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10 years of ArtsATL: The inside story of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

10 years of ArtsATL: The inside story of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

Editor’s notice: In celebration of our 10th anniversary, every week we will republish a story from our archives that sparked robust reaction from readers, showcased nice writing or marked historical hallmarks within the evolution of Atlanta’s arts group.

In early 2017, Government Editor Scott Freeman had coffee with John Welker, the just lately retired principal dancer from Atlanta Ballet. Welker confided that he had joined with four present Atlanta Ballet star dancers with the intent to type their own dance company. He additionally provided a singular opportunity: would Freeman wish to embed with them in the coming months as they met in secret to make their dream of Terminus Trendy Ballet Theatre a actuality? That resulted in one in every of our signature, and most popular, stories.

Two years later, Terminus has made an enormous footprint on Atlanta’s dance scene and will kick off its 2019–20 season subsequent weekend with a repeat of one in every of its most talked-about unique works, Lore, outside at Deer Hole in Serenbe. 

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On a sultry Thursday night in late April, solely three weeks earlier than the Atlanta Ballet season finale, five current and former firm dancers gathered in an enclosed parking garage inside the Westside Cultural Arts Middle to greet their future.

The onerous, naked concrete flooring was hardly optimum for dance — far faraway from the state-of-the-art dance studios they have been accustomed to. There was no large stereo system to pipe of their music, only an Apple laptop computer and a set of pc speakers. There wasn’t even air con to dampen the sweaty heat, simply the marginally cooled night time air from outdoors.

And yet they shaped in a decent circle in a corner of the garage and commenced to loosen up beneath the path of Tara Lee, in her 21st season as a star with Atlanta Ballet. Around her have been a number of the most recognizable faces of the corporate from the previous decade: John Welker (principal male dancer for 21 years; retired final December), Christian Clark (15 years and the company’s principal main man), Rachel Van Buskirk (10 seasons and star of the season opener Carmina Burana) and Heath Gill (seven seasons and the star of the season finale Camino Real).

John Welker (Photograph by Joseph Guay)

The four lively dancers had spent the day in rehearsals for their remaining show for Atlanta Ballet, Camino Actual; tonight, moonlighting beneath a cloak of secrecy, they staged their first rehearsal of their post-Atlanta Ballet lives for the brand new firm they have collectively shaped: Terminus Trendy Ballet Theatre.

Lee and Gill labored to type a transfer that Lee had envisioned, then demonstrated it to Clark and Van Buskirk. At one point, it required Van Buskirk to fall again into the chest of Clark, like the belief recreation, where he was to grab her and decrease her towards the bottom. As an alternative, she slipped via his arms and, laughing, sprawled to the ground with the overdrawn panache of a silent movie actress. Clark appeared down at her and smiled. “Was that not good for you?” he deadpanned.

About 20 minutes later, Lee was crouched on the ground, intently watching as Clark and Van Buskirk easily executed the collection of strikes she and Gill had just taught them. “Nice, nice, nice, nice, nice,” she stated.

Welker, sitting off to her aspect, nodded and smiled. “It feels like it’s turning into something,” he stated.

Lee chuckled. “It takes a minute to channel back into that,” she replied.

Gill walked as much as them. “Mark it,” he quipped. “On April 26, we had our first rehearsal for a bit that, properly, we don’t know what it’s quite but.”

They laughed with the giddy power of understanding one thing new was being born. After months of off-hours clandestine meetings plotting business strategy and protecting minutes and designing logos and websites — this was their moment of joy. They have been finally doing what led them right here: creating dance in their very own picture.


Earlier than Terminus Trendy Ballet Theatre even puts a pointe shoe onto a Marley flooring, it is already one among probably the most outstanding dance troupes in Atlanta.

First, there’s the star power of its five firm dancers — maybe probably the most recognizable faces within the Atlanta dance group from their tenures at Atlanta Ballet.

Terminus has established vital partnerships proper out of the gate. For at the very least the primary two years, the house headquarters for Terminus will be the Westside Cultural Arts Middle. There, the dancers will rehearse, supply instructional programming to the public and make their debut efficiency in October. They are additionally eyeing future performances at Tyler Perry’s new improvement at Fort McPherson and the new theater devoted to bop on the Marietta campus of Kennesaw State University.

Tara Lee (Photograph by Joseph Guay)

Most significantly, Terminus has entered right into a partnership with the Serenbe Institute for Art, Tradition and the Surroundings, where it’s going to ultimately be housed in a brand new arts facility Serenbe has on the drafting board. Its second efficiency will probably be one other world premiere staged outside at Serenbe, doubtless in November.

What is going to Terminus be as a dance firm? Welker cautioned towards expecting a continuation of Atlanta Ballet beneath former inventive director John McFall. Lee, who will both dance and choreograph for the new company, stated they are still defining what Terminus will turn into. “We’re making an attempt to keep away from labeling ourselves and the place we’re going; that’s what we want to study on this journey,” she stated. “There’s a certain confidence about it that all of us have, and I don’t know why because this must be a terrifying moment for us. We all have huge concepts about what it’s going to be, and for some purpose, it’s not daunting. It looks like: okay, let’s do it. There’s a certain peace about it.”

Collectively, they see a big fertile floor between Atlanta Ballet’s transfer toward more conventional ballet ethos and the more avant-garde modern leanings of such unbiased corporations as glo. “It’s right there,” stated Welker.

In late January, Welker reached out to ArtsATL to reveal their plans for Terminus and to supply to embed a writer with them as they worked to type their firm. For the past 4 months, ArtsATL has sat in on the weekly meetings where the five dancers planned and plotted technique for their new dance company with no restrictions aside from to keep the proceedings secret till the top of the Atlanta Ballet season.

Terminus plans to carry out trendy ballet works with foundations in classicism. (Photograph by Joseph Guay)


The genesis of Terminus dates again 18 months when Atlanta Ballet introduced that John McFall was leaving and the corporate mounted a search for a new inventive director. Lee, Clark, Gill and Van Buskirk have been selected by their friends to be on a dancer search committee to vet the three finalists and make a suggestion to the ballet’s board of trustees.

During their conversations as they evaluated the ultimate candidates, together with Welker, the four dancers began to speak about what would constitute a super firm. “We have been speaking in the wee hours about things that we value, not simply in the art, however in the leadership,” stated Van Buskirk. “And we recognized we all had the identical thoughts.”

The dancers’ unanimous selection for the position was Welker, who had aspired to switch McFall and ready himself by founding Wabi Sabi — Atlanta Ballet’s fashionable summer time troupe that carried out trendy works outside — and by pursuing a degree in dance from Kennesaw State College, adopted by a master’s diploma in enterprise. The dancers felt in tune with Welker, who’s beloved among the Atlanta Ballet company, and together with his imaginative and prescient of what Atlanta Ballet might be.

Early within the process, nevertheless, that they had a rising belief that it was a accomplished deal to usher in Gennadi Nedvigin, a retiring principal dancer from the San Francisco Ballet who’s steeped in traditional classical ballet from his training at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet Faculty.

They started to speak about going to “Plan B” if Nedvigin was employed, which was beginning their own company. “It started as a joke: nicely, there’s all the time Plan B,” stated Gill. “It type of came by way of excited about what we needed Atlanta Ballet to be, and through that we discovered how we’d run things if we ever had that opportunity.”

After Nedvigin turned inventive director in August, they felt the liberty they’d had in the studio beneath McFall was not there, they usually most popular the fashionable edge in repertoire the corporate had turn into recognized for performing. Over time, the discussions about “Plan B” began to tackle critical tones. There was just one hitch. “We knew we couldn’t do it with out John,” stated Clark. “We also knew he wanted a while to redirect.”

Added Lee, “We knew that decision was a wound.”

Welker stated he was “devastated” not to be named the ballet’s inventive director. He determined to retire from the corporate following the Nutcracker run final December, and take some time to heal and refocus. “I’m not utterly recovered from it,” he stated. “However there’s a rising a part of me that now feels this was meant to be.”


Though he was nonetheless undecided about forging ahead with a brand new dance firm, Welker was intrigued sufficient to ask the 4 dancers to KSU’s Marietta campus for a tour of the area that was beneath development to be transformed right into a theater devoted solely to bop. Whereas it was earmarked for KSU’s dance program, it might even be out there to space dance troupes to stage productions. Afterward, they gathered on the Chick-fil-A downstairs in the Scholar Middle.

There, they began a tough promote to Welker. Right here at Kennesaw can be a efficiency area waiting to be crammed, they usually have been all excited by the chances.

The five dancers moments after they decided to type their very own firm

None of them have been proud of Atlanta Ballet’s new course. They talked about how there was room for a new trendy dance company in Atlanta. And the one thing they’d discovered from the search committee was that they meshed as a gaggle even in a setting outdoors the dance studio, utilizing totally different expertise. McFall had preached about empowering oneself; this was their alternative to stay that legacy.

One thing that Welker had to make certain of was their collective motivation. This had to be about their vision for dance, and bringing something meaningful to the town, not a response to what Atlanta Ballet was doing. Welker emphasized that they are all a part of Atlanta Ballet’s legacy, and none of them needed to tarnish that.

Finally, Welker advised them he was in, they usually even had a photo of themselves taken outdoors the Chick-fil-A to mark the event. “These guys introduced me around,” Welker stated. “That is what I wanted, actually. What was pretty about it was that it was reassuring that the past 22 years weren’t all for naught. Their faith in me was telling. If I might’ve let that go, I might’ve actually regretted it. However I also knew the breadth of work we have been taking over, and the uphill battle that we have been going to be dealing with.”


Simply three weeks later, visual artist Joseph Guay — Lee’s boyfriend — opened an exhibit at the Westside Cultural Arts Middle. He appreciated the vibe of the area and inspired Lee to talk to the constructing’s owner, Dr. James Chappuis, an orthopedic backbone surgeon; Guay thought a part of the complicated might easily be transformed right into a dance studio.

Lee, in flip, encouraged Welker to attend Guay’s opening get together because Chappuis can be there. Late into the social gathering after a lot of the visitors had left, Lee launched him to Chappuis, who invited the two of them to walk up to a large area upstairs. As they took within the spaciousness of the room, Chappuis stated the magic phrases: “This might be a dance studio, right?”

Christian Clark (Photograph by Joseph Guay)

They shortly agreed to a cope with Chappuis, and the first major hurdle was passed: a house for his or her company. “Once we had a home and an area, that changed the monetary outlook,” Welker stated. “After that, every thing had a platform. There was a basis to build upon, and that changed the entire dynamic.”

They settled on the identify of their new firm: Terminus Trendy Ballet Theatre. They favored its history; “Terminus” was considered one of Atlanta’s unique names as a result of the town grew across the terminus point of a railroad that linked Georgia to the Midwest. Terminus, actually, means “finish of the line.”

That spoke to the dancers as a result of an ending can also be the start line of a new journey. “A terminus is an intersection and assembly level of concepts,” stated Lee. “It’s individuals coming collectively to create one thing new. And that’s us.”


Because the 5 principal dancers of Terminus started to satisfy on a weekly foundation, they agreed to keep the venture secret until the top of the ballet season; beyond spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, they informed nearly nobody. “For me, I knew it would have to be this manner,” stated Welker. “I sort of laid down these guidelines immediately. I stated, if we actually need to succeed, we have now to maintain it beneath wraps. We’ve to keep it amongst us. There’s no different means around it. We have been all very disciplined about doing that.”

“I feel the hardest half was not with the ability to share it with our fellow dancers,” stated Lee. “That undoubtedly took a toll on all of us.”

Rachel Van Buskirk (Photograph by Joseph Guay)

The group did discreetly strategy a number of potential donors and soon had $55,000 in seed cash, together with $50,000 from Atlanta Ballet supporter James Weis.

Weis stated Welker’s imaginative and prescient for a dance company is according to what Atlanta dance audiences want. “He has his palms on the heart beat of a metropolis that could be very refined and is aware of what they need to see in modern ballet,” Weiss stated. “When John approached me together with his ideas, I used to be thrilled. I feel with 5 nice minds and wonderful dancers like these, this company will soar.”

They didn’t even inform McFall till simply earlier than he moved to Amsterdam in April. Welker met him at a coffee store and faced a moment of telling his mentor that they needed to do that on their own, with out him, and needed his blessing. “That was incredibly arduous for me,” Welker stated. “It was a coming of age moment. I feel he noticed that and understood that. We knew that if we have been to actually fly, we had to minimize the tethers that sure us.”


The five launched their weekly Thursday night time meetings at Westside. By now, their software to type as a nonprofit 501(c)three was already in the course of, and Terminus Trendy Ballet Theatre was about to formally exist.

There were countless logistics, small and enormous, to figure out: What number of performances would they have the first season? When should they debut? When should they make the announcement? Where would they discover ballet barre rails, and where should they go? What was probably the most cost-effective strategy to line a wall of their studio with mirrors so they might see themselves rehearse? What kind of sound system would they want for the studio, and how a lot wouldn’t it value? What would their every day schedule appear to be? And what a few web site? To not point out a Fb web page?

Although Welker is their chief and remaining arbitrator, the five contemplate themselves equal partners, and virtually all their selections are based mostly on the unanimous agreement of all five of them.

Terminus outdoors their studio area at the Westside Cultural Arts Middle (Photograph by Joseph Guay)

The sprawling parking garage hooked up to the power was envisioned as their efficiency area, they usually spent a lot of the evening measuring and imagining the place to set up their Marley dance flooring and where to take a seat the audience. The first problem was the best way to cope with the collection of help beams that stand 24 ft apart and can be flush in the midst of any stage space.

“It’s manageable,” Clark stated, learning one of the posts.

“Nicely, we will all the time disguise behind them,” joked Van Buskirk. Moments later, she bent down and drew a heart of the ground with a bit of chalk then wrote “TMDT” in the center. Their territory was marked.

A couple of weeks later, they discovered the parking garage has its own zoning designation, which only permits use for automobiles, not dancers or dance performances. As an alternative, they agreed to make use of the occasion middle downstairs as their Westside efficiency area, with their dance studio on the second flooring. Additionally they determined to launch a modest first season with one efficiency at Westside within the fall and then another in the spring at KSU.

On April 6, ArtsATL broke the news that 13 Atlanta Ballet dancers — including Lee, Clark, Van Buskirk and Gill — can be leaving the corporate at the finish of the season.

Lee Foster, who was giving the dancers appearing lessons for the spoken-word elements in Camino Real, also is on the board of Serenbe’s movie department. She referred to as Diane Harnell Cohen, Serenbe’s board chair, with the news and advised Cohen it could possibly be the opportunity Serenbe was on the lookout for to start out its own dance company. “Let’s give Heath Gill a call, see what he’s going to do and if he’d be focused on working with us,” Foster advised Cohen.

With that call, the sport was about to vary for Terminus.


When Gill reported again about his conversation with Serenbe, there was a noticeable stir from the others. They have been all acquainted with Serenbe and its inventive mission — Wabi Sabi had performed there the previous summer time. “It was a very constructive conversation,” Gill advised them. He didn’t absolutely explain Terminus to Serenbe, but informed them sufficient that they needed a gathering.

Welker instantly favored the thought. “When it comes to performances, we might do Wabi 2.0 down there,” he stated.

The group determined to send Welker and Gill to satisfy with Cohen and other Serenbe officials.

Once they reported again the next week, they have been cautiously optimistic that a deal was reachable. The excellent news was that Serenbe needed them — with enthusiasm. The assembly had included members of Serenbe’s board and even the mayor of Chattahoochee Hills. Serenbe already had plans to build a facility with rehearsal area and storage amenities for Serenbe Playhouse and its other packages. Terminus can be an ideal match there, and Serenbe was holding off on its feasibility research until the dancers reached a choice.

Heath Gill (Photograph by Joseph Guay)

The dangerous information was that in an effort to minimize the deal, they would have to surrender their 501(c)three status and fold themselves beneath Serenbe’s umbrella. Welker additionally cautioned that doing so may imply they’d have to vary their identify to something like “Serenbe Trendy Dance Theatre.” The final potential hurdle was that Serenbe needed them headquartered there, they usually had simply inked a deal to be headquartered at Westside.

The dancers have been hesitant to give up their 501(c)3. For them, it represented their autonomy and skill to control themselves. They feared folding into Serenbe’s tent may compromise the factor they valued probably the most: their inventive freedom. Additionally they hesitated because they needed a presence in Atlanta. They agreed to satisfy as a gaggle the next week with Cohen and Gretchen Butler, previously the managing director of Serenbe Playhouse who had simply moved as much as a place with the institute.

In that assembly, Cohen and Butler enthusiastically bought the advantages Terminus would see as a member of the Serenbe group. “Serenbe’s mission is to be the standard of arts culture,” Cohen stated. “And we’re making an attempt to place an emphasis on the arts in South Fulton. We’ve lengthy needed to incorporate dance however simply couldn’t do it. We see this as serendipitous for us, especially as a result of we’ve worked with all of you with Wabi Sabi.”

A partnership with Serenbe also provided numerous other benefits: substantial seed money, bookkeeping, grant-writing providers, fundraising, advertising and medical insurance for firm members.

More importantly, Cohen calmed their fears. Each Cohen and Butler assured them that Serenbe places excessive value on inventive freedom. They wouldn’t have to vary their identify, only work out a solution to incorporate “Serenbe” into it. And Serenbe was wonderful with Terminus having twin headquarters.

After the assembly, the members of Terminus shortly agreed that it will be a super union. At a follow-up meeting, the deal was sealed when Westside officials signed off on a three-party partnership. The corporate can keep headquarters at each places. Terminus will hold its identify. For performances, nevertheless, they may formally be generally known as Terminus Trendy Ballet Theatre, introduced by the Serenbe Institute in cooperation with the Westside Cultural Arts Middle.

With Serenbe’s entrance, the dancers realized they could have the capital to current a full season of exhibits of their first yr. In reality, the brand new problem they faced was to ensure they don’t overextend the five-member company in its debut season. For now, they’ve determined to stay to 2 certainties: one world premiere at Westside in October and one other, outside, at Serenbe in November.

“Serenbe modified our complete conversation,” Welker stated. “And it bolstered our confidence that what we’re doing is true.”

Nonetheless, Welker stated he takes nothing as a right and knows that considering the corporate’s pedigree, expectations shall be excessive. He nervously laughed when asked how he’ll measure success. “Are we nonetheless a professional firm after one yr?” he replied.

Terminus’ partnership with Serenbe solidifies its future. (Photograph by Felipe Barral)


Lee, Clark, Van Buskirk and Gill carried out their remaining show with Atlanta Ballet last weekend in Camino Real, based mostly on the Tennessee Williams play, along with eight different dancers who are additionally leaving. They spent the week telling most of the other dancers about their plans for Terminus. “A lot for the large secret,” Lee stated afterward. “They all knew one thing was up, they only didn’t know the small print.”

As Lee bowed to a sustained standing ovation at the finish of her last Atlanta Ballet starring position after 21 years, Nedvigin walked onstage with a big bouquet of roses and handed them to her. Audience members tossed roses to her as Lee burst into tears. “I used to be definitely feeling emotional, but not necessarily sad,” Lee stated. “My coronary heart feels heavy, but in addition full of a lot love and gratitude.” She paused to snicker. “This past week has had a little bit of gravitas, you already know?”

Lee’s ultimate moments on an Atlanta Ballet stage have been spent as Esmeralda reciting one among Williams’ greatest strains, a prayer to the poets and con males and hustlers who battle and lose then rise up to struggle again. For Lee, the circumstances gave the ultimate strains a charged and emotional edge: “Go to with understanding and something virtually tender these fading legends that come and go on this plaza like songs not clearly remembered,” Esmeralda stated. “Oh, sometime and somewhere, let there be something to imply the phrase ‘honor’ once more.”

The troupe universally felt a kinship with the story behind Camino Actual, which is about characters who seek redemption and a brand new beginning. For the 5 dancers, that story fit symbolically with the rationale they selected “Terminus” as the identify of their company. For them, Esmeralda’s soliloquy marked a melancholy finale but in addition the daring starting of a new journey. “Everybody was within the zone for Camino,” Clark stated Tuesday. “There was a variety of emotion within the air. We finished on an awesome word, and I’m really excited about that. However we’re prepared. We’re so ready. Let’s get going.”

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