Starting dance at 6 in South Korea, SoJung Lee realized her dream of achieving leading roles by joining Atlanta Ballet. Credit: Atlanta Ballet

In a light-filled room on the westside of Atlanta, Anderson Souza is a long way from home.

Holding a cutout of a broken car piece, he steps and spins across the expansive studio — one of 14 men bringing to life a fatal car accident in rehearsals for the Atlanta Ballet’s 2024 production of “Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon.”

Mr. Souza is a Brazilian expat, but he is in good company: Other dancers hail from Brazil, as well as Spain, South Korea, Cuba, Mongolia, Poland, Japan, Brazil, Ukraine, the Philippines and more. In all, roughly half of the Atlanta Ballet’s 38-person roster comes from abroad.

This is the inherently international world of ballet, which originated in the Renaissance courts of Italy and was refined in France and Russia, and which still draws its music and storylines from various countries. And with many dancers vying for a few coveted spots with professional companies, they go where they find work, which often means moving abroad.

New York provided Mr. Souza’s first job outside of Brazil, sending him into a bit of culture shock. While it’s still a big city, Atlanta has a more relaxed pace, he said.

“I can actually breathe when I walk down the street,” he said.

And while Atlanta’s charm might be a draw for some people, the talent pool for ballet in general is limited. Very few aspiring dancers become professionals, said Gennadi Nedvigin, the Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director. He receives about a thousand applications a year, in addition to roughly 100 dancers attending an annual open audition. Of all, only a few are selected.

“Talent is hard to find, and we’re all looking for the best talent out there,” Mr. Nedvigin said, adding that it’s hard to compete with cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco. “That’s always been our dilemma. How do we attract dancers to come to Atlanta?”

Gennadi Nedvigin has helped internationalize the company as creative director. Credit: Atlanta Ballet

Beyond open auditions, the Atlanta Ballet also travels to other countries and competitions to meet recruits in person, while nurturing homegrown talent. Key initiatives include its Centre for Dance Education, one of the largest dance schools in the country, and its performance arm, Atlanta Ballet 2, which is a pathway to becoming a professional dancer. Dancers in the final stages of training are invited to join Atlanta Ballet 2 and have the opportunity to rehearse and perform onstage with the company. Since this training program was established in the 2017-18 season, 15 dancers have risen through the ranks to join the company.

From Mr. Nedvigin’s perspective, it helps to share Atlanta’s best attribute with prospects: a diverse city that attracts transplants from around the world.

It’s what eventually drew SoJung Lee, who began dancing at the age of 6 in her mother’s dance studio in South Korea. But it wasn’t until she began winning international competitions that she realized she could pursue a career as a dancer. 

“I was so surprised because I didn’t expect to be an international dancer. I was just enjoying the ballet,” Ms. Lee said. 

She secured a place with the Boston Ballet, often ranked as one of the best companies in the world, but found herself isolated from her friends and family. And the starring roles she wanted eluded her.

“I cried every night,” Ms. Lee said. “I wanted to go home.”

SoJung Lee rehearses for Atlanta Ballet’s “Coco Chanel” at its Midtown studio. Credit: Atlanta Ballet

After spending a few months with BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, she was sent back to South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, she contacted the Atlanta Ballet repeatedly, sending videos every time she performed.

Her persistence not only landed her a spot on the company’s roster, but her first major role as Marie in “The Nutcracker.”

“That’s why I’m here now; I didn’t give up when I was having a hard time,” she said. “I am so happy now.”

The international makeup of the company, under Nedvigin’s direction, has made the Atlanta Ballet stronger, said Yelena Epova, a board member for the past five years.

“When I saw the Atlanta Ballet many years ago, I wasn’t planning to come back,” said Ms. Epova, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city with a reputation for ballet. But after Mr. Nedvigin took the reins in Atlanta, she “saw a tremendous transformation” and joined the board to spread the word that ballet here is worth seeing. 

She says when she hosts visitors, they often ask for tickets to sporting events, but not the ballet.

“It’s important for me that Atlanta doesn’t have just sports and festivals but ballet and symphony,” said Ms. Epova, whose day job is international tax lead and managing partner at the Atlanta office for Aprio. “Atlanta is not viewed as a cultural city from that angle. For me, I would love for Atlanta to be more well known.”

Anderson Souza, right, at Atlanta Ballet’s 2023 dress rehearsal of “La Sylphide” performed at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. Credit: Atlanta Ballet

For Mr. Souza, growing up in the rural town of Santo Angelo, Brazil, dancing wasn’t considered a profession, but he was determined to make it. At 15, he moved to Rio de Janeiro alone to pursue his passion, staying with a host family until he reached adulthood. 

He then signed on with a Brazilian company and toured the world. But he knew he would have to leave Brazil for good to turn professional. After moving to New York City to train and perform with the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, he landed his first professional job as a dancer with the Atlanta Ballet.

“It changed everything for me when I came here,” Mr. Souza said. 

He finds that his expat colleagues bring a “rich diversity” to the company. He credits Mr. Nedvigin for hand picking the dancers for each position.

And Mr. Nedvigin says the diverse makeup of the ballet contributes overall to Atlanta’s culture because as expats interact within the community, they are bringing something unique to the city.

“You carry your culture with you,” he said.

It also makes for a more interesting workplace, Mr. Souza says, explaining that Brazilians are outspoken and hands on, whereas his Japanese colleagues are “very different, very respectful.”

“I find that fascinating because it’s a completely different way of seeing the world, of interacting with each other,” Mr. Souza said.

Souza is now in his eighth season with the Atlanta Ballet, and he has choreographed two productions – “Touchline” in 2021 and “Inherited” in 2022.

“I think I came to Atlanta thinking I was not going to stay,” Mr. Souza said. “Now, I’m married, I created my own little family and have so many friends, even outside the ballet. I guess Atlanta changed my heart a little bit.”

I guess Atlanta changed my heart a little bit.”

Anderson souza

Nicole Gustin enjoys writing about food, art, travel and culture. A former newspaper reporter, her work has appeared in HiP Paris, Shopping Center Business, multiple sites and more. An...