“I grew up in a rural area of South Central Pennsylvania. The arts aren’t a big thing there but my parents are actually both in the arts. My father plays the oboe in the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania.” For Julia Rowe, soloist with San Francisco Ballet, it’s all about the music.
“When I was about 4 or 5 my parents took me to see my father play in the symphony, and they had some ballet dancers up on the stage performing with the symphony. I remember looking at the dancers and being captivated by seeing the music transformed into dance.”
Rowe began dancing aged seven, “anywhere except in the kitchen,” that is.
“I was fortunate that there’s a school about an hour away from where I grew up with very good ballet training. Because my parents were in the arts they knew about Marcia Dale Weary the director of the school, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, so they enrolled me. I don’t think they expected it to stick.”
It did. By the time Rowe was 10 years old, she was spending 25 hours or more a week in the studio. “Pretty early on I decided that this was the career path I wanted. There was never a doubt in my mind that this was what I wanted to do.”
The connection to San Francisco Ballet was already forming, with several CPYB alumni going on to illustrious careers with the company. “Vanessa Zahorian was a legend there,” she notes, as was Tina LeBlanc: “the most clean, beautiful, interesting dancer. I kinda wanted to follow in their footsteps.”
Rowe trained at CPYB until she was 17, and having done San Francisco Ballet School’s summer intensive in her teens, she moved across the country to dance full-time at SFB School. Once her year was up, however, no contract with the company was forthcoming.
Instead, Rowe joined Oregon Ballet Theatre, in Portland, Oregon where she danced for the next five years, two in the corps and three as a soloist. “When I moved to Portland, it was a smaller company and the more experienced dancers really took it upon themselves to guide the younger dancers. I learned so much from the principal dancers at OBT, who by example showed me and the other younger dancers what being a ballerina meant, and how to do it right.
“It was great to start my professional career in that environment.”
Following a change in director at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Rowe considered her options. It was a transitional moment for the company, and for her too, she thought. “I had always thought about trying to go back to San Francisco because I loved the company, and it had always been in the back of my mind that this would be my dream job.
“I came and I did class, and met everyone and Helgi [Tomasson, Artistic Director] offered me a contract. Honestly, I wasn’t quite expecting it. I had hoped, but I was happy at Oregon Ballet, and I’d had great opportunities. But to dance with San Francisco Ballet—even going from a soloist to the corps, here, there was so much to learn, and everyone here is so good, with such artistry.
“It’s been a dream come true. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”
Her foundation of a mix of Balanchine and Vaganova held her in good stead for SFB’s diverse repertoire. “Marcia developed a fundamental style to technique that emphasises strength and clean positions so it gave me the foundation.” Stylistically, she notes her petite frame lends itself to dynamic, quick dancing. “At first I gravitated towards Balanchine, an American way of moving because I’m small and I like to move fast and dynamically, and I love the way that Balanchine played with music and that interested me.
“But now that I’m at SFB, and I see so many people who have been trained in different styles I can really appreciate what everybody brings.
“That’s the great thing about SFB, everybody is such a sponge.”
And there was no looking back, stepping up to the rank of soloist in 2016. “To get promoted here was huge for me. The opportunities that the dancers here have are incredible in terms of the studios, the people we get to work with, the amount that we perform; it’s great.”
Having just danced her first season as as soloist, Rowe says, the differences are measurable. “I knew there would be some changes, but my job description has changed. Instead of spending six or seven hours a day rehearsing corps parts, I have less rehearsals but the rehearsals I do have will be very intense. Less stage time, but when I am on stage it has to be on.
“I’m still adjusting to working this way, and its’ a lot of time spent alone figuring out what looks good on me, or how I want to dance this part, bringing my own artistry to a part, but it’s really exciting to be challenged in this way. I’m looking forward to figuring this puzzle out.
She danced a main role in William Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts 2016,” a ballet re-choreographed for SFB having premiered with Paris Opera Ballet in 1999. “Working with Bill Forsythe was a really big turning point in my dancing just because the way he explains movement really clicked with me.”
Adding, “And the way he appreciates dancers, and he is a total movement geek. He will sit in the studio and talk about movement and dancing and ballet for hours and hours. And I could listen to him talk all day.”
Other highlights were dancing Grand Pas de Deux in “Nutcracker” with now principal dancer Angelo Greco, who is “a total firecracker. It was definitely a cool experience getting to work on that and learning how it feels to be the ballerina.”
And diving into a new ballet by Myles Thatcher: “I love new works. I find that I learn so much from working with a choreographer on an original piece.”
In a recent review of “Swan Lake,” Rowe was singled out by critic Rachel Howard for her rare and exquisite musicality. On music, Rowe is definitive: “That’s always where I start. I think it might be because my parents are musicians or maybe just because I love music, but it’s hard for me to draw meaning without a connection to the music.
“I feel even if you’re not dancing on the counts specifically, even if its more of a feeling, dance as a physical expression of the music is important to me; it’s kind of how I see my job. To become the physical, visual expression of what I’m hearing.”
While shooting in the studio, photographer Karolina Kuras cranks up the volume on A Tribe Called Quest. Rowe responds with sailing rendé verses, and improvises a solo. From classical to hip hop, Rowe has no trouble finding herself in the music.
“I mean I love Chopin; when I think of ballet and the joy of dance, I think of dancing around my bedroom to Chopin. But I’ve been getting into minimal composers: Steve Reich, Terry Reily, John Adams, Philip Glass, which a lot of choreographers use.”
“For the Forsythe piece, it’s more of a soundscape,” Rowe explains, “you’re listening to all of these 80’s house music noises and trying to come up with musicality. Once you’re familiar with the score, you can hear a melody. You hear phrases, and there are landmarks within the piece, as well as visual cues—you use the ebb and flow of the music to find your place within it.”