Sprawled out upon the floor minutes before a scene rehearsal, John Welker, 40, stretches and contorts his body.
After all, he doesn’t want to hurt himself when he’s just weeks from hanging up the ballet shoes for good. “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” will be his last performance before retiring after a 24-year career.
“I’m not the young pup anymore,” Welker said. “I used to be the youngest when I first joined the company. Now I’m one of the oldest company members (laughs).”
“Nutcracker” premieres at the Fox Theatre on Dec. 9 and will run through Dec. 24, making Christmas Eve Welker’s final bow. Gennadi Nedvigin, the artistic director for Atlanta Ballet, said Welker was an unparalleled asset for the company.
“John Welker is this type of an anchor that connects all (Atlanta Ballet) generations and helps develop new, young dancers,” Nedvigin said. “He’s an example of a great dancer, and it’s always sad to see those experienced and knowledgeable dancers go.”
Welker said he’d be relieved and tired once the final show is over, saying he’ll probably “just want to grab a drink and just chill for a long time,” but he’s sure it’ll be an emotional night.
“Anyone in a sports team could probably relate,” Welker said. “You feel like part of the group. It’s hard to leave that, but at the same time … I kind of want to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. It’s the people I’m going to miss the most.”
Following in his sister’s footsteps
Welker began dancing when he was 11. Apparently, it was a family affair as both his older brother, Joe, and his older sister, Sonia, also participated in ballet — both for different reasons. His brother, who Welker said has a bulkier, more muscular body type than he does, did it to stretch and help his muscles loosen up. His sister was a professional ballerina, providing Welker with footsteps to follow. (She’s no longer dancing.)
“Dance is a very athletic, very rigorous art form that takes its toll on the body, so careers generally start younger than later,” Welker said. “Seeing my sister enter the career … I knew the exact path I needed to follow.”
By 13, Welker was practicing every day, whether it be for class or rehearsals for performances. He said it quickly became an all-day affair.
“I was kind of captured by how difficult it was,” Welker said. “What seemed so easy watching can be so difficult in actual practice when you do it. It really intrigued me, and I was pretty good at it from the outset.”
While some lump dance and the performing arts under the “starving artist” stereotype, Welker’s sister had already accomplished it, so he knew the necessary steps to take to start a successful ballet career.
“It’s an interesting path, because a lot of people aren’t sure of the culture of dance and how one gets into that career,” Welker said, “but it’s actually very seamless. It’s much like going to college, going to school and preparing for a career and stepping into the role.”
The curtain rises in Atlanta
Welker began doing summer programs outside of his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He learned in places such as New York City, Pittsburgh and Havana, Cuba. However, he cited networking as one of the most important things he took from those experiences.
“I was all over the country at a young age, so I got to meet with a lot of peers who did the same thing I did and loved the same things I did, and got to have connections while I was there,” Welker said. “As a result of that, you earn your own connections and networks and just utilize that to audition for different companies right off the bat.”
It just so happens that networking is one of the main components that brought Welker to Atlanta in the first place. John McFall, currently the choreographer for “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker,” used to work at BalletMet in Columbus, where he met Welker.
In 1994, McFall become the artistic director at Atlanta Ballet, and one of his first actions was calling Welker for a job audition. Welker was working at Ballet West in Salt Lake City at the time.
“So (McFall) called me up saying, ‘I got this directorship, and I’m really interested in you and having you be a part of this … company. I’d love for you to audition,’” Welker said.
Welker had already met his future wife, fellow dancerChristine Winkler. Both auditioned and both were hired, bringing them both to Atlanta. Winkler would dance for Atlanta Ballet for 19 years before retiring in 2014 after she and Welker had their first child, Lucas.
Wabi Sabi and beyond
Welker’s years in Atlanta weren’t just limited to dancing though, and Welker was quick to list the many things he did for Atlanta Ballet.
“I’ve kind of played different roles within my career already — kind of pushing myself to teach, to act as a director, to curate, to create new works, to choreograph, to coach,” Welker said. “One of the things I love to do is get outside of my comfort zone a little bit.”
One of the biggest tasks Welker took on was starting the dance company Wabi Sabi — meaning “the beauty of imperfection” in Japanese. Wabi Sabi combines Atlanta’s own emerging choreographers with local venues for outdoor performances.
“I wanted to create a company that embraced this idea of pop-up performances in and around Atlanta to gather new audiences to try to get them in the doors for the Atlanta Ballet,” Welker said.
Welker’s future endeavors seem to align with his creation of Wabi Sabi, as he’s been accepted into Kennesaw State University. He’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in dance and a master’s degree in business — exemplifying his claim of going outside his comfort zone.
“Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker”
Dec. 9-24. $25-$128. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, atlantaballet.com.