5 Questions with Julianna Slager on Ballet 5:8’s “The Space in Between”
Creating a masterpiece can take a lifetime. There is a certain process in crafting each detail that cannot be rushed, but in a world of limited time and tight funding, modern day artists have been forced to find creative ways to make the best of their resources. This is especially true in the world of dance, where choreographers are tasked not only with making movement to communicate their stories and ideas, but must also make considerations for the perfect musical score, costuming, and lighting and stage design. So how do dance makers begin to approach the task of bringing all of these elements to life on stage? Consider the masterpieces that Artistic Director Julianna Slager has created for her company, Ballet 5:8. Since the company’s founding in 2012, Julianna has worked to nurture her creative process to produce a number of works that had the dancers touring nationally just two years later. This is no small achievement for any body of performing artists – many spend five years or more in their home cities before the possibility of presenting work across the country is even on the table. It speaks volumes to the quality, originality, and artistic and technical prowess both choreographer and dancers bring into the theater.
To learn more about the process of creating a fresh, new ballet, DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera talked to Julianna about her latest work, “The Space in Between” (also the namesake for the program the company will be touring this season, which includes “Four Seasons of the Soul”). We got an exclusive look behind the scenes of each of the works as well as some invaluable insights to what it takes to bring a ballet to life. Here’s what Julianna told us:
My thoughts have to wander and dream and stray in order to start creating a world for the dancers to inhabit in the choreography.
Kristi: No matter how experienced an artist is, creating the next big work is no easy task. This is especially true when it comes to choreography, and more challenging yet when you consider the additional components needed to bring the work to the stage. Can you give us some insight into the process of creating a new ballet? How and when does the process begin, and what does it take to deliver the finished product?
Julianna: Creating work is always a thrilling and daunting experience! For me, the process begins with inspiration on what story or idea I would like to bring to the stage. After that initial inspiration strikes, it’s all about putting in the work! For The Space in Between I read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and then read plot synopsis by others who had read the book. Having firsthand contact with the material and then hearing other people’s take on it gave me the ground work to form my own point of view. In historical ballets you have what’s called the libretto or the story line of the ballet. When I create a narrative work, I have to spend time distilling down the source material into a libretto that I can then physicalize with the choreography.
After that initial starting point, I have to spend a lot of time daydreaming! As silly as that may sound, our minds are the most creative when they are bored. It takes intentional work to shut out the many distractions around me in order to let my mind wander. Manoush Zomorodi did a TedTalk recently on this topic. This is one of the most delicate and important phases in my process. I jokingly call this the phase where “the fish are swimming.” My thoughts have to wander and dream and stray in order to start creating a world for the dancers to inhabit in the choreography. Simultaneously, I listen to hundreds of pieces of music, searching for the right feeling, weight, timbre and dynamic for each movement in the ballet.
The dancers have a huge role in the creation process. Many of them work directly with me to develop their character, to experiment with movement, tableaux, complex partnering and finding just the right gestures to bring the story across.
After that initial creative phase, I start to form the movement aesthetics and first impressions on which dancers will bring each character to life. This phase is really delightful, because it’s when I get to go into the studio and improvise. I videotape myself moving to the music and experimenting with different aesthetics to form a creative language that is unique to the work and that communicates the correct physicality. It takes a strong intuition to be a choreographer because you need to know when your physicality is (or isn’t!) coming across with the intention you want. During this phase I try to set aside an hour a day for about three weeks to really dive into the movement. All of this leads up to the first time I work with the dancers.
Over the last 8 weeks alone we’ve spent about 328 hours working on these ballets. That doesn’t include any of the “pre-choreography” part of the process.
From there, it’s the most rigorous part of the process. For The Space in Between and Four Seasons of the Soul, we worked for 8 weeks straight, anywhere from 3-4 hours of daily rehearsals, in addition to classes and reviewing on our own. The dancers have a huge role in the creation process. Many of them work directly with me to develop their character, to experiment with movement, tableaux, complex partnering and finding just the right gestures to bring the story across. By day we work, experiment, learn, change and relearn. By night we review our daily rehearsal videos, make edits and come back the next day to polish and start the next section. I spend 2-3 hours each night watching rehearsal videos, listening to music, drawing out complex core formations, thinking through partnering sequences, writing out counts and researching aspects of each character. Many of my dancers do these things as well, particularly the ones I’ve worked with for multiple seasons. I lean on them, and they support my vision in the creative process. Our combined work and experience is what enables us to create a work that is far above what one person could create!
In one sense I am responsible for the final product, but I truly feel that it is a team effort to bring these ballets to the stage. Over the last 8 weeks alone we’ve spent about 328 hours working on these ballets. That doesn’t include any of the “pre-choreography” part of the process. It certainly is a fantastic feeling to see everything come together after all of that work!
Kristi: The evening opens with the premiere of “The Space In Between,” a work inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce – a classic allegory of heaven and hell. What was it about this particular piece of literature that made you want to investigate it further and translate it into dance?
Julianna: C.S. Lewis is a master of the imagination. His literature is so vivid, you can almost see it just by reading it. The work is complex and philosophical in nature, so it was actually a huge challenge to translate it into dance. There were times where I was sure that I had made a huge mistake trying to do that! At the end of the day though, I am drawn to how C.S. Lewis so perfectly captures the idea that Heaven is the “most real reality” we will ever experience. The book talks a lot about a shift in weight and atmosphere as you move from Grey Town through the Valley and into Heaven. You can see the transcendent glory of Heaven so clearly through the journey we take. The story shows us how small and insignificant our own desires are when you look at them in the light of eternal glory. Grey Town, The Valley of the Shadow of Life and Heaven are the three worlds you pass through, and creating the dynamic and aesthetic for each world has been a challenge as well as a wonderful time of growth for me as a choreographer.
The movement of Grey Town starts out with a feeling of isolation, even though there are many dancers on the stage. The dancers canon, enter exit, sometimes lingering in a unified movement, but mostly with a feeling of unhappy individualism.
Kristi: When the curtains part on the opening scene of “The Space In Between,” the audience will see an image that references the opening pages of The Great Divorce: a man standing at a bus stop in a grey town with eternal rain. Lewis’s masterful use of words not only creates powerful images in the reader’s mind, but also conjure a certain mood or tone to complete the scene. In what ways do the motifs in movement and choreographic design bring those words to life? Can you take us through the ballet and some of the ways in which the literature influenced the movement and overall design?
Julianna: Creating the look and feel for Grey Town was one of the easier parts of the process, because C.S. Lewis is so vivid in describing it. Grey Town is on the foothills of a tall mountain, a place where it is always twilight and there is eternal rain. There are sections where the music is haunting, empty almost – a feeling of listless wandering as you watch the dancers walk about the stage, each with a black umbrella. Since we’re not able to make it rain onstage, the mood had to be created through the props and other context clues that make your mind “see rain” that isn’t actually there. Lighting design, fog and a deep commitment from the dancers to “see the world” they live in onstage is integral to the movement choices.
Lewis describes Grey Town as dismal, but at the same time the inhabitants are self-consumed. They can have whatever they want, whenever they want, but they are never satisfied. The movement of Grey Town starts out with a feeling of isolation, even though there are many dancers on the stage. The dancers canon, enter exit, sometimes lingering in a unified movement, but mostly with a feeling of unhappy individualism. We marinate in that dismal moment only to be caught off-guard as the music picks up.
The next movement is distorted, ballet movement that’s come unglued from its usual classicism and pose. The lines are broken, the dynamics are punched and thrown, the partnering has the feeling of struggle rather than its typical seamless unity. The dancers flock in and out of group sequences and solo movements, almost as if they are at once both a pack of hyenas and a lone wolf. Chaos, distortion, isolation and narcissism permeate the stage. The dancers finally board the bus, and they are flown away to the Valley of the Shadow of life.
The Valley is a stark contrast to Grey Town. The travelers begin to become translucent. Immediately as the bus touches down we notice that the inhabitants of Grey Town recoil from the ground itself, as if the grass were made of knives, and the sun’s rays hot wax being poured on their bodies. The dancers embody this by literally recoiling from their movement and by striking poses, then pulling out of them on unusual angles. We see ballet vocabulary taken into new contexts, with dynamic and phrasing that suggests a physical pain, and the emotional anxiety of the hostile surroundings. Many different ghosts travel up the mountain, and so we see a huge amount of different characters; it was a fun challenge to create a physicality for each personality! There are so many motifs, but they all incorporate a feeling of heaviness and a stronger gravitational pull than what we see in Grey Town.
I wanted to create a feeling of awe, grandiose, elegance and joy. The dancers weave themselves in and out of complex movement with a seamless unity that is breathtaking to behold.
Heaven is by far the most beautiful world we see in this ballet! Heaven’s movement is ballet movement, but with a singular focus on building tableaux and extending the classical line through multiple bodies. We call one part the “roller coaster” section, where dancers are lifted in and out of tableaux as the core moves across the stage in rapid succession. It has the feeling of walking into a huge castle, and you pan across to see the amazing architecture. I wanted to create a feeling of awe, grandiose, elegance and joy. The dancers weave themselves in and out of complex movement with a seamless unity that is breathtaking to behold.
We see that the seasons are literal, changing each year; metaphorical, changing with us as we age and mature; surreal, even, as we embrace seasons of love and loss, plenty and poverty, joy and sorrow, war and peace.
Kristi: The evening also includes “Four Seasons of the Soul.” This work explores how the cycle of and transition between seasons parallels themes that occur in human life. What parallels did you uncover, and how did you choose to represent these themes?
Julianna: The seasons of the weather and the seasons of life have so many interesting parallels: the newness of spring, the passion of summer, the sweet sorrow of autumn and the deep sleep or death of winter. The costuming was a huge part of representing each season. Lorianne Barclay’s costume design perfectly captures the emotion and vivid color of each season. Green for spring, with a short belle tutu that signifies youth and new beginnings. Yellow for Summer with a hint of red and orange, platter tutus made with lycra and boning create yellow orbs that bounce and shimmer with the wit and warmth of summer. Long romantic tutus with burgundy, orange and brown layers perfectly capture the leaves of Autumn, aiding the dancers in their illusion of transforming into leaves that scatter across the stage. Winter’s icy silvery blue and cold white give immediate context for Vivaldi’s triumphant score and the deft footwork in the final movement.
We see that the seasons are literal, changing each year; metaphorical, changing with us as we age and mature; surreal, even, as we embrace seasons of love and loss, plenty and poverty, joy and sorrow, war and peace. Both the cuts and the colors of the costuming give the audience an immediate context for seeing all three of those truths intermingled.
Each piece has a unique structure, with varying numbers of dancers that weave in and out of each movement. The spatial design in each piece was designed to represent aspects of each season.
Kristi: “The Four Seasons of the Soul” is set to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Many choreographers from ballet and disciplines beyond have taken a stab at interpreting this iconic violin concerto (most notably, Jerome Robbins’ 1979 version for New York City Ballet, in which the dancers represent the seasons honoring the god, Janus). How did you use the movement vocabulary in “Four Seasons of the Soul” to bring new life to this classical score?
Julianna: Four Seasons has indeed been interpreted many times! There are so many wonderful takes on this score. Countless generations have been inspired by Vivaldi’s genius. The movement vocabulary is firmly rooted in classical ballet, with a winsome twist that makes the music come alive. Each piece has a unique structure, with varying numbers of dancers that weave in and out of each movement. The spatial design in each piece was designed to represent aspects of each season. Birds and butterflies for Spring, light and heat for Summer, leaves and trees for Autumn and finally ice and snow for Winter. The geometry and phrasing of each piece is unique from anything I’ve seen created to this music. Robbin’s version is comedic, Crystal Pite’s version is serious and mysterious. Our version is whimsical, passionate and purposed. Ultimately our version leads to triumph in the Winter movement, where the soloist dies and moves toward the beautiful lights of a distant shore. There is a timelessness and a relatability that leaves you feeling both deeply understood and also connected to something larger than yourself.
Ballet 5:8’s “The Space in Between” will tour multiple cities as well as home performances in Chicago:
October 6, 2018: Grand Rapids, MI at Devos Center for Arts and Worship
October 13, 2018: Dayton, OH at Northridge High School
October 20 & 21, 2018: Chicago, IL at the Athenauem Theatre
November 3, 2018: Fort Wayne, IN at First Presbyterian Theater
Full information and ticketing for Ballet 5:8’s 2018-2019 season is available at www.ballet58.org/performance-calendar.