Why I Dance: Jacqueline Burnett

May 31, 2014


Jacqueline Burnett in Forsythe’s
Quintett. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Hubbard Street


In her hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, Jacqueline Burnett grew up skiing, hiking and mountain biking. She trained with Romanian ballet master Marius Zirra and joined Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2009 after one year of apprenticeship, during which she graduated with honors from the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. Acclaimed for her powerful performances, Burnett received an honorarium from the Princess Grace Foundation in 2011.



Dancing gives me the same thrills as being in nature. Both are vast, powerful, self-sustaining and perpetually in flux, laced with surprises, complex systems and delicate intricacies. I dance because it feels natural.

Before I could speak, I performed as a blooming flower in a living-room role assigned by my two older sisters, also dancers. My father accompanied us on the piano, my mother and grandmother cheered us on and my great-grandmother called for pauses in fear we would wear out the carpet. My early ballet teacher, Marius Zirra, encouraged me to bloom, too. I have vivid memories of him saying with a heavy, Romanian accent: “Correct—but not sufficient! Where’s the beef?” And I would watch his seasoned, 80-year-old body suddenly burst with youthful passion, showing me how to electrify my empty gesture with character.

This transformation of self fascinates me, experiencing it as well as observing it. Fortunately or not, my moods shift easily. I can never quite predict how I’ll feel before beginning to dance, but simply committing physically to the moment brings me to a heightened state. Either by embracing or overcoming my moods, I use them to enhance my movement.

Darrell Grand Moultrie, a choreographer with whom I worked at The Ailey School, told me I would have to reinvent myself every season in my professional career. My artistic director at Hubbard Street, Glenn Edgerton, said I should strive to be unrecognizable from one piece to the next. Re-creating oneself is a daunting challenge, but I watch closely and glean inspiration from people and situations in my everyday life.

That includes nature, which I love to get out in and explore. My husband and fellow Hubbard Street dancer David Schultz and I dive into outdoor adventures whenever we can. Hiking and camping take us closer to our families in Idaho and Michigan. The challenge of climbing down a rock wall to reach a tranquil lake keeps us mentally and physically active, refreshing our reserves.

Performing, or even taking a technique class, is like climbing a mountain. I can prepare by training physically, planning my route, checking the weather and being determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But the ground under every step will always be unique, the climate always changing. In order to summit, I must connect to the environment—to the other dancers, to the movement, to the music, to the energy of the house. I’ll be faced with slick floors, bright lights, lingering injuries and fatigue. So will my partners. We must respond quickly to one another with accuracy and adapt to each moment in real time. That is when true beauty is achieved.