Slip past the Westside Cultural Arts Center’s colorful facade, into its dim-lit parking garage and through its interior to the banging sound of workmen installing an HVAC system. Against one wall, giant metallic letters, as tall as full-length mirrors, spell out “DREAMS ARE MADE HERE” — a fitting sign for Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre.
Move through a pair of glass doors and brush past a black velvet curtain, into the sunlit studio built out by classically trained dancers who left Atlanta Ballet after former artistic director John McFall’s forced departure in 2016. Building on the creative connection they developed under McFall and drawing from their experiences dancing world-class contemporary works, together they have found their collective artistic voice.
Choreographer Tara Lee watches as dancers Rachel Van Buskirk and Christian Clark rehearse a duet from the company’s upcoming outdoor production, “Roam,” scheduled to open Oct. 16 at Serenbe’s Prom Field.
A sultry violin melody meanders over the quiet, bluesy bassline of a George Gershwin prelude. Warm, genuine and approachable, the couple moves like the fabric of a silken evening dress — classic, elegant and a little bit sexy. They skim and swoop seamlessly across the floor, blossoming into spiraling lifts. They communicate without words — their muscles responding to one another’s ever-changing form, emotion and velocity, showing different shadings of an evolving partnership built on trust.
Trust through collaborative art-making is the foundation on which the artists created the company four years ago, as well as a school and an impressive repertoire of original works. Trust is what helped them surmount the enormous obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic set in their path — from losing contact with live audiences to the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement to a recent separation from their umbrella organization, the South Fulton Institute.
“Roam,” which debuted in 2019, reflects the shared creativity that drew the artists closer during the pandemic and enabled them to create some of the company’s most powerful works to date and to emerge as a larger, more diverse and more independent organization.
The expanded company includes two new dancers — Jackie Nash, who left Atlanta Ballet to join the troupe, and Ashley Eleby, the company’s first Black female dancer. They’ll be part of a reimagined production set in a different location, with new and revised sections.
As before, “Roam” aims to immerse audiences in Serenbe’s natural environment. Trees and fields back a sunlit stage for a series of vignettes loosely tied together by a theme of journeying — sometimes playful, at other times introspective — with the dancers so close that audience members may feel the wind as dancers rush past them and the floor’s vibration under dancers’ steps.
“Roam” is timely because it reflects the searching, wandering and discovering that is a part of Terminus’ creative process, said artistic director John Welker, “and the part of the journey that we all have collectively decided to pursue together. We’re not pursuing our dreams as individuals. We’ve connected our future to growing this company and to growing this repertoire, and then through that, growing ourselves. Attaching our destiny to each other — that’s unique to what we do and how we do it.”
That close connection made it relatively easy for the group to pivot during the pandemic. Among the projects they produced during that time, two dance works for film — Heath Gill’s “Marley Was Dead, To Begin With,” a fresh retelling of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and Lee’s “The Poet,” an emotionally potent work on aging and dementia — are arguably their most compelling works to date.
“No matter what craziness was going on in the world, or even in the public view of what was happening with our company, we would still show up, just like we do every day,” said Lee. “We didn’t disturb the sacredness of that part, so it still felt rooted in what was important, which was the work. It kept us healthy.”
When the death of George Floyd Jr. and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests brought to light social and economic inequities in 2020, the company made a conscious decision to diversify Terminus.
Traditionally, American ballet companies fail to fully represent their racially diverse home cities on stage. This is partly due to the art form’s historically elitist thinking, Welker said, combined with a European aesthetic tradition that values a uniform corps de ballet that, though few would admit it, tends to prioritize light-skinned dancers.
Welker decided to turn the focus away from uniformity and more toward qualities that distinguish a soloist from the corps de ballet. This vision embraces uniqueness in body type, skin color and personality.
The company collaborated with Angela Harris, executive artistic director of Dance Canvas, an Atlanta-based organization that supports emerging dance artists, to form Catalyst, a program designed to develop aspiring Black ballet dancers. Celeste Pendarvis, an event planner for the American Cancer Society and a Black woman, stepped in as chair of Terminus’ governance board.
Pendarvis “has been a leader in initiating this change, encouraging us and supporting us every step of the way,” Welker said. “And giving us the space to make those decisions as we see fit, but also keeping us accountable to the intention of what we want to achieve.”
While Terminus’ school picked up several Black scholarship students, the company still had no Black female dancer until the pandemic sent Ashley Eleby home.
Eleby, a native Atlantan, had completed a dual degree in dance and business in New York City and was pursuing a contemporary dance career in Vancouver, British Columbia, when the pandemic hit.
After returning to Atlanta, she performed in Ballethnic Dance Company’s “Urban Nutcracker” and subsequently auditioned for Terminus, which quickly snapped her up. She joins Terminus’ troupe of eight company members and four protégés.
“The ballet training, the movement, the line, the feet, the facility, the coordination, it all comes together,” Welker said of Eleby. “Her skillset and artistry are undeniably wonderful.”
The company began rehearsing for “Roam” without pay because the organization’s assets were still tied up in legal processes due to the split from South Fulton Institute, a nonprofit that supports arts, culture and the environment. Terminus was operating for a while with no bank account and no way to accept donations. Welker had nothing to offer dancers except the “credit of trust.”
The separation had been part of the company’s long-term plan, but they hadn’t expected it so soon.
Terminus initially formed as a division of Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment, which provided an umbrella for the fledgling dance company to apply for grants that they otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible for, Welker said. The Institute also provided backend administrative support, including a shared bank account, software for web domain, with systems to handle donations and ticketing, as well as accounting, auditing and payroll, plus insurance, human resources support and a relatively small annual cash allocation.
In summer 2020, Serenbe Playhouse, also a division of Serenbe Institute, dissolved in scandal related to charges of racism. A year later, Serenbe Institute changed its name to South Fulton Institute.
According to Welker, South Fulton Institute’s culture changed to a top-down, corporate-style model over time. “The way they were enforcing that was, in effect, creeping in on the way our organization functions,” he said.
Terminus maintains a “horizontal entrepreneurial culture,” Welker said. The company’s collaborative approach to art-making informs the way the organization is run — from shared decision-making to the way they engage with audiences, patrons and donors, who are invited to participate in the company’s efforts. “We were finding it very hard to communicate with the people who support us in a way that was authentic and in our best interest.”
South Fulton Institute informed Terminus of the decision to separate on Aug. 2, and four days later the company was cast into financial limbo as it set about establishing itself as an independent legal entity. The very trust that lies at the heart of Terminus’ creative process sustained them through the time of uncertainty. It took several weeks to get systems in place, but finally, after some nail-biting, Welker said, he began paying dancers again this month.
South Fulton Institute Executive Director Jennifer Bauer-Lyons would not to comment on Terminus’ departure but referred to an official statement released by the board of directors.
“This transition was expected and has been in process for some time,” the statement said. “It’s been our pleasure to be enthusiastic supporters of their groundbreaking performance art and we wish Terminus and its talented dancers nothing but the best in this new season.”
Back in rehearsal, the studio feels energized as 10 dancers sweep across the studio space. They whirlpool closer together, arms curving over their heads like an ocean wave about to break against a rocky shore. The image speaks to the company in turbulent times: Rather than let circumstances break them apart, they harness their collective resolve.
Adapting to adversity is nothing new for Terminus, considering all it’s been through. The split with South Fulton Institute just fast-forwarded the organization toward the autonomy they’d long envisioned.
“If anything, it has just caused us to pivot and adapt faster,” said Lee. “It brings out the survival instincts that we already have woken up. It keeps us braced and ready for anything.”
“Roam.” Presented by Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. Oct. 16-31. $35-$50. Prom Field at Serenbe, 10950 Hutcheson Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. www.terminusmbt.com/roam