Julianna Rubio Slager is the artistic director and co-founder of Ballet 5:8, which marks its tenth anniversary this year. The woman-founded-and-led suburban-based company has weathered the pandemic and will celebrate their return to the stage with a one-night program at the Harris Theater March 12. We spoke with Rubio Slager about the history of the company, the upcoming program and her hopes for the next ten years.
Congratulations on the tenth anniversary of Ballet 5:8. Could you tell me a little about the origin of the company?
When I started thinking about this idea, the impulse came from a different approach to storytelling. Dance is already a specialized form of storytelling, but we can get stuck in a rut. The impulse for Ballet 5:8 was to tell stories that aren’t normally put onstage. That comes from my own upbringing. I’m not an elite person in any sense; I came from a lower-middle-class family. I’m Hispanic, my dad is from Mexico. Training in ballet there was a sense of trying to fit into a world I didn’t fully understand. All my years of dancing the classics, I couldn’t really relate to “Giselle” or “Swan Lake.” I remember loving the dance part, but being more excited dancing an abstract ballet, or doing a newer story that was not based in these elite traditions.
With the founding of Ballet 5:8, Amy Sanderson and I set out to use how we were as people to tell stories that are uniquely female. Ballet is heavily female in performance, but heavily male in leadership. That, mixed in with the two of us having strong faith backgrounds informing our lives, combined to create this unique perspective from which to start a company.
Does the faith background relate to the name, Ballet 5:8?
The name comes from a verse in the Bible, Romans 5:8. To me what that says is that the love of God is what brings the universe together. Our goal is to allow audiences to experience the love that surrounds us as a company and invites them into a community of love.
Perhaps that’s a good segue into discussing the pieces the company will be performing at the Harris. There are quite a few numbers in the program.
We’re pulling some of the more beloved 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 sampling of who we are, the eclectic and unique range this company has. There will be dance theater, classical ballet, contemporary ballet and even some pieces that verge on modern dance. The show includes works inspired by poetry and literature coming from diverse perspectives. It shows how ballet can tell a story that is a little more relevant and applicable to a twenty-first century audience.
And am I correct that you choreographed all the works on the program?
Yes. I’ve just made my forty-fifth piece for the company. It’s an honor and I’m excited also to share with audiences my own journey as a choreographer.
It’s still quite unusual to have a ballet company founded by women, with a female choreographer making most of the repertoire. We hope to continue to see more women in leadership, but it’s still not the norm. Can you speak to your approach to curating the program?
One thing I’m passionate about is what I call dance journalism. In dance, you have to be careful to tell a truthful story that gets at the heart of first-person experiences. I’ll be sharing work that comes from source material of other powerful women who have very different lives from my own. One you’ll see is “The Mother,” which comes from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I created a piece that embodies her experience with abortion and what she went through. The poem is so moving and juxtaposes her hopes and dreams and her reality. There’s 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 storytell from their literature so a new generation can fall in love with their writing.
One work on 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 choosing life. The family of a depressed person who have passed on come to visit her and let her know that life is worth living.
Would you like to speak about your premiere, “Todo Raba”?
The title means “Thank you very much” in Hebrew. My grandparents are Messianic Jews and have had a huge influence on me. It’s basically a love letter to the company and everyone who has supported us on this journey. We created a sequence where the dancers come on [stage] in order of how long they’ve been with the company. It showcases the hard work and beauty that have come out of the last ten years.
And what do you see for the next ten years of Ballet 5:8?
What I hope for is to see our organization grow so the dancers have a more sustainable job. The pandemic has thrown that into sharp contrast. Dancers need to be supported so they can pursue their art. We’re a part-time company now and I’d like to see them go to full-time with benefits. On the artistic side, 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 are not the ones you see in Dance Magazine, and especially so for women of color. I’m excited to see how Ballet 5:8 can bring their stories to light.
At the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph (312)334-7777. Saturday, March 12 at 7:30pm. $20-$75. Tickets at harristheaterchicago.org.