In April 2006, a few teenage apprentices at the Atlanta Ballet were walking by a rehearsal studio when they spotted something going on inside that piqued their curiosity. A new choreographer had just arrived, and she was working with some of the principal dancers.
"It was clearly not someone just teaching steps," recalls Virginia Coleman, one of the apprentices who, like her friends, was fascinated by the way the choreographer was running the room. "It was like a conversation between dancer and creator. They were finding movement. It was something we'd never seen before, and it made us want to be inside."
The young dancers quietly entered the studio and found an unobtrusive spot to sit and watch. The choreographer continued working with the company members on a set of unusual, propulsive steps. The movements seemed to weave together the classical and the contemporary, utilizing the whole body. The choreographer demonstrated the moves with odd monosyllabic annunciations and sudden exhalations, occasionally exhorting the dancers to soften their bones or visualize becoming a bullet. Suddenly, she stopped the rehearsal, looked over at the apprentices, and asked them what they were doing. "We apologized and told her we only wanted to watch," Coleman says. "She said, 'Well, you're not going to learn anything just sitting there. If you want to learn, get up and dance.'"
Since that afternoon almost six years ago, the visiting choreographer, Lauri Stallings, has become a central catalyst for the Atlanta arts scene, continuing to pique Atlantans' curiosity and create work that draws in an ever-widening circle of participants, collaborators, and spectators. As choreographer-in-residence at the Atlanta Ballet from 2005-2008, Stallings created inspired contemporary works, perhaps most memorably big, an unprecedented collaboration between the ballet and Atlanta hip-hop artists, including OutKast's Antwan "Big Boi" Patton. In 2009, after her contract had come to an end, Stallings formed gloATL, a contemporary dance company whose performances typically leave the proscenium stage behind in order to reimagine the city's public spaces: You may have spotted gloATL dancers embracing in a busy Midtown intersection during a summer downpour, climbing through a sewer overflow facility, dancing at Lenox Square mall, or lining up in a gaggle at the turnstiles of the Lindbergh MARTA Station. In addition to working with gloATL, Stallings is now artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University's dance department, which is rapidly becoming one of the largest and most significant programs in the Southeast. And her reputation on the international, usually male-dominated dance scene has continued to grow as she zips around the globe to choreograph commissioned works for companies and festivals such as American Ballet Theatre, the Dutch National Ballet Project, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and the Hong Kong International Dance Festival.
Stallings recently was nominated for the American Academy's Rome Prize, one of the art world's most prestigious awards, which, though it was created in 1894, has never been given to a choreographer. This month, Stallings, along with gloATL and the Rialto Center for the Arts, is presenting Atlanta's most ambitious contemporary dance event to date. Off the EDGE will bring an unprecedented number of world-renowned dance companies to the Rialto for a weekend of performances, exchanges with Atlanta-based companies, and public performances. "Lauri is one of the hardest working human beings I've ever come across," says Leslie Gordon, director of the Rialto. "I don't know if she eats or sleeps."
Since arriving in Atlanta, Stallings has created unforgettable, inspired work that continually gestures toward embracing, engaging, and energizing the city. It's surprising, then, to learn that just a few years ago Stallings was resolute: She would never live in Atlanta and never start a dance company.
"They screamed at me for hours."
Stallings grew up in Gainesville, Fla. Her parents married young, and by their mid-20s had three kids and very little money. "We had no means to go to the mall or be entertained by manufactured, external means," Stallings says. "We spent all of our time outside exploring the acres of pine forests and sand dunes and lakes around Gainesville. We were always building things. Always finding a location, building something, making a dance in it."
After a fourth child arrived, dance lessons helped corral the free-roaming Stallings children. "We realized later that dance lessons were affordable babysitting," she says. "The dance studio is where we grew up." Stallings studied a broad range of styles at Gainesville's Pofahl Studios, including ballet, contemporary, and jazz, but was particularly drawn to tap, which, she says, is still what she does best.
It was soon clear that dance meant far more to the Stallings kids than just babysitting. Her talented older brother, Luke, left home early to move to New York, and almost right away he landed plum roles in major Broadway shows. Stallings wanted to follow in his footsteps, but her parents insisted she go to college. At 16, she aced the SATs and won a scholarship to Pittsburgh's Point Park University. The university's dance program appealed to her because of its unusual emphasis on jazz. She planned to finish college as quickly as possible and join her brother in New York, dancing on Broadway. But an early mentor at Point Park, Roberto Munoz, who had trained in the rigorous and prestigious world of Cuban ballet, convinced Stallings to pursue a career in classical ballet. Stallings finished her BFA in three years and shortly after graduation joined the Cleveland Ballet.