Cooper Verona and Julia Erickson in William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated." Photo by Rich Sofranko, courtesy PBT.
As I prepare to take my final, "official" bow as principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre this weekend and look back on my 20-year career, my inner monologue is neither short on concepts nor on words elucidating them. Though I still plan to dance and am giddily excited for new adventures, I nevertheless feel the weighty finality of it all.
Surprisingly, I also feel effervescently light. Perhaps because, right now, it's about my love for the art form as opposed to maximizing my efforts toward success in it. It truly does feel like a metamorphosis—an exhilarating shift that makes me realize how much I love dance, how important change is and how much we can all learn from one another.
San Francisco Ballet is bringing six works from their Unbound: A Festival of New Works to The Kennedy Center this week. Here, dancers are pictured in Christopher Wheeldon's Bound To. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy The Kennedy Center.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in rehearsal. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.
Ballet dancers train their entire lives to hone one skill. And that skill doesn't require them to use their voices onstage. But Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite requires a different kind of dancer; a triple threat who can also sing and act. This spring, the dancers at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre were pushed in a whole new direction while working on the company's program in honor of Robbins' centennial, opening this week.
Robbins is known for his iconic choreography for both ballet and Broadway; West Side Story Suite is the perfect intersection of those two worlds. He choreographed West Side Story, the timeless modern-day retelling of Romeo and Juliet, for Broadway in 1956. In 1961 he followed that up with choreography for the film, showing audiences worldwide that sometimes dance is the coolest way to work through a conflict. In 1995, Robbins condensed the main song and dance numbers from the show into West Side Story Suite, a 36-minute work for New York City Ballet.
PBT produced a series of fun videos interviewing dancers and coaches on what it's been like to learn to sing and act (while dancing). As principal Julia Erickson puts it, "I have had a lot of experience singing... in the car and in the shower."
Julia Erickson in William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated." Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Julia Erickson grew up training at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Once she'd spent some time in the professional division, she started feeling like a member of the company. She performed with PNB extensively, even touring with them to London, Scotland, Alaska and Hong Kong. So when contracts were offered her final year, she was disheartened not to receive one, especially because she had given up other opportunities to stay there. "It was hard not to take it personally," says Erickson, now a longtime principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Rejection does tend to feel deeply personal, especially as you start auditioning for companies. But don't let disappointments take the wind out of your sails. In truth, the audition process is the first of many challenges, such as casting and contract renewals, that you will face as a professional dancer. But by looking at the big picture, making a strategic plan and trusting the process, you can learn to take rejections less personally and keep moving forward.
Julia Erickson is leaping into her next chapter this fall. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Elton John, Neil Diamond and the band Rush—2018 just got underway and it already feels like the year of the beloved star retiring. Joining that list today is one of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's longest tenured principal dancers, Julia Erickson. The 38-year-old Seattle native trained at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and spent two years with Texas Ballet Theater before joining PBT in 2001. Starting in 2010, she was the co-owner of Barre, a line of nutrition bars for dancers, until the company's hiatus in 2015. She was also the 2014 recipient of the BRAZZY Award for outstanding female dancer, chosen by Pittsburgh's dance writers. The audience and critics' favorite will close out her 17-year career with PBT in October. Pointe spoke with Erickson about her career and what's next.
Orr coaching principal Julia Erickson during a rehearsal for La Bayadère. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.
“I was tricked into it," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn't a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he'd been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.
These days it's hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation's top regional ballet companies and training schools.
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Nikiya's epic “death" solo at the end of La Bayadère's second act is more than a test of stamina: It's integral to the ballet's plot. In it, Nikiya laments her doomed relationship with Prince Solor, rejoices upon receiving a basket of flowers she believes to be from him and collapses after being bitten by a snake hidden in the basket. “There's a lot of storytelling in the steps," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson, who danced the role this spring. Here are her tips for navigating the variation's technical and emotional complexities.
1. Let the Character Drive the Choreography
One of the most difficult aspects of the variation is making the spare choreography fill the music. If you're having trouble slowing down, focus on what Nikiya is feeling as much as what she's doing. “Her love has betrayed her—and she's mourning," Erickson says. “When you grieve, it's like you're suspended in time, and that's exactly how the variation should feel."
Julia Erickson as Myrtha in Giselle. Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT.
Not only is Julia Erickson a principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, but she's also the co-founder of Barre: A Real Food Bar--a company that makes healthy energy bars. It's safe to say she knows a thing or two about finding balance in a busy life.
In a blog for the Huffington Post, Erickson lays down five ways that thinking like a ballerina can help you find balance in your own life. Luckily for us dancers, we already know how to utilize the tools she describes. But it's nice to know that the skills we developed as ballet students will serve us both inside the studio and out.