- Oct 2017
A Performance Is a Multimodal Text
The supplemental text I chose to analyze is entitled “The inside story of Terminus, the new dance company by five ex-Atlanta Ballet dancers.” Author Scott Freeman details the timeline of the idealization, creation, and implementation of Terminus Modern Ballet Theater through a journal-like storytelling of events. As a writer for ArtsATL, Freeman was assigned to observe and report on the novel dance company as its members navigated strategy sessions, funding requests, and secret ambitions. Four months of weekly, private meetings between Terminus’s five dancers engendered an eloquent disclosure of the modern company’s origins and aspirations.
In September of 2015, the Atlanta Ballet declared that its artistic director, John McFall, would be leaving his position. So, Tara Lee, Christian Clark, Heath Gill, and Rachel Van Buskirk, four of Atlanta Ballet’s star dancers, were selected as members of a dance search committee; the committee would consider three finalists for artistic director, and recommend a candidate to the Atlanta Ballet’s Board of Trustees. As they contemplated the final three candidates, the aforementioned distinguished dancers imagined what an ideal dance company would look like. What would be that company’s values? How would the company’s art be shaped and presented? What would its leadership style comprise?
John Welker, the founder of Wabi Sabi, a summer arts troupe that performs modern dance numbers outdoors, was one of the candidates considered for artistic director. At the time, Welker was an established star dancer of the Atlanta Ballet. To better prepare himself for the role of artistic director, Welker completed a degree in dance at Kennesaw State University and received a master’s degree in business. Star dancers Lee, Van Buskirk, Gill, and Clark all agreed that John Welker was the best fit for the Atlanta Ballet’s position of artistic director. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Ballet already appeared to prefer another candidate, Gennadi Nedvigin. During this time, Nedvigin was retiring as principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet.
As rumors of Nedvigin’s probable appointment began to spread, dancers Lee, Gill, Van Buskirk, and Clark jokingly considered starting their own company if Welker was not chosen as the Atlanta Ballet’s new artistic director. When Welker’s candidacy was rejected and Nedvigin became the ballet’s appointed artistic director, the four dancers, along with Welker, felt defeated. Under John McFall, the company’s repertoire presented a modern injection of dance that Lee, Gill, Van Buskirk, and Clark enjoyed immensely. However, Nedvigin was trained in classical traditional ballet at the Russian Bolshoi Ballet School; his classical roots seemed to wrap around the ballet’s modern repertoire and squeeze and diminish its presence. With Nedvigin’s appointment, the dancers felt that their “freedom [...] was being taken away” (Freeman). So, after giving Welker time to heal from his rejection and prompt retirement, Gill, Lee, Van Buskirk, and Clark approached Welker with their desire to form a new modern dance company in Atlanta.
In September of 2016, the group, including Welker, met at Kennesaw State University, which they initially saw as hosting a potential performance space for the new company. Having been taught to empower themselves by John McFall, the Atlanta Ballet’s retired artistic director, all of these dancers felt that they had a responsibility to create something they believed in. After ensuring that the four star dancers then performing with the Atlanta Ballet wanted to create meaningful art for the city of Atlanta, Welker felt convinced of the project’s hopes and worth. To Welker, it was critical that the dancers not seek to spurn and remove themselves from the Atlanta Ballet’s legacy; their careers with the Atlanta Ballet were valuable and influential. The new company’s motivation must be devoted solely to the creation of a new vision, not a competition with their past.
The five dancers kept their plans to retire from the Atlanta Ballet and form their own company secret until April of 2017, in which ArtsATL revealed that Lee, Gill, Van Buskirk, and Clark (along with nine other dancers) would be retiring from the company. In May, the retiring dancers shared details about their plans after retirement with fellow dancers in the company. Their start-up dance company, formally known as Terminus Modern Ballet Theater, presented by the Serenbe Institute in cooperation with the Westside Cultural Arts Center, would have two headquarters and five principal dancers. May saw the last performance of Lee, Gill, Van Buskirk, and Clark for the Atlanta Ballet. They performed Camino Real, which incorporates both stage acting and dance. Their time culminated in an emotional finale, yet their ending at the Atlanta Ballet marked a new beginning.
Bibliography: Freeman, Scott. “The inside story of Terminus, the new dance company by five ex-Atlanta Ballet dancers.” ArtsATL, 18 May 2017, http://artsatl.com/story-terminus-dance-company-founded-ex-atlanta-ballet-dancers/. Accessed 1 October 2017.
The decision of Welker, Lee, Clark, Van Buskirk, and Gill to name their dance company Terminus was intentional and purposive. The name Terminus comprises multiple elements of symbolism through which meaning can be derived. Terminus was one of Atlanta’s original names, and it describes the former setting of the Southern city. Terminus means “end of the line,” which indicates the spirited growth of Atlanta around the railroad’s stopping point between Georgia and the Midwest. Not only is the name Terminus historically significant to the company’s homebase city, but it is also metaphorically significant.
To the dancers of Terminus, the “end of the line” simultaneously serves as the origin point of a new journey. Their inception as a dance company flourished from their conclusion with Atlanta Ballet, a significant chapter in all of these dancers’ careers. Tara Lee describes a terminus as an “intersection and meeting point of ideas” in which “people [come] together to create something new” (Freeman). She believes that this definition describes the Terminus Modern Ballet Theater dancers well. The name Terminus is multimodal because it evokes specific imagery related to the railroad as well as a symbolic interpretation critical to understanding the motivations and origin story of this ballet company. As the text demonstrates, understanding the full message of even a single word requires a multimodal analysis.
Questions one might ask:
Are there images associated with the word?
What is the word’s historical context?
How is the word presented?
Does it belong at the fore of the conversation?
Does it compete with and/or complement another mode?
Multimodal describes how we combine multiple different ways of communicating in everyday life.
Photo by Felipe Barral: The dancers of Terminus Modern Ballet Theater have built illustrious careers dancing to the beats of other artists’ inspirations. For a long time, they have confined and defined themselves by the expression of other people’s work. Yet, once the Atlanta Ballet embarked on a path that was unfit for their individual artistry, the dancers of Terminus Ballet decided to tread their own path, away from the crossroads that had come to challenge their willingness to be brave. Though these dancers are terrified of the unknown that they have plunged into, they also feel excited and invigorated by the pressure they feel. Pushed by the prospect of failure, the Terminus Modern Ballet Theater dancers are characterized by their intense motivation to introduce new modes of expression into dance. As artists, these dancers hope to experiment with their image as it is presented in all of the contexts that a new company requires.
These dancers, thus, have to be multimodal.
Tara Lee, Heath Gill, John Welker, Rachel Van Buskirk, and Christian Clark don’t only dance; they also contribute to their company’s website, design company logos, contemplate appropriate studio and performance space design, and engage in business strategy sessions. Hoping to present to their audience contemporary modern dance fused with elements of classical ballet, the dancers of Terminus Modern Ballet Theater contain a diverse set of skills, not only in dance, but also in marketing and business. Just like their style of dance cannot be categorized into a specific genre, neither can the capabilities of these performers be categorized or limited by the traditional expectations of dancers. These dancers recognize their need for a multi-modal skill-set so that they can create visual art through both their dance and their digital webpage. They will appreciate the importance of the spatial mode as they block stages for their choreography, and finalize the design of their company logo. Working on multiple interfaces (at the physical, tangible level as well as the digital level) has bolstered this dance company’s intimacy with their creative expression. Their ability to fathom multiple modes is critical to their success.