Refreshing Ritual

Classic Arts Features   Refreshing Ritual
Sheryl Flatow circles in on Julia Adam's new ballet based on Jewish traditions.

In her burgeoning career as a choreographer, Julia Adam has earned the admiration of critics and audiences around the country for her refreshingly unconventional ballets. A former principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet who had a particular affinity for the more contemporary repertory, Adam brings the same intelligence, imagination, wit, and fearlessness to her choreography that she brought to her dancing. The result is a growing body of work that investigates alternative ways of moving, that produces unanticipated, idiosyncratic images, that reveals a delightfully unique perspective on the art form.

Adam draws on her own heritage for Ketubah, her first work for Houston Ballet, which is danced to the music of The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas. A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract which delineates the obligations of the husband and wife. The ballet is inspired by Jewish customs, following a couple from their betrothal to their wedding to their marriage bed. Adam has a gift for skewering the classical vocabulary, melding it with modern movement and devising a language specific to the world she is creating. For Ketubah, that meant extracting from Israeli folk dancing.

"In any dance that I do, the driving force is the concept," says Adam. "The concept here is a Jewish wedding. With its customs and rituals, it makes good theatre. The first movement is the matchmaking, but I didn't want to have someone play a matchmaker. So I conceived the scene as musical chairs."

The second movement depicts the mikvah, the ritual bath for women. Water is represented by a piece of cloth, which later morphs into other things, such as the chupah (or wedding canopy). Adam has a fondness for props - her very first ballet centered on a television and a couch - and she is especially partial to fabric, which she's used in previous ballets. But the cloth always serves a purpose - usually several - and Adam finds ingenious ways to weave it into the choreography.

"I think I have an obsession with fabric," she says, laughing. "It's so beautiful. It can change the space, and it adds something more to the ballet. It also makes it more interesting for me."

The actual wedding "ceremony" is informed by Jewish rituals - such as the bride walking around the groom seven times, or the groom breaking the glass after they are pronounced husband and wife - but these actions are deliberately transmogrified into other images or actions. "I use spinning, which in my mind is derivative of the circling," says Adam. "But she doesn't actually circle around him. And there's no glass, but there is something to make you think of that moment."

The choreography is infused with recognizable gestures from Israeli folk dancing. "For instance, in Israeli dancing you often see the men make a kind of 'W' shape with their arms," says Adam. "I use that motif. There's also a flicking motion of the middle finger and the thumb that I use a lot. My mother is a Jewish folk dance expert, so she was a big help. She's very excited about this ballet."

Adam, who was born in Toronto and raised in Ottawa, began her career with the National Ballet of Canada after studying at the National Ballet School. In the late '80s she visited a boyfriend who had recently joined San Francisco Ballet, and was "blown away" by the company. "There's something very proper about the technique in Canada," she says. "But when I saw San Francisco Ballet do Balanchine's Ballo della Regina, I saw freedom and energy, athleticism and risk taking - I was just so excited. It seemed vital. And I knew that was what I wanted."

She joined the corps de ballet in 1988, was promoted to soloist in 1991, and was named a principal dancer in 1996. She retired after giving birth to her daughter in 2002, choosing to concentrate on being a wife, mother, and choreographer. Her choreographic career began to take off in 2000, when she created the widely praised Night for San Francisco Ballet. She has since made two more ballets for the company, and has also worked with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, ABT II, Cincinnati Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Nashville Ballet, Memphis Ballet and, upcoming, Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Adam choreographed The Medium Is the Message, her first ballet - the one with the TV and the couch - in 1993 for a San Francisco Ballet Choreographic Workshop. She was nominated for an Isadora Duncan Award, a prestigious Bay Area prize which recognizes all kinds of dance. In 1997 she won for a piece called Thirteen Lullabies. "That really built my confidence," she says. "It's like people are saying, 'Hey, you're talented.' I had no idea. I began to take choreography more seriously, because I thought, 'If I have a talent here, I should use it.' It was really a validation."

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