Why I Dance: Joseph Walsh
Walsh improvising at home. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo, Courtesy Walsh.
Musical, charismatic, handsome—Joseph Walsh stood out at Houston Ballet even before he began dancing leads. Born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Walsh, 25, studied at Walnut Hill School for the Arts before moving to HB’s Ben Stevenson Academy. He joined the main company in 2007 and became a principal in 2012. Walsh will join San Francisco Ballet as a soloist this fall.
When I think about why I dance, it suddenly feels like it has been a long time since I started. I was 3 when I performed in my first Nutcracker, playing the exceedingly important role of Elf #6. After ballet class, I would go home and create my own version of the ballet, playing all the roles, but focusing mostly on my favorite, the caped Dr. Drosselmeyer. Later, I shifted my focus to creating classics like Titanic, and Grease: The Ballet, which went over well with audiences and critics alike (my parents). Even now, after a long day of work, I come home, put on music and just improvise around the house. I find solace knowing that whatever I create is mine alone. This impromptu storytelling is what drew me to dance, and has kept me believing in the art form.
The driving force behind my dancing is creating triumphant storytelling onstage. In challenging roles, like Romeo or des Grieux in Manon, I’ll spend an entire hour of rehearsal honing the final seconds of the ballet, giving in to real emotion and vulnerability, creating tears for everyone to see. Contemporary and neoclassical roles, however, have taught me even more about acting and physical characterization. One of the first times this happened was performing in Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. To this day it’s one of the hardest ballets I have danced. The only way I could get through was to pretend I was one of those birds of paradise I had seen on the TV show “Planet Earth,” challenging another male to a fancy and beautiful mating dance. Recently I was reminded of this feeling when Aszure Barton created a new work, Angular Momentum, on Houston Ballet. The minute detail she asks of all 30 dancers in the piece was unlike anything I have performed. She’d start with a simple phrase, and then add layer upon layer. Before long I was frantically scribbling down phrases, mumbling and twitching to remember what step came next.
Having now performed professionally for seven years, dance has become ingrained in my life, so much so it feels odd to step back and ask myself why I dance. Often I feel daunted performing roles that have been done countless times over the years, but then I realize every night the audience is different and there is yet another opportunity to tell a story. I perform for them. When I am out there I realize those endless hours of rehearsal give me spontaneity and freedom in my storytelling. Real freedom—that is the essence of why I dance.