Interview: Ballet 5:8 Artistic Director Julianna Rubio Slager
"I love ballet, but I don't think ballet has done enough experimentation with narrative form, and
for that reason, it gets this reputation of not being great with narrative." In a recent interview with ITP, Ballet 5:8's Artistic Director, Co-founder, and Resident Choreographer Julianna Rubio Slager offered a candid assessment of the challenges she and the company confronted on their journey to adapt C.S. Lewis's last novel, Till We Have Faces, for the dance stage. On Friday, March 23, at 7:30 pm, at Kennesaw State University Dance Theater (Marietta Campus), Atlanta will have an opportunity to see the result of their work when the Chicago-area company presents the evening-length ballet, BareFace, which is a 2022-23 season world premiere.
First published in 1956, Till We Have Faces is itself an adaptation and Christian allegorization of a much older story, the myth of Cupid and Psyche. When she sat down with ITP, Rubio Slager discussed how she recast the classic story for a modern audience, in part by resetting it in a post-apocalyptic future. "For every ballet that I create, I try to give it a language that makes sense for the world that we're in." In this case, she said, that language comprises a blend of contemporary ballet and physical acting. It also attempts to reflect how dance and even ordinary movement might have evolved between our present and the ballet's future moment, as well as humanity's regression through environmental and socio-political collapse into quasi-feudalism. "The whole premise of the show," said Rubio Slager, is that if we don't learn from history, it's bound to repeat itself."
Rubio Slager developed the choreography for BareFace in collaboration with the dancers using Laban Movement Analysis, and their process began with an exploration of how to embody individual characters as well as their place in a stratified social hierarchy. Classical ballet is replete with feudal relationships and characters, of course, populated by kings and queens, princes and peasants, gods and monsters. The audience should not expect familiar classical conventions from BareFace, however. Forget technical pageantry without much narrative value interspersed with sometimes stilted pantomime sequences. Instead, Rubio Slager said, BareFace offers a "visceral" dance style that "grows out of what the body naturally does to communicate," interwoven with what she and the company think of as "high value dance moments" expressing characters' inner emotional states.
Lewis's novel and the Cupid and Psyche myth may be less familiar to a ballet audience than the tragic plots of Swan Lake or Giselle. Rubio Slager said that BareFace should nonetheless be legible, even to patrons with no prior knowledge of the story. Here, too, Rubio Slager said she wanted to innovate away from expected strategies, such as spoken word or long program notes, to convey narrative details. Consequently, BareFace relies on recursive retelling of the central action from a variety of different perspectives. "We actually show everything that happens to the main character in the first five minutes of the show, almost in a mini bullet-point version. Then we go back and show everything about how she gets to where she is."
In addition to repetition of key plot elements, BareFace draws from dramatic and musical theater and to add narrative depth and coherence. Lighting, projected visuals, and a complex modular and movable set all help to provide context, indicating shifts in location, temporality, and character perspective. In the score Rubio Slager combined music from several different composers, using the soundscape to evoke the ballet's three settings--the mines, the court, and the mountain. Rubio Slager also turned to her Mexican American heritage and folklorico, not necessarily for classical technique, but for strategies such as using dancer vocalizations, complex clapping and stomping rhythms, and musical percussion to convey emotion.
According to Rubio Slager, keeping ballet alive as an artform by freeing it from the drag of its sometimes problematic traditions is at the heart of Ballet 5:8's mission: "engag[ing] communities in Chicago, the Midwest and across the nation in conversation of life and faith through innovative storytelling and breathtaking dance." She was captivated by ballet as a young child, enraptured by the movement and music. Over the course of her career, as a woman of color and professional ballerina, she said she saw "the other side of the coin," and grappled with ballet's troubled history of excluding dancers of color and perpetuating racist stereotypes. Still, Rubio Slager's "innate love of what the artform can be is still alive and well," pushing her to "do the work, almost shaking down the form" to separate the raw material of beautiful movement vocabulary from its cultural baggage.
Ballet 5:8's name is a biblical reference to Romans 5:8. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." BareFace references an alternative title C.S. Lewis considered for his novel about redemption and religious conversion and is also the title of a well-known critical companion to the book by Doris T. Myers. Rubio Slager said that faith has played an important role in her own life and is integral to her work as an artist. For those who might have expectations--either positive or negative--about what faith-inspired dance is or should be, she said that her "goal is always to exceed expectations and to offer a performance that is uplifting, beautiful, and thought-provoking, regardless of what you believe."
This will be Ballet 5:8's second visit to Atlanta. Their first took place in 2019, and a planned 2020 engagement was canceled due to the pandemic. Tickets for BareFace can be purchased through the KSU box office online or by calling 470-578-6650. The KSU Dance Theater is located at 1100 South Marietta Pkwy SE, Marietta, Georgia.