Interview: Joanna Berman and Julia Adam on QuintEssence


Dancing on the same page

June 22, 2018—Next month Julia Adam Dance presents the fifth in a series of annual dance performances and dinners held outdoors. For this year's piece, called QuintEssence, retired San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Joanna Berman is coming out of retirement to perform the choreography of her close friend Julia Adam. Julia and Joanna graciously consented to talk about QuintEssence with Tell me about QuintEssence? What is QuintEssence?

Julia: It's about love. The many aspects of love. It's a play on the word quintessential. It's a sort of metaphor. So, it's different stories of love. Each movement sort of plays on that. Some heartbreak. Some loss. Hopefully, some joy. (Julia and Joanna laugh)

BD: Joanna, you last performed publicly for ODC in 2007. Why have you decided to dance now?

Joanna: First of all, Julia asked. I love her choreography and trust that she would represent me appropriately. And I like the community feeling (of the outdoor setting) where I can see the audience instead of on a stage in a darkened theatre. I really like that. I'm only interested in that at the moment.

BD: So, is QuintEssence modern dance? Is it ballet?

Julia: I know. People always ask me that. Everyone that I work with are classically trained dancers. Right? So, define ballet. What is ballet? I would consider it a ballet. But, that's a whole other conversation, isn't it? How do we define what I do? I work with classically trained ballet dancers, and I try to make a language that's my own. Right? Because of the form, the dancers have to be classically trained, so they are ballet dancers. But is what they're doing considered contemporary because they're not on pointe. I don't know how I can answer that. I can never answer that question.

Joanna: It's Julia Adam dance.

Julia: (laughs)

Joanna: But I would say that classical ballet training is essential to her work because it's really precise, and controlled, and...

Julia: At least the point of departure is the precision and the control. I don't defy gravity. Like often in ballet you're defying gravity the whole time. And so I allow...You know there's fore-work, and you flex.

Joanna: And we're not on pointe, so we're not trying to be "other worldly." (smiling and raising her arms as in Fifth position) It's a little more human. It FEELS human.

Julia: Usually they're on pointe, but there are some conditions about where we're dancing, but it translates better, it's an easier, less difficult transition. Because you're on wood. My stage is wood.

BD: There's no marley?

Julia: No, we've tried the marley thing and uh...You know, in Inverness (California) I used marley, but in Bolinas, my first tech rehearsal, just as the sun was setting, the dew point, the moisture in the air, it was like the Ice Capades. It was unbelievable! So Lisa Pinkham, who's my lighting designer, she's worked for San Francisco Ballet and now Houston Ballet, she called up San Francisco Ballet to ask what they do in Spoleto, in Italy, because you're on the coast there, and they, she told me the story where San Francisco Ballet came in, and they laid the marley up (on the wooden stage), and the Italians...

Joanna: Oh.

Julia: The Italians are saying, "No!" And they're saying, "Get out of our way! We're doing this." And then the dancers went out and (smacks her hands together). The wood absorbs the moisture, and that's why they didn't want the marley.

BD: There's a method to their madness.

Julia: That's right. Sometimes form follows function. Normally I choreograph on pointe. I love to. But not this time.

BD: I couldn't find what music you're using in QuintEssence.

Julia: Because it's in process. We weave together more than one composition, taken from all over the map. And it's Astor Piazzola to Astrid Gilberto that lends a sort of Latin feeling to the piece. Part of it is love, Latin, and also the food is getting a little bit of a feeling of tapas this year. A kind of a Spanish flavor.

BD: If the music is still in process, hasn't come together yet, how do you rehearse to that?

Julia: It has come together.

Joanna: For the dancers it's come together. Whenever she comes in, she's ready...

Julia: Particularly, I know the order. Does that make sense?

Joanna: For those of us learning what is coming from her, it's clear. Like, she's got the music. Yeah.

Julia: And it's very related to the music. I'm so, almost to a fault, where the blueprint of a composition really connects the dancers. Completely connected.

BD: Speaking of the dancers. The description of QuintEssence says you have a "crew of elite dancers." I know of one. (gesturing toward Joanna, who smiles). Can you tell me who the others are?

Julia: Yes, I can. We have Carli Wheaton and Gabriel Smith of Ballet Met. Beautiful, beautiful dancers. I have deep connections to these people because I've travelled, you know, choreographing, and some of them I've met because they did my choreography when they were students. Then I have Cecily Khuner from Ballet Memphis, and Travis Bradley who also dances with Ballet Memphis, freelance, because I spent a lot of time in Memphis. I did over ten works for them, so I have a very close connection to a lot of their dancers. We have Derek Dunn from Boston Ballet, and Keaton Leier from Atlanta Ballet. And I have two young dancers from San Francisco Ballet School. And Oliver Halkowich; he's from Houston Ballet.

Joanna: I think that's it.

Julia: They're from all over the country, really. I've known Oliver since he was fifteen. And Carli Wheaton was from this school, trained at Marin Ballet. She was my first Sugar Plum Fairy for my Nutcracker. So Keaton Leier is at Atlanta Ballet with Gennadi Nedvigin, and Mikko Nissinen has Derek Dunn. Mikko goes way back to San Francisco Ballet.

BD: I read somewhere that Joanna loves working with Julia Adam.

Joanna: I still feel that way.

Julia: You can quote her. She was in the very first piece I ever choreographed. In 1993. In a workshop.

BD: Julia, your choreography has been described as "cartoon-like" and "quirky". And you did The Medium is the Message, which is centered around a television set.

Joanna: That was the one we did with Anthony Randozzo. Just the three of us. It was so great. It was in a workshop situation at San Francisco Ballet. The first piece I choreographed...The only piece I danced in my own work. I didn't like that. I felt like I was painting myself. (gestures like painting her arms). I didn't enjoy that. I like to stand here and create, not on myself. But, yeah. It was the first piece I did, but it was nominated for an Isadora Duncan Award. And what was weird about it, I hadn't really done much of it. I'd been dancing, and then I tried it, and, it's the first time I felt that the world was quiet. It's not busy when I'm choreographing. There's just this flow that...(trails off)

BD: Transcendent.

Joanna: Yeah.

Julia: And also once I've created a piece I sit back and I don't even know how I did it. Weird. Like you build something, and then it's like gone.

Joanna: I wish I knew that feeling.

Julia: (laughing)

Joanna: I'm not a choreographer.

Julia: You're a dancer.

Joanna: I'm a dancer. And in my years of retirement I've become a ballet mistress type, a regisseur type, where...

Julia: Yes.

Joanna: Where I feel very comfortable, taking a work and teaching it to a group.

BD: Bringing it to life.

Joanna: Uh huh.

Julia: And what's so wonderful, having her in the room, not only because she's amazing and delightful to work with, but also sometimes I'm working with another dancer and she can work and help me communicate better what I'm trying to get them to do, because she has, like, another eye.

Joanna: So my favorite, my favorite thing to do, as a dancer, my favorite thing to do was, what does this choreographer want and I want to give them that. As a ballet mistress, it feels like the same thing.

Julia: Yeah.

Joanna: The vision is always the choreographer's. So if they're not there, which they're not when I go set a piece, it's to make sure that it's what they are after. So, that's what I like, that creating. (to Julia) I'm so amazed by the work that you do.

BD: I can't even imagine that.

Joanna: Me neither.

Julia: It takes all kinds. I mean, we need people like her, we need people like me, you know, to take care of the business.

Joanna: Right. Yes.

BD: I read that after performing your Butterfly's Day Out, Ricardo Bustamante came up to you and grabbed your head and said, "What's in there?"

Joanna: Ohhh!

Julia: You know, it's very interesting. So Ricardo said that to me. Helgi has said that to me. Peter Martin, actually, after Helgi had a piece of mine performed at City Center in New York, and I saw Peter in the lobby after and he grabbed my head...

Joanna: (gasps!)

Julia: He did. He's like, "What's going on in there?"

Joanna: How funny.

BD: So, Julia, what IS going on in there?

Julia and Joanna: Yeah! (laughing)

Julia: I don't know! I think I'm a storyteller. You know. I don't know what's going on. (laughing)

Joanna: (laughing)

Julia: Something! For sure.

BD: The two of you have worked together a lot. I suppose you find that you're on the same wavelength, so to speak?

Joanna: Well, she's one of my best friends in the whole world, which helps. But that's just a part of it. I love and trust her. For me, this feels very different than when I used to dance. It's a very different process. I'm struggling with certain things, you know, just because I'm older and I haven't done it in so long.

BD: You don't take daily ballet classes anymore.

Joanna: I don't take daily ballet classes, but I do teach daily and demonstrate as much as I can. But, to get back to your point, I think we're absolutely on the same wavelength. The reason I said that was just that I think I was able to more immediately produce what she was after when I was dancing full time years ago. Like I would go, "Oh!" and I could do it.

Julia: Uh huh.

Joanna: And now it has nothing to do with her, it's just a different phase in my life where I'm not as quick. But on the same page? Absolutely!

Julia: Yeah.

Joanna: Now I feel like I get it here (gestures to her head), but this (heart) is a lot slower. And then this (knee) is slower. There are these three points, like first you just kind of get it and feel completely confident with it. Then your brain has to remember it so that your body can do it, but those two processes are slower.

Julia: That's just practice.

Joanna: It could be.

Julia: A lot of those dancers dance all year round.

Joanna: And I'm watching the other dancers who are all a lot younger, and I remember, "That was me!" They review it once and say, "Go on. I got it." And I'm amazed like, "You got it? I don't got it!"

Julia: (laughing)

Joanna: But I know I was them at one point. That's just an interesting aside. But we're absolutely on the same wavelength. Whenever I see her stuff, I always say to her: I laughed, I cried. It just touches me, you know. Her work touches me, really deeply. And it's profoundly musical, so that is really important to me as well. So if she has this concept she feels, that might be first, then what comes out is in response to the music. She knows the concept, it's in her, and then the music goes on and it's completely inspired by the music.

Julia: Always. And not everybody's that way. But we have the same values. We shared rolls, too, as dancers, and it was always a relief that I would be sharing with Joanna because we held the same ideas of what were the priorities. So when sharing roles with someone where the music wasn't so important or the details of what the choreographer wanted, it would be frustrating to share.

Joanna: Uh huh.

Julia: We're definitely cut from the same cloth. Absolutely.

BD: Julia, you are working on the choreography for Diablo Ballet's 25th anniversary performance?

Julia: Going to. I haven't done it yet. I have to work with the Contra Costa Wind Symphony, figuring out what works for them. I've had some ideas.

BD: Joanna, do you see yourself dancing Julia's piece with Diablo Ballet next season?

Joanna: No. I see myself as Julia's ballet mistress.

Julia: Oh my gosh. That'd be great, too. She's so beautiful. She's like liquid mercury, is how I would describe her. It's so fun for me to work with her again because the thing that I've loved, she's like this sort of fluid metal.

Joanna: Thank you!

Julia: Which is very appropriate for QuintEssence.

Julia Adam Dance performs QuintEssence at Big Mesa Farmstead in West Marin from July 6 - 15. For details see

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