13 dancers leaving Atlanta Ballet after first year with new director

Before joining the Atlanta Ballet, Gennadi Nedvigin danced with the San Francisco Ballet from 1997 to 2016.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Before joining the Atlanta Ballet, Gennadi Nedvigin danced with the San Francisco Ballet from 1997 to 2016.

Fourteen months after Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm as artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet, 13 dancers are set to depart.

That’s nearly half of the 23 company members and five apprentices. Two apprentices and six company members have not been “reengaged” — offered a new contract —for the 2017-18 season, Atlanta Ballet said. Five company members are departing Atlanta Ballet by choice, according to a spokeswoman.

Those choosing to leave include Tara Lee, who has been with Atlanta Ballet for 21 seasons and has choreographed four pieces for the group. Christian Clark, who began dancing at the Atlanta School of Ballet when he was eight years old and has been a dancer with Atlanta Ballet for 15 seasons, is also choosing to leave.

This kind of turnover is not unexpected or abnormal when a new artistic director comes in, said Atlanta Ballet President and CEO Arturo Jacobus. A ballet company getting a new artistic director is not unlike a new boss taking the helm at any other workplace, he said.

“Any time a new leader comes in there is inevitably turnover. Certain individual dancers decide the new direction is not for them, and others are not fitting in with the new vision of the leader,” Jacobus said. “Whether it be a corporation when a new CEO comes in or a sports team getting a new coach, there is definitely a new vision that the new leader brings, and there is fallout with that.”

For some of the veteran dancers leaving the Atlanta Ballet, the switch from former director John McFall’s contemporary style to Bolshoi-trained Nedvigin’s traditional style was a major adjustment, said Rachel Van Buskirk, who has been a company member for 10 seasons and danced in Atlanta Ballet’s fellowship program for three years before that.

Nedvigin recognizes that his style is different than McFall’s, and that will be reflected in the company’s repetoire, he said in an email.

“McFall and I come from different backgrounds, and our styles and techniques are bound to reflect that. Particularly in this industry, the artistic interests of a dancer and the artistic vision of his or her Company must mutually align,” Nedvigin said. “My vision for Atlanta Ballet embodies a balanced mix of classical, neoclassical and contemporary repertoire, which will require versatile dancers who are not only able to perform a variety of works, but also have the desire to perfect their technique in various styles.”

The Atlanta Ballet is returning to the “very deep traditions of ballet” under Nedvigin, Van Buskirk said.

Wabi Sabi, Atlanta Ballet's contemporary dance ensemble, will "no longer be part of Atlanta Ballet Company's repertory" but "the spirit of Wabi Sabi" will continue in some form in Atlanta Ballet's Center for Dance Education, said spokeswoman Julia Berg in an email. How it will continue has not yet been specified.

The company is not abandoning contemporary dance, but returning to a “balance” of classical, neoclassical and contemporary styles in order to address what patrons have been asking for, Jacobus said.

“Along the way, we started hearing more and more from our past patrons, our current patrons and our potential patrons that they missed the classical and neoclassical pieces,” Jacobus said. “We are the largest company, besides the Miami City Ballet, in the Southeast. There are 6.5 million people in the Atlanta metro area. We realized we ought to be appealing to a larger swath of that population. If you look at the larger cities, they are doing a more balanced repertoire for people who like classical, people who like neoclassical and people who like contemporary.”

McFall, Nedvigin’s predecessor, was artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet for more than 20 years. He was the only director most, if not all, Atlanta Ballet dancers had worked under. McFall often brought in contemporary ballet choreographers and put an emphasis on artistic expression, not just adhering to the strict traditions of ballet, Van Buskirk said.

“Change is hard and the dancers went through a change when the new director came in. It’s just the natural progress for the dancers,” Van Buskirk said. “I am very proud that the dancers recognized that wasn’t something they wanted for themselves and are leaving accordingly. That shows great strength and grit.”

For the dancers who are departing, there are other professional dance companies, including ballet, modern and contemporary dance, in Atlanta, but Atlanta Ballet is “definitely the largest,” Van Buskirk said. Van Buskirk, who owns a home with her fiancee and has lived here since she was 18, hopes to stay in Atlanta, whether as a dancer, teacher or both.

Nedvigin said the contract renewal process, during which six company members and two apprentices were not offered new contracts, was “one of the most difficult” parts of the job for him.

“While it’s not easy, I must look at the dancers objectively – without being personal,” Nedvigin said. “I am disheartened to learn that any dancers have felt anything but excitement throughout the past few months, but we are concentrated on staying united and working hard to present our two final fantastic programs of the 2016-17 season. Even though my vision for the Company may not perfectly align with some of the dancers’ creative passions, I wish them all of the best as they transition into their respective next chapters.”

Atlanta Ballet will replace the dancers who are leaving and add four new company positions and one new apprentice position, Jacobus said.

Those departing are: 

  • Christian Clark  (15 seasons)
  • Kiara Felder (three seasons)
  • Tara Lee  (21 seasons)
  • Alessa Rogers (Nine seasons)
  • Rachel Van Buskirk (10 seasons)

Those not receiving new contracts are:

  • Heath Gill (seven seasons)
  • Sara Havener (three seasons)
  • Devon Joslin (two seaons)
  • Otar Khelashvili (one season)
  • Kristen Marshall (apprentice)
  • Laura Morton (apprentice)
  • Brandon Nguyen (six seasons)
  • Ransom Wilkes-Davis (one season)

All 13 will leave Atlanta Ballet after its performances of “Camino Real” in May.

Previous coverage of the Atlanta Ballet:

Video: John Welker, retiring Atlanta Ballet dancer, says goodbye and thank you

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