AFTER SOME 30 ‘NUTCRACKERS’ AND 22 YEARS WITH ATLANTA BALLET, LONGTIME DANCER JOHN WELKER DECIDES TO STEP OFFSTAGE FOR GOOD
JOHN WELKER first flipped for The Nutcracker as a young boy.
By age 10, he’d moved onstage in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, dancing in BalletMet’s production of the Tchaikovsky classic.
When the curtain falls on this season’s Atlanta Ballet staging, the 40-year-old is calling it a career, in a full circle sort of way.
A man named John McFall choreographed that long-ago Columbus staging. McFall, you might recall, joined Atlanta Ballet as artistic director in 1995, retiring last June after 21 seasons. The company still dances his version, though, which is steeped in the culture and colors of 1850s Russia.
In his early days in Atlanta, McFall recruited Welker and fellow dancer Christine Winkler (Welker’s girlfriend and eventual wife), who were both in Salt Lake City. Since coming east, Welker and Winkler have created plenty of dance magic for Atlanta audiences, together and separately. Among their triumphs: a particularly steamy Romeo and Juliet.
Welker remembers the “absolute beauty and magic” of that early Nutcracker he saw from the audience’s perspective. “That’s what hooked me on the profession as a whole, and it has held a fulfilling place in my heart throughout my career.”
McFall remembers Welker’s BalletMet debut. He played a party boy in the early scenes. “He was so charmed by the young ladies, he would occasionally miss a cue or flub a step or two.” McFall also recalls Welker’s potential.
Welker moved up the ranks of Nutcracker roles quickly, with stops at toy soldier and the young heroine’s pesky brother, to partnering Snow Queens and Sugar Plum Fairies.
This year he steps into a variety of roles, as members of the professional company do from performance to performance. He’ll dance the Snow King in Act 1, or the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier in Act 2, or become the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, the heroine’s guide through her dreamlike multicultural adventure.
Drosselmeyer is fun, Welker says. The role involves more character acting than complex dance moves and is “the common thread between every scene, the method by which the story gets told.”
What does Welker love most about The Nut?
“That’s easy,” he says. “It’s about family. Everyone can relate to family and tradition and wanting a certain amount of nostalgia at this time of year. But I also love that this particular ballet is where the art form and community come together — pretty much throughout the U.S.”
During his Atlanta Ballet tenure, Welker has earned praise for his power, focus, creativity, collaborative spirit and expert technique. Audiences have seen him nail such roles as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Albrecht in Giselle, Basilio in Don Quixote, Dracula in Michael Pink’s Dracula, and the principal male in McFall’s Firebird.
McFall says words alone can’t capture “what an incredible career as a dancer and artist John has gifted us with. He has an intuitive capacity to so immerse himself inside a role it’s as if that character is living and breathing with you onstage.”
Welker says his most memorable moments have come with Winkler, who remains a teaching artist with the company. Their 3-year-old son, Lucas, has already been “transfixed” by The Nutcracker, the dancer says.
Welker and Winkler danced Prince Charming and Cinderella in 1999, marrying and kissing onstage just before their real wedding offstage.
“Being able to dance with my wife has been the joy of my career,” Welker says. “She’s inspired me, supported me, pushed me and just simply made me a better dancer and artist.”
They were never acting when dancing together. “It’s very much felt, all spontaneous, even easy,” he says. “When you know someone to such an extent, you are almost mirror images of each other.” Company members have been known to tear up in the wings while watching the couple.
More tears are likely now, when Welker takes his final bows as this season’s Nutcracker winds down.
He’s retiring as a company dancer but not from the world of dance. He has been chipping away at a dance degree from Kennesaw State University since 2009 and graduates next spring. His plans include a master’s degree in business administration and work on the administrative side of the arts.
“As a dancer you are trained to dance with inhuman ease, but they don’t teach you how to talk about it,” Welker says. “Earning my degree is giving me a vocabulary and more knowledge in terms of how to speak about the performing art I love.”
He dedicates his final Nutcracker performances to all the young-at-heart and wide-eyed kids in the audience. He hopes to inspire them just as he once was.
Welker’s aura will linger for some time, McFall says, applauding his colleague for a “monumental contribution” in helping shape Atlanta Ballet.
“Thank you, John,” McFall adds. “And if you flub a step or two, that is cool.”