By Cynthia Bond Perry
For the Journal-Constitution
Dual roles are within easy reach for Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee, who created characters Lootie and Goblin Queen in Twyla Tharp’s world premiere last February. As Lee prepared for this weekend’s Atlanta Ballet’s season closer, “New Choreographic Voices, ” the 16-year company member was taking on a different kind of role: emerging choreographer.
Continuing through Sunday, Lee’s “Pavo” is her first main stage work for the Atlanta Ballet in eight years. But as Lee takes a foothold on a dance-making career, she’s keeping one foot in the spotlight, dancing in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch.” The two works are sharing the Alliance Stage with Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush.”
On a typical afternoon at Atlanta Ballet’s studios, Lee, her body honed and facile in simple practice clothes, prepares to rehearse Pickett’s new ballet. With riveting focus, Lee whirls across the floor, torso bending, elbows entwining as arms fold and unfold, matching passionate strains of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.
“You’re directing the space with your hand.” Pickett prompts. Lee’s arms form vortices in the air as she spins off-balance, lunges, pierces space with an elongated leg and perches on her pointe.
“Get away from center, ” Pickett says. As Lee tilts off-balance, she stretches her limbs out in opposing directions. The effect is risky, expansive and thrilling.
During a rehearsal break, Lee spoke about the risky feeling of creating “Pavo.” Thoughtful and articulate, she breaks her channeled focus with occasional bursts of infectious laughter.
It’s been exciting and scary — doubly scary, Lee said, since she’s collaborating with composer and Georgia State University professor Nickitas Demos. She’s had to develop much of her movement vocabulary without relying on a finished score. She makes daily decisions about when to stay true to her vision and when “to roll with it.”
As Lee moved into the thick of her rehearsal period, Pickett gave her a chance to bow out of “Prayer of Touch.” But Lee, still hungry to perform at 36, opted to stay in.
“I love the work and I knew that I could do both pieces. I knew that if I made myself frantic or frenzied, then it was going to be too much. I could choose to approach it in a stressed-out way or I could choose to approach it in a joyful way.”
Ballet opened a bright world for Lee at age 6, when her mother enrolled her in ballet classes in her Connecticut hometown to help her overcome shyness. As Lee grew older, her talent could not be ignored, despite her parents’ ambition for her to further her academic pursuits.
When it came time to choose college or a dance career, Lee was granted one-year deferred admission to Tufts University and made a deal with her parents: if she didn’t land a contract with a professional ballet company within a year, she’d go to college. Two months later, she joined Joffrey II; two years later, the Atlanta Ballet.
Her parents hoped she would pursue a college degree while dancing professionally. Lee took some courses, and is quick to say she loves learning, but preferred to focus all of her energy on her dance career.
“I just felt like this was my world. Even after the dancing part, I felt like this was where I was supposed to be.”
In 2003, Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall invited her to choreograph “Sixteen String.” A year later, Lee created “Poem, ” a duet with Brian Wallenberg that was later sold to the New Orleans Ballet Theatre. But Lee “shied away” from making dances after that and chose to focus on performing. She has since become one of the Atlanta Ballet’s most dynamic and magnetic performers.
Two years ago, Lee began thinking about her future and wrote down some goals.
“I wanted to give back more to others, ” she said. “But I wanted to stay in this world — to create, to perform, to work at the highest levels of artistry. Choreographing was a natural inclination for me and that was the ideal.”
Opportunities appeared. Last spring, Lee created “Apache” a steamy duet, for Georgia Public Broadcasting’s tribute to Margaret Mitchell. An Emory University commission formed the basis of “The Akara, ” which Atlanta Ballet premiered last September at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.
In October, McFall asked if Lee was interested in choreographing a premiere for the May performance. More was at stake, but with several years’ experience behind her, Lee felt ready. Lee knew she wanted to collaborate with dancers more than she had before to allow for spontaneity.
Lee drew from improvisation methods she had learned in Vancouver from Crystal Pite, and later with Lauri Stallings. Wayne McGregor had shown her how to help dancers discover untapped potential. Tharp had taught Lee to continually ask questions that keep the work fresh and alive. Lee recalled that McFall taught her that “No matter how abstract a work might be, the human relationships that come through are what will ultimately resonate.”
Between Demos, Lee, dancers and assistant choreographer Jesse Tyler, the work took shape. A theme revealed itself — the symbolism, in various world cultures, of the peacock, which can digest poisonous snakes without being harmed. This translated into the idea of overcoming one’s toxic tendencies, such as anger, vanity and possessiveness, to transform them into something beautiful.
Back in the studio, Lee prepares to rehearse “Pavo.”
Airy, resonant tones of marimba and cello complement the movement’s sculptural qualities. As Lee directs dancers Christine Winkler and John Welker, there’s a sense of play and tension between authority and camaraderie.
Winkler’s fingertips lead as her arm winds, snake-like, between them. Taking his hand, she pitches sideways into an off-kilter balance. He picks her up, tilt-a-whirls her around his back, as her legs fan out like a peacock’s feathers, then fold in as she descends.
Lee prompts them and they continue, adding and embellishing here and there, while Lee tweaks to clarify her vision.
“This is coming through all of us, ” Lee later reflected. “I’m learning that the collective energy, creatively, is much greater than anyone by themselves.”
Lee had considered creating a ballet with marketability in mind, but said, “I don’t want to make work contrived to feel like it’s leading up to something else. I just want to be in the moment of what we’re doing now. If that means it opens up more doors in the future, that’s fantastic.”
Atlanta Ballet “New Choreographic Voices”
Featuring world premiere of “Pavo” choreographed by Tara Lee.
8 p.m. Friday, May 18.
2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19.
2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, May 20.
Alliance Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. Tickets start at $20. www.atlantaballet.com
By Cynthia Bond Perry, AJC Arts and Culture blog