Telling True Stories: Ballet 5:8 Turns Ten
Julianna Rubio Slager is the artistic director and co-founder of Ballet 5:8, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The female-founded and run suburban company has weathered the pandemic and will celebrate its return to the stage with a one-night program at the Harris Theater on March 12. We spoke with Rubio Slager about the history of the company, the upcoming program and his hopes for the next ten years.
Congratulations on the tenth anniversary of Ballet 5:8. Could you tell me a bit about the origin of the company?
When I started thinking about this idea, the impetus came from a different approach to storytelling. Dance is already a specialized form of storytelling, but we can get stuck in a rut. The impetus for Ballet 5:8 was to tell stories that are not normally staged. It comes from my own upbringing. I am by no means an elite person; I come from a lower middle class family. I am Hispanic, my father is from Mexico. Training in ballet felt like I was trying to fit into a world that I didn’t fully understand. All my years of dancing the classics, I couldn’t really identify with “Giselle” or “Swan Lake”. I remember loving the dance part, but being more excited to dance an abstract ballet or do a newer story that wasn’t based on those elite traditions.
With the creation of Ballet 5:8, Amy Sanderson and I decided to use our way of being as people to tell uniquely feminine stories. Ballet is strongly feminine in performance, but strongly masculine in leadership. This, mixed with the fact that both of us had strong religious backgrounds informing our lives, combined to create this unique perspective from which to start a business.
Is the background of faith related to the name, Ballet 5:8?
The name comes from a Bible verse, Romans 5:8. To me this means that the love of God is what brings the universe together. Our goal is to allow the public to experience the love that surrounds us as a company and to invite them into a community of love.
This may be a good introduction to discuss the plays the company will present at Harris. There are quite a few numbers on the program.
We’re pulling some of the best-loved pieces from the repertoire and it’s a bit longer than a typical 5:8 show. Since it’s the tenth anniversary, we want to give people a full sample of who we are, from the eclectic and unique range of this company. There will be dance-theatre, classical ballet, contemporary ballet and even pieces bordering on modern dance. The exhibition includes works inspired by poetry and literature from various perspectives. It shows how ballet can tell a story that’s a bit more relevant and applicable to a 21st century audience.
And am I right to say that you choreographed all the works on the program?
Yes. I have just produced my forty-fifth piece for the company. It’s an honor and I’m also delighted to share my own journey as a choreographer with the public.
It is still quite rare to have a ballet company founded by women, with a female choreographer doing most of the repertoire. We hope to continue to see more women in leadership positions, but this is still not the norm. Can you talk about your approach to organizing the program?
One thing I’m passionate about is what I call dance journalism. In dance, care must be taken to tell a true story that goes to the heart of first-person experiences. I will share work that comes from the source material of other powerful women who have very different lives from mine. One you’ll see is “The Mother”, which comes from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I created a piece that embodies her experience of abortion and what she went through. The poem is so moving and juxtaposes her hopes and dreams and her reality. There is another piece based on a poem by Sojourner Truth. I see my role as a choreographer as lending my platform to these voices so they can be heard by a new generation. My goal is to visually tell a story from their literature so that a new generation can fall in love with their writing.
One of the works in the program is about my own struggle with clinical depression, called “Dia de los Vivos”. It’s a play on Dia de los Muertos, but it’s a celebration of life’s choice. The family of a deceased depressive person comes to visit and let them know that life is worth living.
Would you like to talk about your first, “Todo Raba”?
The title means “Thank you very much” in Hebrew. My grandparents are Messianic Jews and had a huge influence on me. It is essentially a love letter to the company and to all those who supported us in this adventure. We created a sequence where the dancers arrive [stage] in order of seniority in the company. It showcases the hard work and beauty of the past ten years.
And what do you see for the next ten years of Ballet 5:8?
What I hope is to see our organization grow so that dancers have a more sustainable job. The pandemic has put this in stark contrast. Dancers need support to pursue their art. We are now a part time business and I would like to see them move to full time with benefits. Artistically, I’d like to see us bring more powerful women into what we’ve created. I’m looking for other female choreographers who have stories to tell, but don’t have their own platform. I’m looking for people who don’t have big names. So many talented artists aren’t the ones you see in Dance Magazine, and especially for women of color. I’m thrilled to see how Ballet 5:8 can shine a light on their stories.
At the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph (312) 334-7777. Saturday March 12 at 7:30 p.m. $20 to $75. Tickets at harrisheaterchicago.org.