Why I Dance: Julia Erickson

November 23, 2009

One of the newest principals at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Julia Erickson thrives on Balanchine ballets. In Serenade, The Four Temperaments, and Theme and Variations you see her beautiful long lines (at 5′ 8″ she’s the tallest female principal in the company) and swift footwork. She is also fully committed to acting roles; as Lady Capulet in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette she thrashes around memorably, convulsing with grief when Tybalt dies. Erickson grew up in Seattle and attended the Pacific Northwest Ballet School on scholarship and later the San Francisco Ballet School. She toured with PNB as a student and danced professionally with Fort Worth Dallas Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater) before joining PBT in 2001. In 2006, while still a soloist, she was chosen to dance Odette/Odile, which she considers her turning point. She looks forward to dancing in Paul Taylor’s Company B and Tharp’s In the Upper Room in PBT’s February season.

Sitting on a bus winding up a hilly mountain road in Ecuador, I listened to several new friends describe their graduate school dissertation topics to me: the oppression of cultural imperialism, a plan to advance healthcare in third-world countries, environmental activism. As we jostled past farmers struggling for subsistence in the harsh terrain, I took my turn describing my daily routine—what it is I actually do as a professional ballet dancer. As I detailed the goings on within the studio—the class, rehearsal, and the constant X-Acto-knifing, duct-taping, and sewing of pointe shoes—I couldn’t help but be struck by how superfluous my career sounded in a broader context. Had I unwittingly described a bunch of self-important people obsessing about the intricacies of a port de bras within the confines of a mirror-lined box all day long? I wondered if devoting my life to such an esoteric craft neglected my responsibility as a world citizen when so many problems in our world demand immediate attention.

Startled, I grappled for an explanation for my seemingly superficial pursuit. But I realized that in describing my daily grind, I had obscured the real reason why I dance. I enjoy the day-to-day striving for technical excellence, exploring the physical possibilities of the body, cultivating a character from seed to complex being, and the surprising camaraderie existing within a highly competitive environment. But that is not why I dance. I dance because each time I walk out onstage I have an opportunity to give the best gift I possibly can, at that moment, to the audience. All the laboring in the studio, however cloistered the environment, isn’t meaningless. Instead it underscores my desire to maximize that gift.

Onstage I can finally play. I am exposed, and it is at this precious moment when I challenge myself, dare myself, to be as authentic as possible, despite the pretense of character or costume. I feel supported by the big, dark mass of energy in the house pressing up toward me onstage, blowing wind into my sails. The gift comes in the form of a shared experience. I love sensing that moment when, by giving myself over to the audience, we begin to engage in a mutual communication. This interaction has the potential to transcend preconceptions, cultural boundaries, and prejudice. This is when the great whole of dance emerges from the sum of its more mundane parts. I love how much I learn onstage—about myself and about life. Stage serves as a microcosm, a protean petri dish within which to explore the complex themes of human life, whether they be the literal portrayal of love, anger, or fear, or a subtler exploration imbued with intrigue, brightness, or hope.

Historically ballet descends from a world of aristocratic privilege. And I am wildly privileged to have been born into a culture affording me the chance to dance professionally. But the practice of a privileged art does not imply a lack of virtue or humanity. Rather, even with the pressing problems in today’s world, to deny art’s place is to deny humanity. In fact, the very driving forces behind dance—to strive for excellence, to entertain, to tell a story, to express oneself through the creation and sharing of art—are the very attributes that make us human. So it is my responsibility, my obligation, and my pleasure, as an artist and an agent of positive change in the quality of people’s lives, to exercise that privilege, and do what I love—using dance to make our ever-smaller world both more compassionate and more human.

Erickson as Lady Capulet in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s
Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Nicholas Coppula, Courtesy PBT.