Julia Rowe on being promoted to soloist at San Francisco Ballet

I’m a little slow on the uptake here, since Julia was named soloist several months ago, but I wanted to dig into what it means to be promoted – especially at such a revered company as San Francisco Ballet.

Promotions are some of the most sought after things in our world. After years of toiling in the corps, a promotion can act as recognition for all the hard work one has done. Yet, because of the nature of ranked companies and of their relatively flat structure, most in the ballet world never receive a single one. Julia has been promoted twice.

So what does it even mean to be promoted in the ballet world? How might receiving a promotion affect one’s relationship to the work?

There are undoubtedly as many answers as there are dancers, but today I wanted to hear what my good friend Julia Rowe had to say about it. This is the second time Julia has received a promotion, and the fact that she was promoted to soloist once before at Oregon Ballet Theatre might actually give her special insight into the matter. Here’s what Julia had to say about this remarkable change in her life.


So, first off: Why do you think you were promoted?

Honestly, it’s hard to tell, and I don’t think it was one thing in particular, but this past season I have been trying to consciously evolve in the way that I approach my job. I have been trying to define my own dancing style while keeping my eyes and ears open to outside inspiration and critique. Working with Bill Forsythe was a big turning point in my understanding of movement. The way that he explained dance really clicked with me. I’ve been trying to take the expansive dynamic that I was able to cultivate for his work (Pas/Parts 2016), and apply it to other roles.

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She looks ready to be the Prime Minister of Iceland.

Do you feel like this is something you deserve?

Tough question. I am habitually self-deprecating, but I’m going to try and keep that out of this response.

The ballet world (actually the world in general) is not a particularly fair place. Sometimes things work out in your favor, sometimes they don’t. I know that I have worked very hard, and will continue to work very hard, to become a better dancer. Getting promoted is most exciting for me because of the increase in potential for me to work on things that excite and challenge me. Whether or not I feel I deserve this, now I have a responsibility to do this job in this position to the best of my abilities. So, here we go!

You’ve been promoted to soloist once before at OBT. Does it feel different this time around? Are there any similarities in how you feel now compared to the last time?

Well, this promotion comes at a much different stage in my life than the last one did. I would say that now I’m more aware of myself as a dancer. This awareness actually made my promotion here at SFB come as sort of a surprise.

When I was younger, I was very tuned-in to how other artists and my director perceived me. With that frame of mind, I could kind of see the tell-tale signs that a promotion might be on its way. Now that I’m a little older and (hopefully) a little wiser, I’ve made an effort to find a sense of accomplishment in practicing my art form honestly, and with joy, and with respect to myself. I still care what others think of my work. I just place a higher value on my own opinion of my work, and aim to motivate myself from that place.

So, yeah. It’s different. It’s easier now because I have a better idea of how Julia Rowe dances, so in theory all I have to do is apply the title of “Soloist” to that. But we shall see. If there is one similarity between getting promoted at OBT and getting promoted now, I think it’s the sense of accomplishment mixed with excitement and a little bit of healthy fear that comes with tackling the unknown. Talk to me in a year, in five years, in ten years, and I will probably have much more to say.

You’ve said that the ballet world is not a particularly fair place. How do you feel about the hierarchies that exist within the ballet world? Are they fair? Useful? How much would you say promotions are merit-based versus other factors?

Well, keep in mind that I have only ever danced in professional companies with ranks. I have always wondered what it would be like to dance in a company without a structured hierarchy. I would think that a non-ranked company might have more of a sense of community and family since everyone is on a level playing field, so to speak. I would also assume that, in non-ranked companies, a pecking order still exists. It just wouldn’t be, you know, on the website.

Are hierarchies fair? It depends how much your choreographer/director/repetiteur is willing to search through the ranks for the qualities he/she wants for a piece. Monetarily speaking, it’s definitely not fair. The corps de ballet work their tails off during the season and get compensated the least.

Are hierarchies useful? Yes. When a choreographer is looking at all 75+ of us in company class, I could imagine that using our ranking to sort us all out could make things less overwhelming.

Are promotions merit based? Ultimately it comes down to the decision of the director. Many many factors go into who gets promoted and who doesn’t. (Which is why using a promotion as a primary motivator is frustrating and kind of futile). So yeah, maybe merit is in the eye of the beholder? Art is subjective, and it truly does come down to taste. Although, there are some dancers out there whose talent and artistry are universally appreciated… and most of them start out in the corps, too.

You might just be in that category of dancers. Any last words of advice for the many corps members out there looking to advance their careers? 

It seems really obvious, but the best way to advance your career is to become better at your job. That means focusing on being the best dancer and artist you can be. Really listen to what choreographers/ballet masters/directors/teachers are saying and watch how they demonstrate. Figure out how to apply what they are saying to your own dancing. Identify what is interesting to you as an artist and why you are drawn to these things. Incorporate your own taste in art into your dancing. It’s also helpful to really have something to say. Experience as much as you can as a person outside of the studio, and let that inform your work as a dancer.  So, pretty much, just don’t give up. As long as you remain committed and engaged and intelligent in the way that you work, your art will benefit.

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