Atlanta Ballet takes dance out of the studio

More than just a garden

The Atlanta Botanical Garden has become a center for entertainment beyond the greenhouses, flower gardens and restful shady spots. Entry fees ($18.95; $12.95 ages 3-12) will get you into the garden, which includes the exhibit Imaginary Worlds: Plants Larger Than Life. Horticultural artists have created 19 fantastic living sculptures from hundreds of thousands of plants, including cobras towering overhead, fish dancing on water, and a giant goddess emerging from the earth. Through Oct. 31.

Cocktails in the Garden

Mix and mingle at a cocktail party in the garden, including disc jockeys, chef demos and performances such as Wabi Sabi and the Alliance Theatre. Also, Art and Science Cafe during Cocktails in the Garden is a series of discussions exploring the unique and innovative ways artists and scientists work together. 6-10 p.m. every Thursday through September. Adults $18.95, members free.

Concerts in the Garden

Outdoor concerts on a grassy lawn start at 8 p.m.; seating is general admission. Tickets are available from and at garden admissions.

Aug. 9: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin. Two of America’s best-known singer-songwriters, these longtime friends share the stage as an intimate duo, performing material spanning their careers as well as some of their favorite songs. $59.50 or $57.50 for members

Aug. 10: Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers with Railroad Earth. He’s played with Ricky Skaggs, Christian McBride, the Range and the Grateful Dead, but Hornsby and his Noisemakers have released five albums together as well, most recently 2011’s live “Bride of the Noisemakers.” $56.50 or $54.50 for members.

Aug. 18: Roger Hodgson of Supertramp. He’s been touring on his own since 1997, even joining Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band in 2001. $52.50 or $49.50 for members.

The Atlanta Ballet's Wabi Sabi performs for Cocktails in the Garden. 6:30 p.m. Aug. 15 and 22. Performances are free with regular admission into the Atlanta Botanical Garden. 1345 Piedmont Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-876-5859,

Blooms, booze and a bit of ballet.

That’s a winning formula, and the past two summers Atlantans have seen just how great it can be.

On special evenings at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, dancers from the Atlanta Ballet have performed among the roses and rhododendrons, on the grass, and outside the greenhouse while up to 1,200 visitors chill out with cocktails served from cash bars. The popular dance events, part of the Cocktails in the Garden series, are set for Aug. 15 and 22.

Such performances are more than just a fun way for Atlantans to watch dance and enjoy a drink in a pretty setting. For the dancers, taking work out of the studio can provide a sense of freedom and a chance to connect with audiences, said John Welker, a principal dancer with the Atlanta Ballet.

“There’s a feeling of empowerment that comes with leaving four walls behind,” said Welker, founder of Wabi Sabi, the ballet’s company within a company that takes dance to places like the garden.

“There’s a sense of grandeur and freedom that you don’t always get in a studio or stage setting,” he said.

Welker unveiled the new chamber performance group, consisting of eight Atlanta Ballet members and four apprentices, in 2011. The adaptable group has since performed in Woodruff Park downtown, at Inman Park’s Whitespace Gallery, at the High Museum for its late-night Culture Shock series, at North Georgia’s Sautee Nacoochee Center and elsewhere. The Wabi Sabi troupe takes its name from a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in the simplicity and integrity of the cycles of the natural world.

Wabi Sabi dances can vary in style from traditional to modern, tango to hip-hop, and everything in between, truly testing a dancer’s range, Welker said. The company also gets the chance to commission new works from emerging choreographers, and company members get the opportunity to choreograph their own work.

There are things you will see at a Wabi Sabi show you would almost never encounter at a traditional ballet performance. Dancers venture across lawns and into fountains, and enthusiastic viewers sometimes break into spontaneous dance performances of their own. Between dances, there’s even a chance for visitors to chat with company members about their work.

“Getting instant feedback is great,” Welker said. “I’m surprised by the questions people have, by how smart they are.”

Connecting with audiences up close, he said, is also crucial for a developing dancer’s growth.

“Some beginning dancers aren’t always as aware of how viewers might be reacting to what they’re doing,” he said. “But when they’re this close to the audience, they palpably feel how the decisions they make can resonate.”

Dancers and viewers typically travel together from location to location throughout the evening. As viewers enter the garden, they’re given a map with the various times and locations of performances, making the evening a sort of treasure hunt.

Welker said visitors can expect to see about seven dances in various locations. This year features new works by Atlanta Ballet Company dancers Peng-Yu Chen, Heath Gill and Tara Lee. There also will be works from guest choreographers, including Rachelle Scott, a dancer with New York’s renowned Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and Michael Smith, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet.

For the Cocktails in the Garden events, the performances are free with paid regular admission to the garden.

With the garden in bloom and the dancers set to perform, it’s simply a matter of picking which cocktail best suits the evening.

“I’m a whiskey guy myself,” Welker said when asked what he might recommend. “But if we’re unlucky with the weather, maybe a dark and stormy. If it’s sunny, a mojito. But, in the end, I’m always partial to something classic, with bourbon.”