Lights flood row after row of empty burgundy seats at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre three hours before the audience settles into them. The house is perfectly still, but the stage is a blur of motion as Atlanta Ballet dancers warm up during a Saturday morning class. Off to the side, stage right, a cluster of performers chat and exchange more hugs than Freddie Freeman in the Atlanta Braves dugout after a three-run homer.
And in the wings, stage left, Christine Winkler is alone in the dimness, a study in concentration as she executes fluid, flowery movements from choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s romantic ballet “Seven Sonatas.” She dances in a small circle, giving a mini performance to an audience of none, Domenico Scarlatti’s piano music silently playing in her head.
Some 800 rehearsal hours have gone into readying the three, roughly half-hour works in the “Modern Choreographic Voices” program, to be presented four times over a whirlwind March weekend.
But performing for patrons is the payoff after the rigorous rehearsals, the point where the long learning curve finally ends and time-honed artistry takes over.
For Winkler, who has played countless lead roles in 19 years with Atlanta Ballet and grown into one of the company’s leading lights, this moment is what it’s all about. When a hush falls over the audience and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra sounds its first note, there’s a reassuring rush of adrenaline as bodies take flight. Given that the curtain is about to come down on the final season of her 23-year dance career, this moment is even more precious.
Winkler’s last performance will be in the season-closing “Mayhem” program May 16-18, but first she has two large roles in “Modern Choreographic Voices.” Her mother, fifth-grade teacher Kathleen Winkler, and architect brother, John Winkler, have flown in from Sacramento and New York, respectively, to witness, if not the end, the beginning of the end of a long, accomplished career.
Until two years ago, Winkler’s life was a smooth-moving affair focused on major roles and her marriage to fellow Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker.
But it has taken some unscripted turns. After waiting to start a family while she concentrated on her career, she finally had a joyous arrival last year at age 39. Her virtually unprecedented decision to resume dancing afterward, however, brought unexpected challenges.
It left her at a crossroads, confronting the most difficult decision of her life.
A tomboy discovers dance
Growing up in Sacramento, Christine Winkler was a pint-sized performer even before she watched a friend dance in “Nutcracker” and fell truly, madly, deeply in love with ballet at age 9. She and her little brother John, five years her junior, already were making up skits, dressing up in costumes and putting on shows at home.
Nevertheless, Kathleen Winkler was surprised when her tomboy daughter asked to take dance lessons. But by the following year, Christine was in the cast of “Nutcracker.” When she wasn’t rehearsing her part, she silently watched the others rehearse, trying to learn their parts. Back home, she outfitted her kid brother in an old skirt of their mom’s and cast him in the role of Mother Marshmallow, while she and a troupe of stuffed animals spilled out from under his costume.
One day during rehearsals, Christine realized the adult dancers in the production were earning a living doing what she adored. By 12, she set her heart on dancing professionally, too.
Fast-forward two years. It was the middle of February, and Christine was in rehearsals for a corps role in “Giselle” opening the following month. Over Presidents Day weekend, she went skiing with her family at Lake Tahoe. On a downhill run, she and her little brother tangled skis and Christine went flying.
“Oh, you’re not going to be dancing ...” said the young orthopedist who examined her painful, swollen left knee. “And you may not be dancing again.”
Christine and her mom burst into tears.
The doctor exited, seeking a more senior surgeon to consult. The second doctor examined Christine and said they wouldn’t be able to say for certain what the dance prognosis would be until after surgery to repair her ACL, a major ligament in the knee.
“That was the moment when I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this,’” Winkler recalled. “‘You’re not gonna tell me that I can’t do this. I’m gonna do this because I love it.’”
Christine had pulled the ligament off the bone but not torn it. After surgery, her leg was put in a cast and she was given crutches. That was followed by a brace that operated like something out of a horror movie, with a wrench-like apparatus that was loosened a little each week as her knee straightened.
After six weeks, she began extensive rehab. “It was a very devastating time,” Kathleen Winkler recalled, “but she was a hard worker and wanted it so much.”
Clearly. The accident happened on Valentine’s Day, and Christine was back at the barre by May.
Winkler joined Sacramento Ballet’s small professional company at age 17, then spent two years studying at San Francisco Ballet. She eventually ended up at Ballet West in Salt Lake City at age 20 where she met and fell in love with Welker, 17, also a Ballet West newbie. Lowest on the totem pole of a hierarchical company, both were burning with talent and ambition.
A year later they landed in Atlanta. Welker had grown up in Columbus, Ohio, taking classes at BalletMet. That company’s leader, John McFall, had just become Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director. Replacing Robert Barnett, who’d led the ballet for three decades, McFall was in a rebuilding mode. He auditioned and quickly hired the young couple.
Unlike most major U.S. companies, McFall does not rank his dancers. All members of the troupe are considered equals as “company artists.” Even so, Winkler and Welker immediately began commanding major parts. Partnering often, they radiated chemistry, sometimes hot-hot heat, onstage.
Commanding center stage
Ten dancers, both male and female, dressed in rehearsal gear of leotards or gym shorts and well-worn T-shirts, were breathing deeply. A few mopped sweat from their brows. Preparing to tackle a new section of Tara Lee’s world premiere, “The Authors” (part of the “Modern Choreographic Voices” program), Winkler and the others huddled around the choreographer’s laptop in a rehearsal studio at Atlanta Ballet’s West Midtown headquarters.
They studied the performer on the screen who, with seeming effortlessness, danced an extended solo combining modern and classical steps — a dancer who turned out to be Winkler.
She and Welker had been tapped by Lee to help refine movement ideas as she developed the work. Later Winkler shrugged off her role in the process, suggesting she and Welker happened to be available when Lee needed to do taping.
To the contrary, Lee said recruiting the couple was purposeful: “They’re at such a high level of their craft, it’s just awesome to work with them, to use them as muses, as inspirations.”
It wasn’t always that way. Her first season in Atlanta, Winkler won her first lead character role in “Cinderella.” But during rehearsals, she received extensive corrections, which caused several rounds of tears. She realized she had a lot to learn.
McFall had installed the no-star system, which over the years has come to make Atlanta Ballet an unusually close-knit dance troupe in a field where back-stabbing can be a sport. But that didn’t stop Winkler or other dancers from competing fiercely for roles.
“Everybody was game, everyone could get a big part,” she recalled. “I think it heightened the competition.”
Winkler had more of a competitive edge then, she admitted, checking out other dancers, pushing to improve her technique and be better than every one.
“There’s more, I hate to say it, testosterone involved when you’re younger,” she said. “Then when you’re older you mellow out, and it becomes more about yourself, not so competitive.”
The part of Cinderella was much easier when she reprised it in 1999. This time she danced opposite Welker, her then-fiance and real-life Prince. In the production they “married” onstage at the Fox Theatre and, a week later, they wed offstage.
The following year she danced the role of Mina in Michael Pink’s “Dracula,” a dance that has become a signature one in Atlanta Ballet’s repertory, receiving her first unqualified rave reviews.
“One reviewer wrote, ‘Christine Winkler has arrived.’ And I thought, Oh, my God, I have!” she said.
Over the years, Winkler developed a well-earned reputation for being a powerful performer with a commanding stage presence, yet one capable of great subtlety and softness. A consummate professional who never acts the diva, she doesn’t allow herself to think she knows it all, even at this stage of her career.
“The dancers that are successful, they’re their own harshest critics, and they’re the ones that push themselves the most,” Winkler said. “The person running the rehearsal can push you so hard, but if you don’t have that in you, then you’re not going to succeed or grow. Most successful dancers are type A overachievers.”
Her sunshine-y demeanor and laid-back California girl vibe may not convey “Type A,” but when it comes to anything to do with dance, she is.
It stems from her great love and respect for the art form, its ability to raise her pulse and put her totally in the moment, connected to the other dancers on stage and to the audience just beyond it. It’s that moment when her mind is sharp and her body liquid; when the red-deviled voice of doubt is silenced and all the corrections from weeks of rehearsal come out correctly: Everything feels right in the world.
She remembers the first time she experienced that feeling. She was 17, dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in “Nutcracker,” performing the grand pas de deux with the Prince. She has felt it countless times since, and would again when she performed “The Authors” with Welker in the “Modern Choregraphic Voices” program in March.
Baby changes everything
Winkler and Welker’s small brick ranch in Decatur looks ready for a feng shui spread in a home design magazine.
The lipstick-red front door opens up into a small gray-painted living room with modern furniture upholstered in white and black. Everything is pin-neat, uncluttered, almost spartan.
Except for the Johnny Jump Up hanging from the door frame to the kitchen, it doesn’t look anything like a 1-year-old lives here. But Lucas Welker indeed is living large, pulling up on everything and toddling about with the gait of a drunken pirate. Which is why the furnishings are now so spare.
For the longest time, it wasn’t clear when, or even if, a child would come to share their nest.
With three siblings and eight nieces and nephews, Welker wanted to start a family and for years would look for clever ways to work the suggestion sideways into conversations.
Early in her career, the decision seemed to rest far in the future. As Winkler got into her 30s, the idea of having a baby seemed more embraceable, but the ongoing question was when.
Still firmly focused on dancing, she would set arbitrary deadlines. She told herself she’d decide at 35. When 35 arrived, it was 36, then 37...
Her OB/GYN finally appealed to her: “Uh, you need to work on this.”
For one who had taken her time starting a family, Winkler’s excitement and anticipation once she became pregnant grew in proportion with her belly.
Even then it was hard to back away from the barre. At her 11-week mark, her doctor persuaded her that being lifted and tossed in the studio was maybe not the best idea for an expectant mom. So she stopped rehearsing for “Carmina Burana” in September 2012 and began rehearsing for motherhood.
Yet from the moment she found out she and Welker were going to be parents, Winkler was resolute she would return to the stage.
That may not sound all that remarkable, but in the world of dance it’s rare. It’s so unusual, in fact, that not a single Atlanta Ballet dancer has made a comeback after having a baby during John McFall’s 20-year run as artistic director.
McFall was surprised she wanted to try.
But Winkler was determined that she could have her baby and the barre, too.
“I really wanted to experience dancing after becoming a mother,” she said. “I just felt I wasn’t finished. I didn’t think the pregnancy was what was going to finish it.”
When she and Welker went for her 20-week ultrasound, the milestone when expectant parents usually most look forward to learning their baby’s sex, they were especially interested in another anatomical part.
“Ah, he’s got good feet!” they noted excitedly upon spotting Lucas’ promising little arches in the sonogram.
“Never heard that before,” the technician responded.
The proud parents-to-be took a copy of the scan to the studio and showed it off to their dance family.
Throughout her pregnancy, Winkler remained mindful she’d have to shed postpartum weight quickly. Having always danced at around 100 pounds, she didn’t totally surrender to her cravings for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. She weighed a healthy 129 when Lucas Welker, a blond with blue eyes and baby-fat cheeks, was born last April.
The theory of having a child soon yielded to the reality, and Winkler felt her center of gravity shifting in little Lucas’ direction. That summer, even as she rehearsed a piece Welker choreographed for her to perform for the company’s contemporary off-season ensemble Wabi Sabi, she admitted second thoughts about dancing full time.
“Did I make the right decision? Am I doing the right thing?” she asked herself.
The Atlanta Ballet dancers’ new contract season loomed in September. She was feeling anxious about the long days Lucas would spend in the care of a nanny still to be hired.
Company artists typically start their day with a 9:15 a.m. class, then rehearsals run from 11:15 a.m. to 6:10 p.m. During performance weeks, with tech and dress rehearsals, they’re gone for 12 hours a day.
Her concern was calmed considerably when they hired a nanny, but she feared missing out on her baby’s quicksilver developmental changes.
“There’s so much that happens in one day,” she said. “He’s like my little buddy and I want to hang out with him.”
And then she sighed heavily.
Back at the barre
On the High Museum’s outdoor plaza last July, more than 200 onlookers crowded around to watch Winkler dance a solo work choreographed by her husband on a 60-foot stretch of portable dance flooring.
Less than four months after Lucas’ arrival, she was performing Welker’s “A Little Moved” in a taut silvery leotard that would have exposed lingering baby weight had any remained.
It was her first public appearance since giving birth, and she was nervous, feeling less than confident about her body, her muscle response something short of mid-season form.
Her boss, McFall, was among the crowd, and she was determined to show him she was back, or at least well on her way.
If we’re going to do this, she thought, let’s do it.
The dance was something Welker had wanted to create for some time, a valentine to his love. Rich in symbolism about the journey she was on, the piece incorporated round, circular gestures that evoked the cycles of life and Lucas’ gestation in her once-swollen belly.
Even the runway-like dance surface conveyed symbolism: Winkler walking down life’s path and, at the conclusion, stepping off it into the unknown.
That night Welker watched his wife perform, thinking how she had somehow done it again: taken the raw material of choreography and flown with it, eclipsing his every expectation.
When Atlanta Ballet company members reassembled at the studio in September to prepare for the 2013-14 season, Winkler was ready to roll. She felt good in early rehearsals but was proceeding carefully.
Winkler’s joints and muscles were a bit rubbery. During pregnancy, the body produces the hormone relaxin that softens ligaments in preparation for childbirth and is thought to linger in the system for as much as a year. The tone of her big muscles returned easily, but the tiny muscle groups that dancers constantly push to the max were still a work in progress. But she was trained to know her body and how to control it; she was always conscientious about moving with precision.
Then, a month into rehearsals, the unthinkable happened.
During a morning class, she executed a medium jump combination in which her right leg circled behind her body and she landed on the toes of her left foot. A “saute” with a “rond de jambe” was something she’d done thousands of times. But this time when she landed, her left foot slipped and her knee buckled to the right.
She immediately felt a pop, then heard the sound of bone smacking bone.
Not good, she thought, as fellow dancers helped her to a chair.
Welker drove her to the ballet’s orthopedist, but it was three weeks before the MRI was done and a diagnosis rendered.
Not knowing was the hardest part. She wasn’t sure what she’d done, but having injured her ACL in that same knee at 14, she feared going under the knife again.
“Just the idea of that, the setback, what the timeline would be like,” Winkler said. “It was just all starting to compile.”
Welker encouraged her not to jump to conclusions.
Finally, the doctor had good news, relatively speaking: The injury was a major sprain and a minor fracture with bruising where the two bones had pulled apart and then hit back together. But surgery was not required.
“OK, good, I can get past this,” she thought, though it meant missing two of the five programs this season.
After a few quiet weeks of healing, she began rigorous workouts, including cardio, elliptical, cross training, weightlifting and stationary bike, followed by physical therapy and occasional pilates sessions. By December, she added morning dance class to the day-long regimen.
Emory physical therapist Marcy Toye-Vego said Winkler was always upbeat even as she “pushed to the limit of what she could do every day.” Invisible to the therapist were the dark clouds forming over her patient’s head.
“What am I doing?” Winkler began to ask herself during rehab. “I’m supposed to be dancing. I’m spending time away from my baby and I’m working out in a gym.”
That nebulous in-between state only intensified the feeling she’d had of being an outsider, removed from the work that had been her life. She missed the daily conversation with friends, the creative give-and-take in the studio, even the physical touch that is so central to the art form.
“I’ve always been so in control of where my path’s going, and when you have a baby, you throw that out the window. ... That’s a huge emotional change for somebody like myself.”
The time away not only allowed her to heal but gave her the chance to ponder her future. For two decades, her path had taken her from rehearsal to performance and back again. She began to consider if it was time to turn in a different direction. After the baby and the injury, after 18 months away from performing with Atlanta Ballet, she had arrived at a crossroads.
As the new year dawned, she was ready to confront what was easily the most difficult decision of her life. With many tears, she chose to retire after this season. She wells up even now, four months later, thinking about letting go of her life’s passion.
Welker supported her decision and began to use his powers of subtle persuasion to campaign for another child, noting what a great big brother Lucas would make.
Winkler’s sense of isolation from Atlanta Ballet started to melt when she joined rehearsals in late January for “Romeo et Juliette” in the role of Lady Capulet. Yet it wasn’t until the night of dress rehearsals at Cobb Energy, the evening before opening night, that she finally felt fully reconnected.
Outfitted in a super-sleek black costume, with a skirt slit up to there, Winkler stood in the wings listening to Sergei Prokofiev’s swirling score, a favorite. It suddenly hit her: Finally, 18 months later — pregnancy, childbirth and injury behind her — she was back under the blindingly bright lights.
“‘Ahhh, this is why I’ve been trying to get myself back on the stage,” she told herself.
But it didn’t change her mind, even when she jumped into full-tilt rehearsals for her “Modern Choreographic Voices” roles.
Winkler’s comeback from the injury, following the comeback from pregnancy, had been hard. And while her knee responded well to the battle-test of performance, she couldn’t be sure about it long-term.
“I don’t want to dance scared,” she explained. “And I want to be with Lucas more.”
Endings and beginnings
As the house lights come up at the end of “Modern Choreographic Voices,” Kathleen and John head for the stage door.
Christine Winkler’s career-ending performance is still to come, when she dances in “Mayhem” next month. But for mom and brother, the March program is rife with the emotions of witnessing a grand finale.
When they arrive backstage, there are long hugs, wide smiles and generous praise.
“It took 20 seconds for me to start crying,” John Winkler gushes. “She came onstage and I was literally, ‘Ohhh...’”
Winkler has said that after making the decision to retire, relief washed over her. Watching her with her family, she indeed appears joyful, her blue eyes sparkling as she and her brother recall their plush-toy “Nutcracker” three decades ago.
“You gotta go out when it’s good!” she shouts into her mother’s ear over the din of other dancers and well-wishers.
As a photographer shoots dozens of exposures of Winkler, her mom steps out of the picture for a moment.
“I know she’s my daughter,” Kathleen says to an observer, “but, to me, she’s one of the most beautiful dancers that I’ve ever seen.”
With that, the tears she’s managed to hold at bay all afternoon start to flow.
“I just keep thinking, it’s not the end,” she says, “it’s the beginning of another part of life.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I got to know Christine Winkler in 2011 while reporting on another Atlanta Ballet dancer she had mentored who was retiring at age 28 to begin a teaching career and a family. Then 37, Winkler was still firmly focused on dance, even as she and her husband, fellow Atlanta Ballet company member John Welker, discussed having a baby. Given Winkler and Welker's prominent profiles in a troupe in which no dancer had returned to the barre after childbirth in more than two decades, it struck me as a situation to watch. To report the story, I interviewed Winkler and her husband extensively before and after the birth of their son Lucas. I also talked to more than a half-dozen Atlanta Ballet dancers and company leaders, as well as others in the couple's orbit. It is a bittersweet story of an artist's complete commitment to her discipline and how her determined course was changed by motherhood in concert with the hand of fate.
Arts reporter /Features coach
About the reporter
Howard Pousner joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1980 and, except for a year at the Orlando Sentinel, has spent his entire career here. Now an arts reporter and Features coach, the Atlanta native has worked in a variety of editing and writing roles. Like Christine Winkler, he started a family in his 40s. He and his artist-wife Mary do their best to keep one step ahead of 12-year-old Ross and Ameila, 8.