Atlanta, Georgia, USA
about the artist //
Spend an evening with Joel Ballard and you might find yourself at a cocktail bar in Atlanta, Georgia discussing everything from choreography to Monday Night Football, Kurt Vonnegut to Monet. Ballard, a young choreographer who was formally trained as a dancer in the high school program at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts (UNCSA), is a 21st century Renaissance man who knows a lot about a lot.
As a child, Joel Ballard was a natural performer. His parents placed him in a magnet school and at the age of eight he decided to pursue dancing over sports. Joel continued to practice dance until a series of injuries at UNCSA forced him to sit out of dance rehearsals. Rather than leave the program, however, Joel took his misfortune as an opportunity to help his peers. It was then he found his love and admiration for choreography.
(The following is an edited excerpt of our conversation.)
BC // You’re a choreographer now, but you started as a dancer. Can you talk a little bit about your formal training and how that led to where you are now as a choreographer?
When I was relatively young—as far as I remember back—I was singing and dancing around the house and my parents said, “We need to get this boy into some art schools because he has way too much energy.” So I ended up getting into what’s called a magnet school here in Georgia. I had classes in all the arts and I remember being really interested in music and dance. I was really good at music, but my dance teacher told my parents I should be taking private classes in dance because she saw potential, I guess. So I ended up taking private dance classes when I was relatively young. I started off when I was in second grade.
In third grade I was told I had to decide between taking dance classes and playing soccer, which I was doing at the same time. I knew I was going to take dance classes so that was the start of it. I took modern and ballet from the time I was in third grade, straight through elementary and middle school, and for two years of high school. In my second year of high school, one of my really good friends who happened to be a couple of years older than me was looking at colleges that she wanted to go to and mentioned a school called North Carolina School of the Arts. And (she) mentioned that they had a high school program, so I decided to look it up just to see what it was all about and without thinking about it too much, I decided I was going to apply, and got my parents to drive me to the auditions, which was like 45 minutes away and they were like oh cool, yeah sure, whatever, you know? I could tell my parents were thinking that a conservatory is a whole different ball game, you know?
It’s one thing to be dancing for a long time, it’s another to go to school for it on a professional trajectory scale. And so I could sense the slightest bit of skepticism. Anyway, I got in.
BC // Wow.
JB // Yeah, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. But I got in. So, the ballet people accepted me to go to the summer program but not the year-round. And the modern people accepted me for both. When you’re applying to the modern program you have to do a self-choreographed solo and I had never choreographed anything before on my own.
BC // And you were sixteen at this point?
Yeah, I was sixteen and to be fair, in contemporary modern dance, people don’t get into choreographing; the general trajectory for the famous-type folk is that you start off as a dancer and learn from the professional choreographers and then you become a choreographer afterward. The idea is never to go from having no experience to a choreographer without doing the dancing in the middle. But I went to this audition and choreographed this audition. I was sixteen and it was the first thing I had ever choreographed.
The woman running the audition, Trish, was talking to me after the audition and she said, “It seems like you are really into choreography.” And I said, “No, ma’am. This is the first thing I have ever done.”
She had an odd look on her face and I didn’t understand it at the time and we didn’t talk much after that, because there’s a lot of other things to do, obviously, at the audition. I got accepted into the year-round program. My parents are amazing, and since I got in and did all of the work to get in they were going to help me out and basically just sent me there. So I went there junior and senior year of high school.
But while I was there I, being a relatively skinny guy without a shit ton of body mass, did happen to get injured several times, just because of the intensity of the schedule, and I don’t think my body can keep up with all that.
So I was constantly in pain and I was thinking, “Why am I still doing this? What is it that I really care about here that’s not making me drop out at this point?” Because over a course of two months, I had taken maybe a class a week, which is really slow for what we were doing there.
I had found that when I was in the composition class, even when I was out of it and couldn’t dance, I could still tell people what to do and make a piece and still have that satisfaction that I had earlier when I was just starting to get into it. I realized that making dances was just as satisfying as being in the dances, and even more than that, I wasn’t punishing my body for it. Through that discovery I started to really focus my attention on that a lot and really got a lot of great help and techniques that I had learned throughout the entire time about how to create pieces.
BC // Your style of choreography has been described as “minimalistic and gestural, with content and emotion.” How would you define your style?
One word that I come across, or not that I came across, but kind of invented for what I am doing is called neo-minimalism. Whereas minimalism will denote very stark and very small movements, but be devoid of any meaning, I have a very similar aesthetic, but I introduce the meaning to it. It’s not just existing in this vacuum where movement is all that matters.
I am also trying to get at the human element of it. And this is something that I learned early, early, early on. Whenever you put a person on stage and there is somebody watching them, there’s a relationship there, and to deny that by ignoring the fact that there’s relationship going on means that you’re ignoring half of what is going on.
BC // When you say there’s somebody watching them, you’re talking about the audience, correct?
I mean the audience. I mean other performers. Anybody who happens to be watching. Especially other performers. You know, if there’s another performer on stage, they’re going to be watching the other performers at a certain point or another.
Anytime there are two people on stage there’s a relationship there from the audience’s perspective. Any dancers on stage have a relationship with the audience. We’re all humans, and there just happens to be people dancing in front of you. That doesn’t mean they’re not human because they’re dancers.
People sort of separate themselves from what’s going on on stage, and the same goes for dancers. Dancers separate themselves from the audience. But in my opinion, there is no fourth wall. There is a human on stage moving, trying to convey something or relate to people who are watching them, be that other performers or people watching them from the audience.
Dance is talking to people through movement. My philosophy is to take that aesthetic of small movement—very intentional small movements—and say something with it.
BC // You don’t actually dance these pieces as you’re choreographing them. You mentally choreograph them. It’s interesting to think about you doing that, because this is all mental for you.
Yeah, that’s a good point. Most—and when I say most, I mean 99% of the choreographers out there—will dance and demonstrate to their dancers what they want them to do.
I found this way of talking to dancers. If they’re reasonably trained, I can talk to dancers in a language they can understand and ask them to do something, where they’ll most of the time end up doing what I want them to do.
BC // Don’t you ever just want to say: “Here is how it’s actually done. Here’s how I actually envision it.” Is there part of you, with the training that you do have, that wants to—“
I do very, very minor demonstration. Like arm things, I will demonstrate. But anything where it’s changing levels, changing weight distribution, stuff like that, the vast majority of it I won’t demonstrate at all.
It sometimes takes a little bit longer that way than if I was demonstrating everything. Then again, some really happy coincidences come out of somebody doing it not exactly as I envisioned it, but better than I envisioned it. I am really happy with the process I have now. I am happy with how it works at this point. It may change, because everyone’s process changes. But at this point, it’s exactly what I want.
You, like most Byway Collective artists that will be featured here, do not receive any income from your artwork. You have to make a living some other way. And that’s how you and I actually met, through working in coffee. Do you find inspiration from your work in coffee?
What I would say is that I have made friends from the coffee shop, and I receive information from friends of mine that will influence my artistic process. But just being in the shop day after day, I don’t get anything out of that necessarily.
I value the friendships I make there, but that is the only thing that informs my artistic drive—the friendships I made there and the human interactions with people that I consider friends. Whereas the average customer is not an inspiration to me at all.
BC // I’m wondering, though, if you see your role as a barista 1) As an art form, and 2) As serving the artistic community?
Um, to a certain extent. Obviously, you know, they’re looking for something there. Whether it’s a meeting space or caffeine, we’re providing that so they can do their thing. And I’m happy for that, but it’s a degree of separation, I think, from where I am behind the bar. It’s hard to think about that when you’re behind the trenches making a lot of drinks.
BC // Do you have someone that you check in with regularly? That you talk to regularly? That guides you and pushes you and challenges you? Or are you doing this alone?
JB // It’s a combination of the two. One person I have kept in touch with is Greg Cattelier. He works as a technique and composition and lighting director at the Emory University Dance Program. He invited me to do a couple of other projects, to dance for him, to choreograph in a show for independent young choreographers. He really encouraged me to keep working when I was brand new here in Atlanta. His encouragement was really, really important to me.
BC // Is your end goal to choreograph and only choreograph? Is that your dream? To be a well-respected, sought-after choreographer?
JB // One thing I have always wanted for my life is to move back to North Carolina. I absolutely love North Carolina. So what I want to do is establish myself as a choreographer, establish myself financially so that I can open up a dance company somewhere in North Carolina. Not any small community, but somewhere really supportive of their artistic communities. And then I really want to be able to choreograph all day every day and that be it. I realize that’s a pipe dream, but it’s what I want to end up doing.
BC // Why do you what you do? What inspires you?
JB // Humans, in general, have a very basic language that is not necessarily anything they say, but the way they move. And it’s been confirmed through various studies that in every culture a smile means the same thing. Gestures are cultural, obviously, but the very basics of human movement like smiles and the small things are all the same. So you cannot deny that humans communicate with the way they move their muscles. When you get past the cultural and you get to a point where everything is universal, my figuring is that if communicating through movement is universal then that should be the best way to communicate with people.