Atlanta Ballet Dancer Alessa Rogers' Open Letter to John McFall

A Letter to John McFall
Written by Company dancer Alessa Rogers, on behalf of the Atlanta Ballet company

Dear John,

You are stepping down as artistic director of Atlanta Ballet this month after 21 years. How to describe what your tenure accomplished? How to distill such a career?

I could talk about the numbers. How the budget has nearly tripled since 1994 or the 1200 students enrolled in the school. I could talk about how Atlanta Ballet has transformed in your two decades from a regional dance troupe to a world-class institution. About the exciting collaborations- Big Boi from Outkast, the Indigo Girls. Or about the world premieres - Twyla Tharp’s first full-length ballet, Helen Pickett’s Camino Real. I could talk about the tour to China, the opening of a beautiful new building, your own choreography including the record-breaking Nutcracker. I could talk about the cutting-edge choreographers like Ohad Naharin, Alexander Ekman and Jorma Elo whom you convinced out of a sheer doggedness and passion for your dancers to come to a city in the Southeast and bring their work to us.

These things are astounding, valid and commendable. But you know all these things already.

And this letter isn’t about what you’ve done for Atlanta Ballet. It’s what you’ve done for me and your dancers. So I’d rather talk about the joy.

See, John, every day over the past 10 years I’ve walked through the doors of Atlanta Ballet, brimming with excitement about the day ahead, overflowing with exuberance that I get to work here. It has been the greatest joy of my life to come to work every day at Atlanta Ballet, doing a job I love, with people who inspire me. It is the greatest honor to say I am one of John McFall’s dancers. It’s not to say that every day has been easy. I don’t think any day was easy! But every day was worth it. Every day brought such a precious, exquisite happiness.

You have to know something about the wider culture of dance to understand that there is something special going on at Atlanta Ballet. Ballet is a notoriously competitive and unhealthy profession, rife with horror stories and stereotypes. But not here. Here, we are each other’s greatest fans. It is ingrained in us to be that way from the artistic staff down to the twenty-year veterans to the new dancers and on down to the students. I don’t think people who aren’t in the dance world understand how rare this is, this thing you’ve cultivated here. But it’s no accident. You care about how the addition or subtraction of one dancer will change the dynamic for the others. You know that what goes on in the studio profoundly affects our quality of life. You take time hiring dancers, but once we’re here, we tend to stay. And we genuinely love each other. This family that you’ve created is what suffuses my job with so much joy. Some people might say, “well, that’s nice, but it has no bearing on the product you put on stage.” I say on the contrary. It’s what makes Atlanta Ballet work. I want to do my best because 23 of my best friends are on stage next to me, and I know they both depend on me and support me. I am a better dancer because I am in this atmosphere than I would be if I was in any other company in the world. A dancer – or anyone – needs a healthy place to grow and someone to believe in him or her. The lightness and laughter and love in the studio isn’t seen at a whole lot of other companies in the world. When we go on stage, we can be the fearless risk-takers we are known to be because you give us the freedom and trust to be that way – and the audience responds to that.

You once said in an interview that you didn’t want “lost dancers.” We are not lost because you found us. Each dancer at Atlanta Ballet might not have gotten a chance at very many other places. Not because we are unworthy. We just might not fit the cookie-cutter ballet mold quite right. You said, “to hell with that – if you have fire and you can move and you are hungry and you are kind, there is a place for you here.” You saw who we are as people and who we could become and knew that was enough. We have created a company here with which international choreographers consistently want to work, who say time and time again that working here was the most special experience of their entire globetrotting careers. That speaks to you, your vision, and what you’ve created. You saw something in each of us that I frankly don’t know if many other people would see. You saw the diamond in the rough, and you didn’t chip and chip and chip away until you wore us down to find it. No. You stepped back. You let us do the chipping. You empowered us with your unwavering faith in us, without pressure to be or become before we were ready. So we could find ourselves in our own time. Sometimes all a dancer/artist/person needs in life is a chance. You gave chances. Sometimes it took a couple years for your risk to pay off. I know I was a late bloomer. You relished being proven wrong by a dancer and never treated us as expendable. I could become the artist I am now because you held a space for me to be the person I am. You never wanted us to apologize for that, or to become small. I am comfortable being who I am and where I am in a way I don’t think many dancers ever get the chance.

Anyone who meets you knows immediately they have met no ordinary person. Whether it’s your crazy shoes, your Midwestern drawl, your ribald sense of humor and mischievous gleam in your eyes, or your random tangents and huge vocabulary (one former dancer kept a thesaurus in her locker for after rehearsals with you), you were always entertaining and always teaching. I learned how to roll through my pointe shoes from you, but I also learned that cardinals don’t migrate more than a mile from where they are born. It was important to you that your dancers were aware of life outside the studio. You supported our outside endeavors whether it was going to school, traveling or organizing our own shows; because if our role is to be authentic, we must bring whatever perspective we have outside the studio onto the stage. That will always stick with me, that a broader, rich curiosity of the world will serve me well as an artist.

But I think what you gave us more than anything else was space to have joy. Ballet can be so hard. You reminded us that joy is a choice and that if you aren’t having fun, it ain’t worth it.

What I experienced under your direction was nothing short of transcendence. I’ve been a part of something greater than myself, lived moments on stage that seemed to be made of gold. What a gift. No one can ask for more. You made this possible – the opportunities themselves, but you also made it possible for me to meet the opportunity. You saw us as who we are and who we could be. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone, regardless of job, had a person like you to look up to and foster the spirit of an organization? If we all could feel that in our lives, to have a person who believes one hundred percent in your ability to fulfill your potential? What would we be able to achieve collectively if we were all believed in like that? You will be gone from Atlanta Ballet, but what you cultivated won’t leave as easily. You gave so much of your spark to each of us. We will carry forward forevermore in our hearts the flame that you instilled in us, the 24 current dancers, the countless others who came before. We’ll nurture it in the studio when we become teachers and directors ourselves; if we leave the arts field and go into another profession, what you taught us will still be there. You will go on affecting lives because that is your legacy.

In your 21 years here you’ve created beauty and community, a sense of pride in ourselves and our city. You’ve created a home and a family and held space for us while we found ourselves. Atlanta Ballet dancers have not looked to you just as our boss or someone who merely directs us, but as a comrade whom we love fiercely. What you did for Atlanta Ballet was create a place that is loving and healthy, where we collaborate with imagination and full trust in the process, and dance with abandon and openness and sense of joy and adventure. Your dancers, the city of Atlanta, and the world of dance owe you an immense debt of gratitude that we can never repay.

Wowie Kazowie.

Thank you for giving us space to embrace joy.

Thank you for realizing that we learn differently and blossom at different rates and have different needs.

Thank you for being open-minded to the different qualities we have in our individual and diverse body types.

Thank you for giving us a healthy space to work.

Thank you for bringing in choreographers who were risky to help push us.

Thank you for being honest and true and authentic and passionate and generous.

Thank you for dreaming big and always considering what you could do to make your dancers happier and better.

Thank you for knowing when to push and stretch and knowing when to back off and let me swim on my own.

Thank you for growing me up.

Thank you for telling us that life is an adventure.

Thank you for showing us how to making life richer, more colorful, more joy-filled.

Thank you for nurturing our dreams, in and out of the studio.

Thank you for always having time and a door open for us.

Thank you for seeing something in me, for giving me a chance.

Thank you for letting us be more than dancers.

Thank you for teaching us to be expansive, open-hearted, generous, honest, vulnerable, fearless.

Thank you for creating this place that is so singular within the dance world and for letting me be a part of this beautiful dream that you have created.

John McFall with Twyla Tharp at opening night curtain call of Twyla Tharp's The Princess & the Goblin.
John McFall with dancer Heath Gill.
John McFall at the curtain call for opening night of the 20th anniversary of
Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker with dancers, including Alessa Rogers.
All photos by Charlie McCullers.