Jerylann Warner embraces lifetime full of history in her work at Callanwolde

Photo credit: Julian Meija
Warner, standing atop a red brick floor, lunges forward with one arm gently reaching out to the side. Clad in dark brown shoes, a black top, pants and mask, Warner stands in contrast against the stark white walls and curtains of the room. She gazes intently forward, as if seeing past the fold-up table and laptop in front of her.

March 1, 2021
Volume 2 Issue 2
By: Ashley Gibson

A brilliantly fading sunset outlined the Atlanta skyline, towering over the rambling grounds of Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. Car headlights pierced the December evening air, illuminating a stark, vacant parking lot while a heartwarming film of snowfall accompanied stunning original choreography. Sparklers added an element of festivity and childlike joy to the evening as kids whizzed past on rollerblades and creatively adorned bicycles.

While most people were hunkered down in their homes due to the pandemic, Jerylann Warner, Director of Callanwolde’s School of Dance and Prime Dance Company, was leading an effort to produce a safe outdoor performance experience for her students. The production, Hope for a Holiday Show, reflected not only Warner’s determination and ingenuity, but also her ability to lean into her creativity — qualities that have made her one of the cornerstones of this city’s vibrant arts scene.

Warner’s inspiration for the outdoor show stemmed from a nostalgic childhood memory. “When I was a young girl, my dad used to drive to the local pond and turn his headlights on,” says Warner. “I could skate at night because I had his headlights shining on the pond.”

As a teacher, choreographer and mentor, Warner boasts a rich artistic history, inseparably intertwined with the city of Atlanta’s own dance history. In a recent conversation, Warner reflected on her deep, ever-evolving roots within this city’s culture.

A New York native, raised in the Hudson Valley, Warner moved to Atlanta about 30 years ago. Since planting roots in Georgia, she has served on faculty at both Core Dance and Emory University. Warner held one of her most pivotal roles as a pioneer in early contemporary dance in Atlanta by founding the distinctive group, Gathering Wild.

In 1996, Warner founded Gathering Wild, a Decatur-based dance company that helped pave the way for Atlanta dance as we know it today. Many of the individuals, such as George Staib and Corian Ellisor, who danced under her during this time, now have companies or projects of their own in Atlanta. Warner devoted over a decade of her life to this project, which provided vitality and momentum to the local arts scene.

“I happily offer my gratitude by sharing that she took a chance on me,” says Staib. “But using the word ‘chance,’ in some ways, negates the statement, because Jerylann did not think of herself as a bestower of anything on anyone,” he says. “She was a gatherer of ideas and people . . . as they were — in all their facets — in all their Wildness!”

Staib moved to Georgia after Warner established Gathering Wild and received an invitation to dance with this group, which he describes as being “alive, responsive, effervescent.” Gathering Wild “swam against the tide” as Staib says and brought together individuals of diverse ages and technical levels. He says that the group consciously embraced the audience rather than alienate them. This group, the heart and soul of Warner, became a creative ground of unified expression.

In comparing the local arts now to where they were 30 years ago, Warner says, “I’ve seen many more options. There are more companies, more independent artists and more at a viewer’s delight and disposal. It used to be only a few, and the Atlanta Ballet often eclipsed a lot of it,” she says. “But now, it’s just resplendent with . . . people who want to contribute.”

Throughout the years, Warner watched companies, such as Fly on a Wall, Kit Modus and staibdance, join the ranks of bigger Atlanta dance companies like Atlanta Ballet and Core Dance. She also commends the independent choreographers who rose up in Atlanta and who consistently make and contribute work as well.

Having been connected to Callanwolde in various ways, such as teaching, for at least 27 years, Warner took the lead as dance program director three years ago. Currently, she nurtures up-and-coming young dancers, investing in the future of Atlanta arts.

Jillian Mitchell, Artistic Director of Kit Modus and Co-Director of Callanwolde’s Prime Dance Company and Pro-Prime Movers Dance Company, says that working with Warner has taught Mitchell that “cultivating a sense of community and belonging is just as important as teaching strong technique and challenging students’ physicality.” She adds, “Being qualified to train the next generation of dancers is a given, but threading together those intangible moments that impact their entire personhood is the Callanwolde way.”

Warner inspires both students and professionals alike, making those who dance with her feel “seen and known,” Mitchell says. Warner continues to cultivate a unique bond between the students in her school and Kit Modus, Callanwolde’s resident professional dance company.

In doing so, Warner tirelessly forges her own path. She strives to level the playing field between her students, the professional artists and choreographers. She acknowledges that while this has been an excruciating process that initially felt like mayhem, that they have now “created some real arteries” for ideas and movement to flow.

“I didn’t want to have any conversations that didn’t include the kids, because we would be restricting their point of view, their impressions and making them less than,” she says. “I wanted everybody to be talking at the same time, in real time.”

In the second phase of this ongoing collaboration with Kit Modus, Warner seeks to codify Mitchell’s ballet technique to inform the movement of the entire school. Corian Ellisor, co-director of the two youth companies, says Warner “has kept the integrity of helping students forge their own pathways through dance. She guides them with a motherly touch and helps them become beautiful people.”

Photo credit: Julian Meija
Warner sits in a white chair with her hands thrown up in a free, nonchalant manner while a line of ten students lean against brown and white ballet barres behind her. Dreamy white arches, tapestries and chandeliers brighten the room behind the group. The classroom is lit by the chandeliers overhead, as well as large, rounded windows on the far right of the frame.

Part of Warner’s success in navigating COVID-19 as a school director comes from years of experience. “I mean [I am] old enough to have lived through this. Just show up,” says Warner. “If you want to be a creative and want to refine your sensibility as an artist and want to fulfill yourself in this way, and you just have that unbridled desire . . . you’re constantly working on the edge.”

When Warner’s kids were younger, she recalls a time when they were living in a small space, and she found herself choreographing eye-to-eye with the family pet. “That guinea pig became my witness. It had a warmth to it, but was also ridiculous.” She recognizes that these obstacles better prepared her to handle future hardships, such as creating art and running a school during a pandemic.

As a public space, Callanwolde itself faces daily hardships throughout these challenging times. The Callanwolde Estate, a historic venue with a 12-acre campus, houses the School of Dance, an art gallery, Kit Modus and even a school pod. With the sheer number of people on campus, Warner finds COVID-19 tracking to be a daily task for her. She says that she sometimes faces disapproval from people when she must close the building for a day, but it is all part of keeping the doors open in the long term.

Warner says that student enrollment dropped significantly this year, with only a third of the number of students, after a complete halt in revenue at the start of the pandemic. Additionally, two of the school’s outdoor tents designated for class were decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes this year.

However, both Warner and the school continue to persevere. And while some of the challenges they face are unique to Callanwolde, Warner says some of that uniqueness has actually equipped Callanwolde to succeed and has enabled them to continue.

The young girl who once spent her winters ice skating across frozen ponds with her father grew into a bright, visionary leader with a warm, nurturing touch. Warner credits all of her past teachers and mentors with shaping her into the leader she is today. These individuals gave her a uniqueness and originality that has lent itself to leadership time and again throughout the years. 

Warner says, “Take all those incredibly insightful and valuable lessons and all those formative things that have been inputted, and then be responsive, keep your eyes open and take those lessons and combine them with all the people you want to serve.”

Ashley Gibson holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University. During her time at KSU, she performed with the KSU Dance Company, working with renowned individuals such as Christine Welker and McCree O’Kelley. She is a current faculty member at both Studio Go and the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. Ashley is also a freelance writer in the Atlanta community and contributes to DIYdancer. When she’s not dancing or teaching, she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.

More from Ashley:
Courtney Lewis redefines her self-perception, welcomes future of Atlanta dance
Graduating class of 2020 dances into uncertain future with creativity, poise
Spring 2020 college feature revisited

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