New headquarters has Atlanta Ballet feeling kinetic

Having spent last season celebrating its 80th anniversary and 50 years of dancing "Nutcracker," Atlanta Ballet is about to make a momentous leap into the future.

This weekend the company will host a public grand opening of only its fifth headquarters in its eight decades, on the edge of Midtown West, the burgeoning gallery, restaurant and retail district west of downtown Atlanta.

The $10.9 million project, named the Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre in memory of the late Atlanta philanthropist, is a technologically-up-to-the-moment renovation of a 1955 Hotpoint appliance plant.

Home to the ballet and its Centre for Dance Education, the facility was designed and constructed under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, becoming the country's first arts headquarters to achieve LEED gold certification (the next-to-highest ranking for energy efficiency).

The spacious 54,000-square-foot building features five full-size dance studios, a physical therapy suite, student library, costume shop, dressing rooms for the professional company and students, scenery storage, box office and boutique.

Nearly doubling the space of its West Peachtree Street home of 15 years, the new pad is a serious upgrade over the crusty Midtown building that hasn't supplied hot water in years (plumbing repairs were deemed too expensive, and the ballet knew it was moving since selling the building and the 1.25-acre parcel on which it sits in 2007). Issues with the old place included a main rehearsal studio that was smaller than the stage at Atlanta Ballet's main performance venue, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Thus, dancers frequently crashed into walls in the tight room -- that is, when not dodging structural columns.

At 2,145 square feet, the company's new main rehearsal space named the Merry Carlos Dance Studio, aka "Studio 1″, is as expansive as the Cobb Energy stage, even allowing sets to be rolled in so that the dancers can prepare in performance-like conditions. The ballet now finally has its rehearsal studios and scene shop under one roof, saving it $50,000 a year in warehouse rent.

"When all of that is available to you, you can really identify and discover all kinds of possibilities," artistic director John McFall said. "It definitely enhances the product potential."

McFall isn't certain what he's most excited about, the improved lobby accommodations for Dance Centre students and their patiently waiting parents (there's finally separate restroom facilities for men and women, even free Wi-Fi) or the studio sound system that replaces a glorified boom box. "The audio just lifts your spirits, because you’re experiencing all the details at such a high level of quality," he said.

Like the 22-foot-high lobby, the studio exterior walls are constructed of Kalwall, a translucent paneling system that is well-insulated but allows sunlight to stream through. It's quite an upgrade from the old rehearsal hall, where afternoon sun baked the room, turning dancers' hair into sweat mops.

Brian Wallenberg, a 13-year company veteran, said he is "very, very excited" about the new home and predicted fellow company members will be, too. The dancers will return from summer break early next month to begin rehearsals for late October's season-opening production of  "Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet."

"It’s already so nice to walk into the building," Wallenberg said. "It’s new energy, it’s fresh energy. We needed this change in our facilities to help us move forward as a company."

Off the lobby in the administrative offices, recently arrived executive director Arthur Jacobus is working to ensure just that.

After some tough financial challenges, things are looking up. The company, which was $2.75 million in debt when it sold the West Peachtree site for $12 million three years ago, is now debt-free and owns its new $10.9 million home outright.

But Jacobus, who ran the San Francisco Ballet until 2002 and more recently Seattle's Pilchuck Glass School, is determined for the company to reach a "state of financial sustainability and stability." In June, he increased the ballet's $14.8 million capital campaign goal by $4.5 million. The company has raised $14.6 million in 20 months. The executive director wants to more than double its "small" $2.8 million endowment.

An already-raised $500,000 fund dubbed an artistic working capital reserve will allow McFall to commission new works from early- to mid-career choreographers over the next three years. Both leaders believe trailblazing choreography will help the company build an identity that Jacobus said is "more physical, more contemporary, more kinetic, more edgy."

Event preview

Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre grand opening

10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Free. Mayor Kasim Reed will cut the ribbon at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by entertainment from Atlanta Ballet and Dance Centre students and metro area dance and performance groups including Empire D Hip Hop Performance Art Group, Atlanta Chinese Dance Company and Alma Flamenca. Sunday's celebration, focusing on the school, will feature dance demonstrations and mini classes. 1695 Marietta Blvd. N.W., Atlanta.