Faculty, Colorado Ballet Academy & University of Colorado
Julianna Donadio started her ballet studies at the Academy of Dance Arts in New Jersey where she took multiple Royal Academy of Dance exams and passed with distinction. Afterward, Julianna went on to study year-round at the Joffrey Ballet School New York, The School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center, and at the San Francisco Ballet School. While at the Joffrey Ballet School she performed in The Nutcracker under the guidance of Gelsey Kirkland. At the San Francisco Ballet School Julianna performed in the San Francisco Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. At the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center, she studied Balanchine repertoire directly from the New York City Ballet lineage. Her summers were spent at The Juilliard School, American Ballet Theater, Complexions Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Ballet Arizona, PNW Contemporary Ballet, Orlando Ballet, and Joffrey Ballet.
Eventually, Julianna went on to become a founding member of the Ballet Arizona Studio Company and then continued on to dance with Ballet Arizona and Ballet Tucson. Julianna holds a Bachelor's degree in Behavioral Science with concentrations in Psychology and Sociology. In addition, Julianna has two yoga certifications and is a qualified physical therapy technician. She is currently studying for her master's degree in professional dance practice/somatic studies via Middlesex University London.
We asked Julianna to reflect upon her career transition.
You were one of the founding members of Ballet Arizona's Studio Company. Can you share more about your transition from student to company life?
Julianna Donadio: Yes, of course! I will start toward the beginning of that journey while studying at the San Francisco Ballet School. While dancing there, I auditioned for Ballet Arizona's summer program and was accepted on scholarship. After the summer with Ballet Arizona ended, I was planning on returning to SFBS; however, in August, I was contacted by artistic staff at Ballet Arizona asking if I would like to rehearse with the company for their first rep of the season. After a lot of consideration, I decided to decline my spot as an advanced student at the San Francisco Ballet School to dance in professional repertoire. For my first rep with Ballet Arizona, I danced two temperaments in The Four Temperaments. For the rest of the season I was used in every company rep, and I am thankful for the opportunities that year. I still have fond memories of dancing such a wide variety of ballets, and it was a unique, exciting, anxious, and fulfilling time. Not only did that year allow me professional stage experience, but it also allowed me to see the inner workings of a company. As students, we have such preconceived notions of what company life/second company life will be like, and I was able to experience it firsthand at such a young age. It afforded me a great wealth of depth and experience.
At the end of my first year, I was told there would be a new program or studio company/second company program forming, which I decided to be a part of. The summer before I went back to the studio company, I attended Juilliard's Summer Program. The second-year started and was different than my first year at Ballet Arizona since the first year it was only one other dancer and me in the in-between company-school phase, the second year; there were about 15 of us. Typical ballet conversations such as weight, casting, competition, and comparison were common. 90% of the second company had weight talks often. By midseason, some dancers decided to leave. By the end of the season, I started asking myself moral questions. I realized certain people of power (and this happens in most positions of power) used their hierarchy not always out of artistic care or for the greater good while I was dancing there.
I still am eternally thankful for the insight, experiences, performances, and friends I made at Ballet Arizona. I am a stronger artist/human in all senses because of it. However, the environment was not matching my morals as a human and as a dancer at that time. There is an excellent concept in psychology that goes along the lines of anything based on fear is a shaky, unstable foundation. (Also something my mom has been telling me for years! ) Therefore, although I had another contract offer with Ballet Arizona and interest from larger companies, I felt I needed time to grow and reflect. It came down to deciding between taking a year off or going back to Ballet Arizona. Due to its close location, Ballet Tucson became a last-minute opportunity, and I ultimately decided to accept it.
Did you find greener pastures at Ballet Tuscon?
Donadio: I believed a smaller company would be a wonderful opportunity to find artistic maturity, as well as the time I needed to audition for larger companies in the spring. However, the environment at Ballet Tucson was not so much a healing one. Weight talks were often there for many, and the rep/environment just wasn't as fulfilling to me. When spring came, I was already taking college classes online and knew I wanted a break from the professional ballet world. Something I thought I would never have been saying at that age, especially considering all my contracts were renewed every year at Ballet Arizona, Tucson, and I had offers elsewhere. I was just not happy living in a state of feeling I needed to be something other than my most dedicated self and seeing my colleagues having those same concerns was a realization point. I wanted to be an authentic young artist who could openly and confidently give of myself; unfortunately, I didn't feel I could do that in the professional world at that time for myself.
So it was your experience at both companies that led you to quit?
Donadio: Ultimately, yes. I always imagined myself dancing (in professional ballet) for a very long time. However, the insight at such a young age was valuable and challenging, ultimately shaping how I decided to move forward in my 20s. In one essence, I was offered this insight and wonderful experience sooner than most. In the other sense, it did put a bit of strain on my passions. I like to be whole heartened and authentic in my approach; continuing to dance in companies was not at that time fully authentic to me as an artist. I still am forever grateful for the journey because it has afforded me beautiful opportunities and given me strength for my future.
In society, we often correlate trauma with an extremely distressing or disturbing event. However, trauma can come in different forms and accumulate gradually over time. Would you say that some of the toxicity from company life had embedded itself as trauma? Did it take some time to process?
Donadio: This answer is complicated, but in short, yes. For a long time, I would say up until this year; I felt if dancers brought up trauma in a public setting, they were often considered weak in the dance world. There are small idiosyncrasies day in and day out that can be classified as trauma that ballet dancers face. Some things "pedestrians" would classify as trauma that ballet dancers do not. In the ballet world, dancers are accustomed to trauma, and they often accept the fact that it comes with the profession/training.
At that time, I didn't feel I had such abnormal trauma, but I went through the typical ballet environment and realized the effects afterward. It wasn't until quite some time after leaving and maturing that I was able to unpack what goes on in the ballet world. There are positive and negative experiences in every profession; however, we genuinely need to move beyond the notion that trauma is justified in ballet due to the competitive nature, lack of jobs in the ballet field, or "that's how it's always been." Dancers are hesitant to show they are human and their true selves because showing anything out of the ordinary or showing a difference/weakness can be used against their job prospects or career. A lot of subconscious trauma happens from heteronormative values, hierarchy, unrealistic body standards, systemic racism, and much more in the ballet world. But I hope we can start pulling away from the sources of that trauma and begin to create healthy work and training space for dancers. Ballet is a beautiful art form and we have the power to help evolve the ballet world to be the best it can be.
As adults, the healing aspect is that most ex dancers have the mental capacity to reconnect and remold their intrinsic dialogue. Dancers can rewire their connection to dance; for instance, let's say a dancer had a negative connotation with ballet because of their weight, race, sexuality, feet, legs, etc. whatever it may be. They might have an intrinsic struggle in that area beyond ballet or even when they dance for fun/recreation. At a neurological level, what is going on in the prefrontal cortex, which rationalizes thought, begins to shut down, and the emotional states are elevated, putting them in fight or flight modes unable to perform, think, process, or deconstruct as well as they could. It might look like they are fully functioning, but inside, areas are slowing down to repeated stress. Dancers deal with this on small scales daily, which puts quite a bit of strain on the brain and body. It can affect performance and confidence, things we need as dancers in the ballet industry. However, there is hope, and that's where somatics comes in! Somatics allows us to connect with dance and movement while accepting ourselves. We can rewire conditioning and connect it to positive emotions and, ultimately a level of acceptance. That full-circle journey is so beautiful to me and possesses a lot of intrinsic power. An excellent exercise: next time you are dancing and having a powerful sense of self or accomplishment, try to hang onto the feeling a minute longer. Revel in success and happiness more, even if it feels cheesy. If you are a professional, a great trick is to go home and practice rep in a positive light. Try your best to be optimistic about yourself and revel in practicing the movement and feeling healthy. Be thankful you can move your body that way and take up space. It can feel silly to professional dancers, but it is so beneficial psychologically.
Was it precisely this firsthand experience that inspired your Behavioral Psychology degree and current Somatic Studies?
Donadio: My experiences in ballet led me to want to dive deeper into academic work at first. I wanted to go further in my academics to find depth and context for my career and my intrinsic self. When I initially started university classes, I dabbled in nutrition, kinesiology, education, and psychology classes. I felt these were my most vital interests outside of dance and wanted to explore each further. During my first term at the University of San Francisco, it was in a dance history class, where I started to understand many other dance outlets. At the time, my professor was so lovely at holding space for me as she saw how I had experience and allowed me to hold lectures/create presentations for ballet sections. I remember feeling relatively young to be doing such tasks; however, she reassured me of my experience. She kept shedding light on so many different unique paths in dance, which was very welcoming and eye-opening.
I continued to dive into a broad range of courses until my Junior year when I declared my Behavioral Psychology and Sociology Major. Many of the concepts in psychology felt innate to me as I have always been super hyper-focused to my surroundings and environment. The combination of my dance experience, psychology studies, yoga teacher studies, and my awareness led me to this somatic/behavioral psychology path.
Somatics in depth came on my radar once I graduated with my psychology focused bachelor's degree. When I was interviewing for my master's program with Middlesex University of London the head of the department told me about this combined somatic studies/professional dance practice degree. The department heads felt as if all of my experience tied nicely for this program and discussed how somatics is a growing field, especially in Europe. Within that same week, I was accepted to my master's program and offered two jobs, one faculty position with the Colorado Ballet and one teaching position for dance and yoga with the University of Colorado. It was a lovely time because from the beginning of my undergrad to the end, it was this constant navigation and exploration from and with ballet. Every experience helped me mature, find strength, and a refurbished sense of purpose. Somatics is a beautiful culmination of healing, awareness, psychology, movement, and presence, something that combines all of my favorite aspects of life itself. If it weren't for all my journeys, I wouldn't have found somatics this in-depth and have the depth from ballet to dive as deep as can between so many realms of practice.
What was the motivation to return to the ballet industry?
Donadio: When I first stopped dancing professionally, I can compare it to the likes of a first breakup. However, with the help of time, education, support, and space, I was able to unpack all of my experiences. If I was placed into another career and did not give myself the time to process my passions and experiences while receiving an education, my trajectory could have been very different.
Another critical point to my journey is that although I was at times melancholic for leaving ballet, I tried to continually see the benefits I had received from it even if I was still struggling with a bit of guilt for leaving. Ultimately this way of positive thought, while unpacking my good and bad experiences, while receiving an education led me to come back. I will say it was not until I was finishing my undergrad that I was able to step into a professional ballet company setting. It took time and a lot of it to get there; it was asking myself deep questions on the daily and going through the journey. Yet, passion is always inherently inside us. Dance is still a part of me; it has shaped me and molded me. I want to continue to take all that I have gained from it, what I hope to change, and what I have learned, to bring back in and work through it for the future. A majority of my connections, travels, and insight I can equate to dance. Dance is life-consuming but it's not necessarily a bad thing; it's a beautiful and complicated relationship that can be lifelong if you choose.
With so many systemic issues and outdated thinking in ballet training, what are your hopes and dreams for somatics in ballet training?
Donadio: There are many aspects of ballet training I wish to evolve to make it the best art form it can be. Ballet training affords dancers with a plethora of experiences, which can be beneficial and eye-opening. However, we can make the experience more innate, reflective, accepting, and personal. I would love to see ballet continue with new lenses. For example, we can benefit from artistic staff with mindfulness or psychology training, teachers who are there because they are genuinely passionate about continuing the ballet tradition in healthy and accepting ways, and more inclusion for different races/genders/sexualities. In addition, we need to redefine hierarchy, redefine body images for women, and accept that dancers are dedicated HUMANs. Dancers and students have personalities, emotions, identities, and their own trauma. Students especially should never feel that ballet is a traumatic place for them. It is interesting to hear the stories from my college students about their experiences during training and why they stopped. This movement truly starts in the schools and with our ballet staff.
Somatics in ballet training would be a multitude of concepts. For one that is implementing a healthy hierarchy and teachers who are passionate about evolution, detail, and are ultimately empathic. The second is using the movement as a healing modality. Within the technique, we can check-in and celebrate accomplishments more often. We can feel the music/choreography by encouraging dancers to take up space and by challenging them to be present. In addition, leaders should help, assist, care, and love their students. Lastly, it is looking inside. Somatics is all about intrinsic ideologies. Therefore, spending time talking about the history, pedagogy, music, and then relating that to our physical body would be a practice. Learning and checking in with how certain pieces make us feel is another. These are concepts many dancers do, but I want my students to truly feel they are in a safe, joyful, and accepting space to do so. In the end, somatics implements mind-body acceptance and awareness at its core, and that's ultimately what I wish to implement into professional settings.
With that being said, the Colorado Ballet Academy and the University of Colorado have allowed me artistic freedom and the opportunity to hold some somatic space for my students of all ages. It's been an incredibly moving journey to the front of the room and one I feel honored to be in. I am honored they have chosen to move their bodies, learn, and grow with me. They deserve my empathy, knowledge, and care, and in return, it makes me feel fulfilled in doing so. I hope to see this evolution of care and intrinsic value happen. I am optimistic that the future generation of dance will have healthy, accepting, creative, and personal spaces to dance in. That is my quest!
What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or about to go on the journey?
Donadio: Give yourself the time you need to unpack all that you have experienced. We go from such endorphin-experiencing careers/training as dancers to more pedestrian life. There is an instinct to forget or continue pushing. I know so many incredible ex ballet dancers reinventing their careers, which is a cathartic movement to watch unfold, but you need to give yourself the time you need to get there.
The ballet world is subconsciously craving brilliant dancers to come back with their depth and passion to help the art form evolve. Ballet tends to stay stagnant in specific sectors because dancers who come to realizations often leave forever. There truly is a need for dancers to create new choreography, continue the tradition with empathetic approaches, and challenge outdated systemic issues such as race/sexuality/gender. In addition, we need endearing patient teachers/artistic staff willing to implement change from the top down. I would love to see dancers who receive education to come back into the community with a refurbished passion. Another piece of advice is to dabble in other forms of dance; contemporary, modern, and choreography are not less than careers, and as ballet dancers, you have so much beautiful experience to offer to those fields. Lastly, if dance was a chapter in your life, I suggest to you the question; how can you be of purpose to others with your skills? As dancers, we have many tools to bring to endless career paths; it takes time to unpack and evaluate how you wish to use them. You truly can change the world and the area you are so passionate about. Take all the time you need to explore, heal, contemplate, and realize the unique power from experience you have.
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