers Welker his mentor. “He approaches you as someone on the same level, even though he’s been in this field for years and has all this wonderful experience. He’s telling you things in his career that helped him, and he’s trying to help you jump ahead and get past that level sooner.”

After 19 years as a professional, Welker is not surprised when people ask him about when he might retire, but he said he not only feels good (he’s never had a major injury) but also feels he’s still learning.

Part of his desire to continue dancing is that he’s jazzed about the company’s progress since Jacobus, a highly regarded arts strategic planner, arrived in late 2009. That freed up McFall to fully focus on recruiting choreographers — such as Twyla Tharp, who set a world premiere on the company last season, and Israel’s Ohad Naharin, who is beginning a three-year collaboration with it starting this season — and other creative moves.

“Good choreographers and good choreography make better dancers,” Welker said. “You up the scale on the choreographers we’re bringing in, and the dancers will rise to that challenge. And we feed off each other.”

In the studio, Welker appears like a sun around whom planets eventually revolve.

“He’s friends with everybody at the ballet,” Gill said. “We all love John.”

Gill still felt this way after Welker, during a recent break between “Dracula” rehearsals, pulled a chair out from under him as he was sitting down. Gill landed on the floor with less than graceful flair, cracking up the room.

“It kind of got everyone reawakened and ready to go,” Gill said of the mirthful move by Welker, a man who’s getting better at “go” all the time.

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