Critical Dance

The following is an article from our special section, San Francisco Ballet in London.

"I cannot get over the level of talent in this company.
I feel so lucky that those are the people
I get to be working with."


An Interview with Julia Adam
San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer and Choreographer
August 1, 2001

By Azlan Ezaddin

Julia Adam has a reputation.

I'm speaking not of her dancing, as beautiful as it is, nor of her emerging talent as a choreographer, as brilliant as that is, but rather of her wit and her sense of comedy. By her own account, she is known “... as the person who can make the room laugh.” She can also make a whole theater laugh.

I remember several years ago, as bouquets of roses were thrown on stage after a performance (I forget the work but it might have been Mark Morris' Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, danced at the Palace of Fine Arts), each male dancer picked up a bouquet and presented it to his partner; each male dancer that is except Adam's. After a few awkward seconds, she attempted as best as she could to get her partner's notice without drawing attention to herself. Her hand gestured ever so slightly towards the bright red roses in front of her. The audience, realizing what was happening, roared with approving laughter and, in that single moment, this dancer had endeared herself to San Francisco ballet fans.

A similar gesture by many other dancers would have been seen as self-serving and obnoxious. Adam (even her surname has an ironic wit about it) transcends that by building an emotional connection with her audience; her comedic timing in some ballets coupled with her unpretentiousness project a 'give-it-all-you-got style' of dancing that has earned her a legion of fans in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It's not just her personality however that has attracted fans. Her sexual appeal onstage has also made her a favorite among many a male date of female balletgoers. Yet, she seems genuinely unaware of this aspect of her dancing and even thanked me for the compliment. In Sir Kenneth MacMillan's sexually neurotic The Invitation, Adam was subtly but powerfully sexual in the role of the wife. As she explains it, “In something like that (The Invitation), it's about male-female relationships: one with her husband and another with a boy whom she seduces that, I obviously tapped into because I felt like she was someone who obviously needed that, because she wasn't getting it from her husband.”

However, she brings sexiness to virtually every role she dances. Still struggling with the concept of her sexual appeal, she attempts to attribute it to her dancing style: “I think the way that I move perhaps display that kind of physicality. I like to move smoothly and circularly. And I think, too, my movement is more grounded it comes from my pelvis. Dancing is a physical artform and for me it is very sensual. I like moving to music.”

Dancing and moving to music is in her genes; her father was a musician, her mother a dancer, and her family all of whom still reside in Ottawa, Canada as a whole very athletic. “I was very athletic as a child. I was a figure skater. That's what little Canadian girls do, right? My brother played hockey and I figure skated. When I was ten, my mother asked me [if I wanted to dance]. At ten, she believes, is when you start to form your body. Moving to rhythm has been very much a part of my family.”

"American dance is much freer, with 'Okay, let's do it! Let's go!'"

After training at the National Ballet School in Toronto, a 17-year old Julia Adam was hired by Erik Bruhn into the National Ballet, Canada's most prestigious ballet company. But for Bruhn's departure and the ensuing unhappy atmosphere, she might still be in Toronto, and San Franciscans can thank their lucky stars that it was a romance at about the same time that brought Adam to San Francisco Ballet (SFB) in 1988. She found coming to SFB “… exiting. American dance is much freer, with 'Okay, let's do it! Let's go!' It's not about being right. My training was so much about that. I needed to get out of there (National Ballet).”

The romance has since ended, and the ex-boyfriend no longer dances for SFB, but Adam remains, and this is where she will likely end her dancing career. Referring to her eventual retirement (at age 90 she jokes) and her new job as a choreographer, she wryly comments and laughs, “People retire because their hip or their back hurts but for me it will be because I don't want to take direction any more; I want to give it. My life is filling up with dancemaking.”

Dancemaking is where Adam is making a name for herself these days. Almost all her ballets have been critical as well as theatrical successes and all the ones I've seen, including Newton: Three Laws of Motion (Lawrence Pech Dance Company, LPDC), The Shroud (LPDC), O! Olivier (SFB School Showcase) and Night (SFB), exhibit traces of Adam's trademark wittiness and sense of humor. Each one of these ballets has left audiences satisfied, happy and entertained. Just as her onstage personality has endeared herself to ballet fans, so too has her choreography.

It is however her compositional skills that have impressed the critics. I've said many times that Julia Adam, the choreographer, is not afraid to throw all her ideas into a single ballet. Based on her strong understanding of composition, she is able to put more into one piece of ballet than many choreographers do over a season. Yet, she always seems to have even more ideas when making the next ballet, another of her talents that she seems unaware of.

"Someone like Mark Morris just really stimulates me: 'Wow! Okay!'"

Adam isn't sure where her choreographic talents come from but she subscribes to David Bintley's theory that one is born with the talent. She also learned a lot about music composition and art composition at National Ballet School, where she had a broad education in the arts. Interestingly, the school didn't offer any choreography classes. Still, it was at the school that she began to understand the art of making dance. When she was 15 years old and “… Vicky Simon from the Balanchine Estate came to set Serenade, I knew at any given moment in that dance where everyone had to be and what they were doing. In that moment, I understood the machine. It wasn't learned. It was just, I knew. It relates very much to architecture I think too. It's very spatial. I was very good in geometry and math.”

Although she focused primarily on her dancing, Adam continued to develop her understanding of dancemaking at San Francisco Ballet. “What an incredible opportunity for me to work at this company [SFB]. Also because of the kind of dancer I am, I've probably been in all the new works in my career here. I've been learning from these people [choreographers]. Someone like Mark Morris just really stimulates me: 'Wow! Okay!'”

Besides Morris and Bintley, she cites William Forsythe and Jirí Kylián, among others, as her inspirations: “Whenever I watch the Nederlands Dans Theater, I'm overwhelmed by the beauty; I can't get over it. Each creator or dancemaker has his own thing: William Forsythe the way he uses ideas is white; Jirí Kylián the way his bodies meld is one of the most gorgeous things I've ever seen; Mark [Morris] who understands music and math and structure so brilliantly. There are so many people. Also, not just dancemakers but artists, poets, authors.”

"The Discovery Program really was a catalyst for pushing and accelerating us."

As for her own process of making dance, she builds “… a storyboard for myself to build a dance. I need to have something carrying me through a little journey or else it's not interesting just to make steps up. Every time I do make a dance, there are definitely new ideas that I attach myself to, whether they're symbolic or real.”

“I danced in the very first work I choreographed, here at the workshop [The Medium is the Message for SFB's Choreographic Workshop in 1993]. However, the truth is, for me, I love to sit back and paint the canvas. I don't want to be painting myself; I'm not interested in doing that. For me [choreographing on myself] is narcissistic. It's not what it's about. It's not about me expressing who I am through my body. It's about creating a story up there that I get to step back and look at too.”

Her method seems to work. Every ballet she has made has become a hit. She doesn't worry however about having to top a previous work: “I never really think of it that way. Every time I go do a dance, I just go about making my next dance. And hopefully I progress and evolve as an artist and a human being, so that the work shows that. When it comes to making dances, I feel there's something bigger than me going on. I just go ahead and do it. I feel lucky I've been given a gift. I go ahead and do it, and people go, 'Wow!' Then you say, 'Well, thanks,' and then you go and make your next thing. It feels natural to me.”

Ultimately though, it is the quality of the dancers at SFB that excites her: “I cannot get over the level of talent in this company. I feel so lucky that those are the people I get to be working with. They are phenomenal. They became even more than I could even have imagined. I feel pretty lucky.”

Even with all the successful ballets to her name, it took a special program at SFB, the Discovery Program in the 2000 season, to allow Adam and other young choreographers to create works on the company on the Opera House stage. Adam is grateful for this program that also saw premieres by company members Yuri Possokhov, David Palmer (now co-Artistic Director of Maximum Dance) and Christopher Stowell (now an independent choreographer and freelance dancer), who otherwise might have had to wait several more years before being able to choreograph for the company. “The Discovery Program really was a catalyst for pushing and accelerating us. Helgi [Tomasson, SFB Artistic Director] shows much support anyway; he comes to see my works [for other companies] and he's very supportive and curious. But I think it [the Discovery Program] put me so much in the public eye it was such a big deal, being at the Opera House and it got so much press that it pushed me a little bit.”

“When Helgi said to me, 'How about a 25-minute work at the Opera House on the company,' I was like, 'Whoa! Okay…' I think I was overwhelmed. I thought, 'How would I fill that space? It's such a big space.' But, again, it was such a trust that I would take care of it.”

The work that Adam created for the company was Night, a clever, playful ballet with two personalities: a dream and a nightmare. It was her third collaboration with composer Matthew Pierce, who produced a score that was the musical equivalent of the ballet's wittiness. The main lead dancer was Tina LeBlanc, with Vanessa Zahorian the alternate. Night was such a success it received the most applause in the Discovery Program that Tomasson has picked it for one of three programs in the company's season in London for the summer of 2001. Adam was thrilled at the inclusion: “It's so amazing that Helgi is taking my work there. I kinda fell to the floor when he told me. I asked, 'Are you kidding me?'”

Despite having a work scheduled to be performed for the first time on the main stage of the famed Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Adam remains unfazed. She is “… worried as I would be for any performance. I want everything to be in its place. I want people to dance well. I want the lighting to be cued right. If people hate it, what am I going to do? It's irrelevant. The work's done. It's like looking at a painting. That's what's so strange about dance, right? I look at it [Night]; it's like looking at something you painted. I'm not really someone who likes to fuss with things. I'm not going to go fix it and change it.”

With national and now international recognition of her choreographic ability, Adam's future seems to lie in making dance. She has another work commissioned by the company for the 2002 season. Her still-to-be-titled ballet, created for SFB principal Guennadi Nedviguine and seven other dancers, with music by Vivaldi, will be premiered on April 2nd, 2002 in a program also featuring Nacho Duato's Without Words and Tomasson's Prism. She also recently set The Shroud on American Ballet Theatre's acclaimed Studio Company of future professional dancers and will be creating a new work for Joffrey Ballet (in another collaboration with Matthew Pierce).

When I brought up the question of whether Tomasson would ever create a Resident Choreographer position at SFB and whether she would like such a position, Adam's eyes lit up as she exclaimed, “Oh my god! Of course. You can quote me,” and she laughs heartily. There was that sense of fun and humor again.

“I think it's in the water up there. I don't know what it is about Canadians. They are so damned funny. It comes from my family. I have a very funny dad. I grew up laughing and laughing. So, I think it's something you're born with. I was allowed to laugh at things. Is wit genetic? Or is it cultural? The Brits are pretty funny people too. Christopher Wheeldon is a funny guy. But you know, maybe it's a Canadian thing [laughter]. I don't know. People ask me that.”

Please visit our special section, San Francisco Ballet in London, for previews, reviews and more interviews related to San Francisco's Summer 2001 tour to London.

For the latest news, reviews and gossip, please visit our SFB in London forum.

Edited by Emma Pegler.

Do you want to be notified of new interviews as they are published? If so send email to

For information, corrections and questions, please contact