Q&A: Juel Lane’s Hip-hop Inspired Moments of Dis at the Atlanta Ballet

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Choreographer Juel Lane (green) conducts rehearsal with Atlanta Ballet dancers. Photo by Karley Sullivan.

When Juel Lane showed up for his first day of work at the Atlanta Ballet, it was a major milestone for him. His new piece for the company Moments of Dis, which premieres March 23, represents his first major commission as an independent choreographer. But it was also a big first step for the Atlanta Ballet, as well.

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Moments of Dis will mark the company’s first time performing the work of an independent Atlanta-based choreographer. Although the Atlanta Ballet frequently works with young, emerging choreographers, until now all of them have been recruited from elsewhere to come work in Atlanta on a temporary basis. And although the company has used in-house choreography from Atlanta-based company members and instructors, this is the very first time they’ve looked to an independent homegrown talent to create new work.

Click above for a video featuring previous choreography by Juel Lane, or click here to watch it on YouTube.

Lane grew up in College Park and attended East Point’s Tri-Cities High School. He started working with Freddie Hendricks, his high school drama teacher who introduced him to the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta. Dawn Axam was a major factor in his development as a dancer. By his junior year of high school, Lane had decided he wanted to pursue dance as his life’s work.

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While still in the BFA program at North Carolina School of the Arts, he was spotted by renowned choreographer Carolyn Dorfman who recruited him for her New York-based Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company. Once in New York, Lane began dancing for a number of prestigious choreographers and companies including Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Andrea E. Woods/Souloworks, Camille A. Brown, and Bridget L. Moore. Lane, now 31 and back in Atlanta, still performs with Camille A. Brown and others, but he’s also beginning a career as an independent choreographer, with the commission from the Atlanta Ballet representing a huge first step.

Juel Lane discusses details with dancers at rehearsal. Photo by Karley Sullivan.

Lane’s hip-hop influenced Moments of Dis for nine dancers will have its official world premiere as part of Atlanta Ballet’s annual spring mixed program, March 23-25, at the Cobb Energy Centre alongside pieces by the internationally renowned choreographers James Kudelka and Jorma Elo. We caught up with the dancer/choreographer to talk about the milestone moment.

Andrew Alexander (AA): So …. What was it like working with the Atlanta Ballet?

Juel Lane (JL): Working with them has been great. Of course, I had my preconceived thoughts that this is a ballet company, and they’d be like “What is this guy doing? All this crazy movement. Nobody can do this!” But the fact that I came into a roomful of artists, artists that were willing to work—that changed my whole perception. Everybody in that company has a heart, and they want to push their artistic endeavors further. I was just happy that they allowed me to share that with them.

The thing is: once you go into the rehearsal process, you get inspired by the dancers. Sometimes you have your blueprint of what you want to do, but [once] you get in there and see the beauty that they possess, you’re like “Okay, she’s giving me a lot right now so I’m going to have to go off with that.” It was great. Everyday I came in there, they were willing and eager and super-focused. It made me comfortable as a choreographer. I didn’t feel like I had to try to do anything to impress them. It was my first time, but I was just very comfortable. It was great. It’s pretty mind-blowing every time I think about it. I’m like, “Oh, wow. I’m choreographing for the Atlanta Ballet. Cool.”

AA: What did a typical day at the Atlanta Ballet look like for you?

JL: We usually did rehearsals from 12:00 to 6:00. When I arrived, they were already warmed up and ready to go, because they take class from 10:00 to 12:00. I tried to come in with a plan. Sometimes I do work spontaneously, but I do like to have an outline of what I want to get out of it. Usually I start with a phrase, a series of movements. That will last a good hour. Then, from that, that’s when the creative process comes. I’ll maybe break it down: I’ll have two dancers on one side of the room working on something and then two other dancers doing completely different movements. Just sort of playing with the juxtaposition. From there, I keep playing, I keep trying ideas.

I think that’s the important thing as a choreographer, and that’s the cool thing about the rehearsal process. You can try things over and over. You can try things that don’t work, even things that look stupid. At some point, something will resonate. It’s kind of like you’re just having fun. It’s like you have this big canvas and you’re just playing. You just put different colors on the canvas until something comes out.

Dancers Claire Stallman, Miguel Montoya (back left), and Philip Smith-Cobbs (back right) rehearse various movements. Photo by Karley Sullivan.
The upcoming performance will feature a variety of athletic movements. Photo by Karley Sullivan.
Heath Gill and Tara Lee pair up during rehearsal. Photo by Charlie McCullers. Courtesy the Atlanta Ballet.
Dancer Tara Lee swings towards the camera with concentration. Photo by Charlie McCullers. Courtesy the Atlanta Ballet.

AA: Tell us about your piece Moments of Dis.

JL: It’s funny how the title Moments of Dis came about. When we were recording the music, I was with the composer Quentin “EQ” Johnson, [and] my original title was Moments of Despair. When we turned the music in to the Atlanta Ballet, we abbreviated it as Moments of Dis. They performed a little section at the Botanical Gardens in the fall as Moments of Dis. I was like “Oh, no. That’s not the title! That’s just the abbreviation for the music!” What’s funny is that, the more I thought about it, I was like: it made sense. I started playing off the prefix “dis” as I started coming up with the other sections.

The first section deals with discombobulation. The second section deals with discipline, the third with discernment. The first section is groovy and upbeat, like a house-flavor kind of rhythm. If you’re in the audience, you’re gonna bop your head a little bit. The second section is more slow and soothing. But the first and third sections: be prepared to be grooving.

The type of movement I like to do is very contemporary, fused with hip-hop styles and West African. I like to work with speed. People say “This is too fast!” but there’s something about the agility and athleticism of speed I like to incorporate in my work. There are some sections that are slow. It’s very physical. I do like to go up and down, out of the floor a lot. A lot of full body movement.

AA: The Atlanta Ballet’s shows at the Cobb Energy Centre are pretty elaborate. Are you working with the costume shop and lighting designers and all that, as well?

JL: Absolutely. For the costumes, I’m going with a vintage look. I got inspired by this New Year’s Eve outfit that I wore. It was a vintage sailor-jacket, all black. I had some harem pants. I thought it was really cool and funky. I brought those ideas into the room, and I had each of the dancers try on a couple things. We thought they were cool. We decided to go with that. We added shoes. They’re not in bare feet or ballet slippers or anything like that. I wanted to go with a really pedestrian kind of feel.

AA: How did this whole collaboration come about?

JL: When I first moved back to Atlanta, I was part of Angela Harris’s Dance Canvas showcase in 2009. I know [Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director] John McFall came to that event. Then I did Daryl Foster’s LIFT showcase where I did a duet called Waiting with an Atlanta Ballet dancer Jamal Callender, so John McFall came to that. We started playing phone tag, and I heard he was interested in meeting me. It snowballed into several meetings, and then I met John Welker who’s a dancer with the Atlanta Ballet. I made a piece for WabiSabi [the Atlanta Ballet’s new Welker-helmed “company within a company” that performs contemporary site-specific work]. McFall was like “Do you want to continue with this piece you started with WabiSabi?” And the rest is history.

AA: You said your style is pretty contemporary. Do you have a background in ballet?

JL: Absolutely. I went to a conservatory. I went to North Carolina School of the Arts. We took ballet everyday. As a contemporary dancer, you’re required to take ballet class, and as a ballet dancer you’re required to take contemporary. That’s part of the rigorous training: you have to know what you’re doing.

Choreographer Juel Lane leads his dancers with a dynamic charisma. Photo by Charlie McCullers. Courtesy the Atlanta Ballet.

AA: Can you describe your background growing up in Atlanta? How did you get into dance?

JL: I grew up in Atlanta. I went to Tri-Cities High School. I started performing with the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, which used to be called the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble. He had this theater company that was composed of kids from ages 14 to 18. That was my entry into the performing arts. I’ve always had this crazy energy growing up, and I was always intrigued by Fame. I’m a child of the ’80s, so everything that came on TV was like a song and a dance. That was pretty much my life.

But I didn’t think it was right for boys to dance back then, because I didn’t know if it was safe for me to dance. I was like, “I’m a man. I shouldn’t be dancing.” It was so good to have role models around me when I got into high school. My drama teacher Freddie Hendricks pushed me so much; he saw that I enjoyed dancing. He always put me out on the forefront, and I was like “Why does this man keep doing this?” I didn’t want to dance, I wanted to act. But from the end of my junior year in high school—that’s when I knew I wanted to dance professionally.

AA: Do you consider yourself Atlanta-based, and do you want to stay Atlanta-based?

JL: I do. This is home. This is always going to be home. I definitely don’t want to shy away from that. There are so many artists here, and the more we put Atlanta on the map, the more people will know about it.

The Atlanta Ballet performs Juel Lane’s Moments of Dis as a part of The Man in Black: An Evening of Three Works, March 23-25, 2012, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The program also includes The Man in Black by choreographer James Kudelka set to the music of Johnny Cash and 1st Flash choreographed by Jorma Elo and set to the music of Sibelius.

The opening night performance includes a pre-show Meet and Greet with choreographer Juel Lane from 7-7:45PM in the Grand Tier Lobby at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Industry tickets start at $10 each. Click here for more ticket information.

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