For 19 years, Christine Winkler has devoted herself to the Atlanta Ballet, only leaving temporarily in 2013 when she gave birth to her first child. But she wasn’t quite finished with the Atlanta ballet after the birth of her son, and made an unprecedented return after becoming a mother. Now, Winkler is ready to hang up her pointe shoes to retire from the stage.
Winkler’s final performances with the Atlanta Ballet are May 16, 17, and 18 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center where she will dance in a special production, designed as a tribute to her career.
The veteran dancer says she gets choked up thinking about her time with the city’s ballet company.
“It’s been everything to me. It was my dream,” said Winkler. “When I was 10 years old, I saw the nutcracker and I came running home to my mom and said ‘This is what I have to do. And I have to do it.’ And I just put those ballet slippers on and ever since then I never looked back.”
For nearly two decades, she danced five days a week, for more than six hours a day. And while she’s getting emotionally ready for her farewell dance, she also has to get used to the physical change of leaving the stage.
“Sometimes, I think I can’t wait to get up and get out of bed and have nothing hurt,” Winkler said, laughing. “But then, I think I’ll also miss the endorphin high of the exercise. That’s a huge part of why we keep going.”
Outside of practice and rehearsal, Winkler also takes a daily exercise class.
“It goes on for an hour and a half. And it starts at 9:30 in the morning and we take it every day, your personal chance to work on your technique outside of the choreography.”
She’s used to the rigorous exercise and activity, but a childhood skiing accident almost cost Winkler her ballet career.
“It was a scary moment,” said Winkler. “When you’ve fourteen, you’re just doing different things. Playing soccer, skiing, taking ballet and cheerleading. I was skiing with my brother and we were going down the hill and we collided into each other and tore my ACL. But luckily it was an injury that at the time was fixable.”
The California native studied ballet at the San Francisco Ballet School, and then went on to join Ballet West, a company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, Winkler met her future husband John Welker during a production of Cinderella. In 1995, she and her husband-to- be moved east to join the Atlanta Ballet under the company’s new artistic director, John McFall.
Winkler says the company has evolved under McFall’s direction, getting more talented every year.
“John has just been an innovator, bringing new works to Atlanta and collaborating with different people here in the community as well,” said Winkler. “He understands dancers and he understands the chemistry dancers need in order for it to work in the studio. And I think he’s always chosen really well. And I think he’s chosen choreographers really well.”
Last year, another experience came close to changing the course of Winkler’s ballet career- she gave birth to her son, Lucas. Winkler, who was then 39, admits she got some puzzled looks when her son was born so late in her career.
“I got the look with the eyebrows like ‘why have you waited so long?’ ” she told GPB-TV’s On The Story.
But some people found the decision Winkler made next even more surprising. After she gave birth, she returned to the stage, a feat few ballerinas have accomplished.
“There’s so much change that goes on physically with the body,” said Winkler. “And it takes time for the body to heal and regain the strength that it had before. It was an uphill battle and luckily, I persevered.”
Winkler’s says her decision to return to the stage was hard, but it was the right choice.
“I knew I wasn’t finished dancing and I just felt I had more to give. The decision was very hard. But, obviously it was the right decision for me.”
Since her first year in 1995, Winkler has danced a lead role in almost every Atlanta Ballet production, from Odette in “Swan Lake to Mina in Michael Pink’s “Dracula.”
But she says the company’s lack of a “star system” enables the troupe to feel more like a family rather than dancers competing for roles in productions.
“There isn’t the hierarchy. There isn’t a rank,” said Winkler. So there aren’t feelings like ‘I’m better than somebody else.’ We’re all working towards the same goal. And I think that’s important.”
For her final performance, Winkler will dance in a world premiere production by resident Atlanta Ballet choreographer Helen Pickett called “The Exiled.” She will also perform a special duet by choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning called “Berceuse,” a production she will dance with her husband.