Atarius Armstrong brings unique perspective to dance in Atlanta

Photo Credit: Kaleb Mitchell
In this headshot, Armstrong looks directly into the camera, his gaze slightly lifted, a gentle hint of a smile warming his expression. He is wearing a slightly faded collared button-down shirt of indigo-dyed cotton. The sidewalk or streetscape in the background is softly out of focus.

July 9, 2021
Volume 2 Issue 3
By: Robin Wharton

Since moving to Atlanta in 2016, Atarius Armstrong has completed the full-time immersive web development course at General Assembly and started a new dance company, ALA Dance. On his website, one can find both developer and performer resumes, and during our conversation, Armstrong came across as an artist who is constantly forging a productive kind of equilibrium by placing different and sometimes even contradictory roles, identities and movement vocabularies into creative tension. In ALA Dance’s upcoming show, “Prefixed RE:” (July 16-18 at the B Complex), for example, the company will perform three works that explore masculine and feminine duality (“Mr. Princess”), rebirth and resiliency through trauma (“1221”), and the cyclical nature of human interactions (“wave …or What I Would’ve Liked to Tell You”).

Armstrong, a self-described “performer, teacher, creative,” discovered contemporary dance as a musical theater major at the University of Mississippi. He had never danced before college, but he had acquired athleticism, coordination and balance while studying karate in high school. He also had musicality, stage presence and a performer’s confidence from his experience in show choir. During his first audition, which involved a number to “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line that sticks in his mind to this day, he did not land a part, but he recalls thinking, “This just feels so good. I love all of this.” Similarly, he did not make the cut during his first audition for the University of Mississippi company, but the director recognized his potential and encouraged him to continue taking classes, telling him, “I really see you as more of a social, contemporary dancer.” So Armstrong kept dancing, taking a tap class in which the instructor, Lindsay Fine, brought in a variety of dance styles, including jazz, hip-hop and contemporary. By his second year, Armstrong was performing more frequently and had joined the board of the student company, getting his first opportunity as a choreographer. From 2014-2015, he served as the artistic director of Ole Miss Student Dance.

A year after graduation, Armstrong arrived in Atlanta, where he continued to teach dance and to perform in musicals and contemporary works. Armstrong’s move into web development in late 2018 was motivated in part by burnout and a desire for greater financial stability, as well as the desire to extend his background in web and graphic design. For the next year and a half, he focused on building his career as a developer. He enjoys the tech work and sees it as having a global reach and making a contribution to the public health and supply chain efforts that have been so vital during the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit early last year, however, circumstances caused him once again to begin taking stock of his personal and professional well-being and reconnecting with family and friends.

Armstrong performs on a stage with three other dancers. He is centered in the photo, singing. His posture is open and energetic. He is pointing at and looking into the audience. The dancers are wearing evening attire, suits and sleeveless chiffon dresses, and the photo appears to have captured a moment at the crescendo or climax of a musical number, with everyone singing in chorus and gesturing expansively.

Thus, in March 2020, Armstrong found himself in a virtual dance workshop led by Jacob Jonas. The workshop reignited his creative passion regarding dance, and in the isolation of quarantine, he grew hungry for the community and artistry to be found in making movement based art with others. After the murder of George Floyd, that desire for community became more urgent, and he brought together a group of college dance friends to form ALA Dance and create the dance film, “Truth, Consciousness, Bliss.” The film is an intricate montage beautifully edited together from footage of individual dancers, isolated and divided by the pandemic and geography, who are, over the course of the film, joined together through movement, spoken word and their shared humanity. “Truth, Consciousness, Bliss” also showcases what Armstrong identified as being a key component and core strength of ALA Dance’s artistic methodology. Rather than being imposed from the top down, the shape of the work emerges idiosyncratically from what each individual dancer brings to the collaboration, guided by a choreographer’s — in this case Armstrong’s — vision.

For Armstrong and ALA Dance, choreographic collaboration is an opportunity for every dancer to tap into and express the inner self. Even company warm ups explore a variety of different styles through a rotation of class leaders. Consequently, the works the group has produced so far blend vocabulary and traditions to, in Armstrong’s words, “bridge the gaps” that can create silos in the dance community. The result is less collage and more synthesis, not seamless but nevertheless coherent and cohesive. In “SHED,” created for the 2020 Fall for Fall Dance Festival, for example, Pilobilus-inspired contact work combines synergistically with breaking, locking and other street dance forms. Despite its hybridity, however, “SHED” never feels cluttered, and it balances a fine eye for detail in costuming and the arrangement of bodies in space with organic, seemingly-spontaneous, but never jarring transitions from one section or movement into the next.

Armstrong and a female partner are posed in the middle of a covered wooden bridge. Both dancers are in profile, with Armstrong centered within the frame and facing right, his weight shifted in a lunge over his left foot in a forced arch and his right leg extended behind him. His partner faces him and braces herself against one of the bridge guardrails with her left hand, her right arm flung out and up behind her from the shoulder. She stands on tiptoe on a bent right leg. Her left leg, also bent, is extended from her hip and rests lightly on Armstrong’s chest. The sun is shining, and both dancers are perspiring from exertion.

Unlike many dancers who first enter the world of dance via one or two primary traditions — whether it’s hip-hop, flamenco, ballet or jazz — as a college student, Armstrong encountered dance all at once, as movement and expression first, and then, through his further education, as a sometimes fractured set of histories, traditions, specific techniques and vocabularies. To an extent, the work ALA Dance has produced thus far offers the audience a lens for viewing dance with the sort of unifying perspective that Armstrong brings to it. During our interview, Armstrong likened ALA Dance’s creative process to DanceATL’s own project to build community by supporting and celebrating the rich diversity of movement-based art. While he respects the desire to preserve traditions, he does see the creation of boundaries and silos as a potential problem that hinders inclusivity within and growth of dance as an art form. If he had a five to ten year plan, it would include “figur[ing] out some of the ways that we can dismantle all of that, and truly make one whole community,” says Armstrong, “[where] being truly different and passing along different styles of dance” laterally from dancer to dancer or bottom-up from student to teacher are more widely and intentionally integrated as educational and creative goals.

Buy tickets here for ALA Dance’s “Prefixed RE:.”

Robin Wharton is a writer working in Atlanta, Georgia. She studied dance at the School of American Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and she was a member of Tulane University’s Newcomb Dance Company. She holds a law degree and a PhD in English, both from the University of Georgia.

More from Robin:
Graduating class of 2020 dances into uncertain future with creativity, poise
PhaeMonae finds art in motherhood

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