Even on the telephone, Juel D. Lane remains true to his aesthetic. The "kinetically vibrant" style cited by Dance Magazine, which recognized him as one of this year's "25 to Watch" in January, comes across in the quick rhythm of his speech, the high-pitched passion in his voice, and the energy he conveys as he talks about his signature approach to movement.
"The whole reason why I tend to move really fast, that's always been like a flavor thing. And that thing has been going since high school," says Lane, an Atlanta native who began pursuing dance at Tri-Cities High School before attending North Carolina School of the Arts. "The reason why I was dancing so fast is because I was so darn hyper."
Today the 32-year-old choreographer's breakneck pace is most evident in the schedule he keeps. Last year, Lane became the first independent choreographer from Atlanta to have a work performed by the Atlanta Ballet on the main stage when it debuted Moments of Dis. When he's not touring with the New York-based Camille A. Brown & Dancers or performing with North Carolina's Helen Simoneau, the self-confessed nomad currently splits his time between N.Y. and Atlanta.
Like a lot of young artists who leave home to further their careers, he's blossomed in New York, where he got his start dancing for six years with distinguished choreographer Ronald K. Brown. Unlike a lot of Atlanta artists who make that move, however, Lane's constantly finding ways to filter the artistic growth he's gained in New York and elsewhere back into Atlanta's dance community. And the time away has honed a compelling voice for negotiating the world around him.
"When I was growing up, it was always said, 'You need to go to New York. Don't stay in Atlanta because there's nothing really going on.' And quite honestly, it is a little slow at times, but there are some amazing artists here," he says. "And I feel like for me this is home, and the reason I keep coming back or wanting to produce work is because we don't get this all the time."
Which is why he's bringing some of that — including works from New Yorkers Camille A. Brown and Ja'Malik — to Atlanta's Southwest Arts Center on April 26 for A Night of Choreography with Juel D. Lane and Friends. This marks the second year of a show he first presented last year to test Atlanta's appetite. The sold-out response encouraged him to make it an annual event.
In addition to an excerpt from his solo work in progress The Maestro (inspired by a classic Ernie Barnes painting of the same title) and Just Another Day (a short dance film he directed in 2010 that "explores everyday pedestrian things"), the night will include excerpts from Touch and Agree, the same-sex duet he debuted in Atlanta three years ago as part of Daryl Foster's Lift showcase. In it, he humanizes homosexuality in such a way that sexual orientation almost becomes immaterial.
"I've seen a lot of same-gender loving duets and sometimes, for me, as a same-gender loving person, I would be uncomfortable, like, 'Why are these two men rolling around on the floor? Do we really need to see this? I get it. They're gay.' And so, for me, I wanted to make it as accessible as possible but still true to what I want to present. I wanted the audience to see past these two men; I wanted them just to see love."
It was a bold topic to tackle, considering the double-whop of conservatism that often typifies African-American audiences in the South, but Lane was pleased by the reaction.
"My dad was in the audience and he's a big critic, and he was like, 'I just saw love.' People didn't come up to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, Juel, you shouldn't have done that.' People were like, 'When are you going to do it again?'"
He's already planning for the third edition of his annual dance concert, which he says could be a full night of solo work. And he's been tapped to choreograph Rebirth! The Musical, starring Lynn Whitfield at the Fox Theatre (May 30-June 2). It's all part of his broader intention to "bring that sense of growth" back home. "I don't think any of us can rush to say, Atlanta's gotta hurry up and get like New York. No, Atlanta is Atlanta," says Lane. "My thing is that wherever you go you've just got to make your own voice known."