By Howard Pousner
For its 80th season, the Atlanta Ballet chose the slogan “Celebrate the past, ignite the future,” a juxtaposition that is in sharp focus in its final program, “Sheer Exhilaration,” which opens Thursday. Mixing classical and contemporary dance, it points to the road ahead with one world premiere and three company premieres while reviving seven favorite dances from its repertory.
Another nod to the rich history of the United States’ longest continuously operating ballet company is an 80-piece lobby exhibition of photos and artifacts, “Enduring Images: 80 Years of Atlanta Ballet.” The free exhibit will be open to the public, no ticket required, two hours before all five Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre shows through Sunday.
Idella Moore, the archivist brought in to organize the display and to more generally identify what historical resources relating to Atlanta Ballet were available here and elsewhere, started out concerned that the company had been too busy making history to keep track of that history. She was pleased to learn quickly how wrong she was.
Moore knew that the ballet didn’t have many records on hand, having donated photos, programs and administrative files dating from 1946 to 2000 to the Atlanta History Center after the basement of its Midtown headquarters flooded twice, which damaged some of the materials.
Dance, she also figured, is an ephemeral art form, not like a painting that hangs on a wall or a piece of music that gets written down. “And I thought dancers obviously are not good at keeping their own history because they’re so in the moment,” Moore said.
Then she met Anne Burton Avery and a cadre of other former ballerinas from the company’s early days who were invited to help lend their memories and mementos to the exhibit. Each of them hauled in huge, jampacked scrapbooks.
“It made me eat my own words,” Moore said.
Avery began dancing for Atlanta Ballet founder Dorothy Alexander when she was 6, and she recently danced in “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” for the company at age 66. Her mother started her earliest scrapbooks, and then the young dancer added to the chronicle of her career as it progressed — programs, reviews, letters and even a record of what she ate as a weight-conscious ballerina recruited to dance at New York City Ballet at all of age 16.
Avery used to pull out these weighty scrapbooks for her daughter, and now she enjoys sharing them with her granddaughters. Although “Enduring Images” will be photo-driven, Avery is lending a jacket worn by her longtime dance partner Robert Barnett in a 1960s performance of “Sleeping Beauty” that she bought long ago at a fund-raising auction. Of course, she just happened to have a photo of Barnett (who succeeded Alexander as artistic director in 1962) lifting her in the dance; it will be included in the exhibit, as well.
Another treasure trove that archivist Moore dug into is Alexander’s archive, which she donated to Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library shortly before her death in 1986. Emory’s Alexander holdings fill nine boxes, including papers and 240 photos that helped make the archivist see “Miss Dorothy” in a new light.
Those who knew Alexander recall her as a gracious, little white-haired lady. But Moore pulled out a copy of a photo from the Emory archive giving a different glimpse: The ballet’s founder wears a sexy, scant costume for “Strand of Black, Elusive Seaweed,” a solo dance she performed to spoken verse. It was the 1920s, and Alexander was very much an Isadora Duncan disciple.
Moore intends for the exhibit to shine new light on the accomplishments of the Atlanta-born Alexander, who was orphaned by age 18 yet launched the Dorothy Alexander Dance Concert Group in 1929 as a 25-year-old. Renamed the Atlanta Civic Ballet in 1943 and Atlanta Ballet in 1967 (the year the company went professional), it was the country’s first regional ballet company.
Alexander “democratized ballet,” Moore said. “She saw that ballet needed to be brought to the people rather than people having to go to New York or London. Ultimately, she was the founder of the regional dance movement in America.”
For that, Moore hopes the exhibit will “create some pride in the community” in Alexander, who was honored with a 1959 Dance Magazine Award right alongside two of the art form’s immortals, George Balanchine and Fred Astaire.
The archivist also hopes that her research will be the start of a more permanent history display, perhaps at the new headquarters Atlanta Ballet will move into this summer on Marietta Boulevard.
John McFall, only the company’s third artistic director, and new executive director Arthur Jacobus hope to raise funds to establish a permanent archive.
“Time flies, and it is challenging to catch up with our past,” McFall said. “Our past has a lot to do with what we are today and will become tomorrow.”
Plus, as Moore pointed out, it will only be 20 years until America’s longest-running ballet company celebrates its 100th birthday.
Atlanta Ballet presents “Sheer Exhilaration”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $20-$120. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. Tickets at the Cobb Energy box office or ticketmaster.com. 800-982-2787, www.atlantaballet.com.