Most of us would come up blank if asked to tremble secretively or spell "love" blindly. Fortunately, the dancers of the Atlanta Ballet are resourceful.
To create her new work "Pavo," Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee asked her fellow dancers to improvise movements in response to an unusual set of metaphorical, open-ended cues she'd written on slips of paper.
"I asked the dancers to choose a few of my prompts and interpret them how they wanted," says Lee, now in her 16th season as an Atlanta Ballet principal dancer. "There are a lot of different ways to interpret that type of cue, and I wanted to see what they came up with."
The wide range of dramatic and expressive moves the dancers created, such as walking a tightrope as if caffeinated or listening to a knock on their bodies, became the building blocks for Lee's fourth piece of choreography for the company. Many of the improvised sequences ended up in "Pavo," a work unified by the idea of the peacock, or pavo in Italian.
"I came across an article about peacocks and their symbolism in different traditions and cultures," Lee says. "The peacock is able to digest poisonous snakes and plants and as a result the plumage becomes more vibrant and beautiful. ["Pavo" is] about taking one's personal poisons and transforming them into something else."
Lee's resulting piece is an abstract work of contemporary movement for six dancers, and will have its world premiere this weekend as part of the Atlanta Ballet's season finale, New Choreographic Voices. Dancers will perform in neutral, minimalist costumes with one female dancer providing a splash of color. Literally. Covered in paint, she'll gradually spread the vivid colors onto the other dancers as she interacts with them.
The Ballet has recently taken a turn toward programming more contemporary work, as well as toward finding more opportunities for its dancers to choreograph. When Lee originally debuted her choreography in 2003 with "16 String," it was the result of a workshop Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall put together for the dancers. Since then Lee has continued to work on her choreographic skills. Along with several other dancers, she has created pieces for the Atlanta Ballet's Wabi Sabi, a new company within a company formed to provide dancers with the opportunity to create small site-specific works.
Lee grew up in Connecticut where her mother started her in ballet at 6 years old. A shy child, Lee didn't take to the lessons right away. "On my first day of ballet class I didn't want to come out of the dressing room," she says. Lee has long since overcome her shyness, dancing first with Joffrey II in New York and eventually joining the Atlanta Ballet in 1995 as a principal dancer.
Although Lee isn't a newcomer to choreographing, this is her first time working with original music. Atlanta composer Nickitas Demos wrote the score for "Pavo" with soprano/alto sax, cello, percussion and DJ, working closely with Lee to align the music to her ideas.
"It was a bit scary," Lee says of the collaboration. "For my other works, I always chose music first and that was my map. This time, the piece was finding itself the whole time ... It was like a newborn figuring itself out."
The newborn also presented other challenges. When a dancer takes on the role of choreographer, essentially going from peer to boss, the shift can be nerve-wracking. But unlike other companies, the Atlanta Ballet has no levels or rankings within its unusually small group of 20 dancers. All of them, from the newest members to those with the most seniority, are equals as "principal dancers."
"As soon as we started, I realized it was silly for me to have any worries about it," Lee says. "The reason they're there in the studio is to work and to be open-minded and open-hearted to what's going on. They were receptive and respectful, but we know each other so well we can also fool around and be silly, too. It's a very easy relationship and a relaxed environment."
In recent seasons, the dancers have worked with emerging young artists as well as some of the biggest names in the contemporary dance world, including Wayne McGregor, Twyla Tharp, and Jorma Elo.
Lee says it was the seasoned choreographers' openness to the dancers that she most admired and sought to emulate in her own process. "You learn very quickly how to treat dancers and the best way not to treat them," she says. "Coming from the perspective of a dancer, you know when you're at your best and why."
Throughout her career with the ballet, Lee says it's been the company's collaborative and democratic environment that has kept her there for 16 seasons, and that it helped make "Pavo" the piece it is. "'Pavo' is obviously material that could never have been created with just me or just them," she says of the company. "This had to happen collectively. My intent from the beginning was that this was going to come through all of us. It wasn't necessarily going to be 'my ballet.' It was just something I was guiding."