Faith and Dance 

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Voiceover:

Welcome to The Table Podcast, where we discuss issues of God and culture. Brought to you by Dallas Theological Seminary.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, hello, I'm Bill Hendricks, executive director for Christian leadership at the Hendricks Center. And it's my privilege to welcome you to this edition of The Table Podcast, where we discuss issues of God and culture. And if you have followed The Table Podcast for any length of time, you know that one of the groups of people that we are so excited about are Christians in the arts who engage culture through the arts. And today we're going to delve into probably one of the most beautiful, but certainly one of the most daunting and demanding of art forms ever conceived, which is the ballet. And to do that, I can't think of anybody better to have than my guest Julianna Rubio Slager, Juliana, welcome to this addition to the table podcast.

Julianna Slager:

Thanks so much, Bill. It's a pleasure to be here and I'm looking forward to the conversation

Bill Hendricks:

And you bring incredible credentials, having been a dancer yourself and now co-founder and artistic director and resident choreographer for Ballet 5:8 based in the Chicago area. And I must say Julianna, and this probably won't surprise you, but this is the first time we have ever had a ballet company featured on The Table Podcast. So you have that distinction.

Julianna Slager:

Well, that's great. I'm happy to be the first.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, and you're a first, I suppose, in many ways. I want to hear your story. Let's take that story at a couple levels. First of all, just your own personal story. Where was growing up and how did you get into dance and ballet? And then ultimately the story of how you co-founded Ballet 5:8.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah. It's a great story, honestly. And it's cool to look back now and just see how the Lord was directing it the whole time. So I grew up in a big family in kind of the southern-central part of Michigan. I have six brothers and sisters, so my parents have seven kids.

Bill Hendricks:

Wow.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, I know. And they're wonderful people.

Bill Hendricks:

Where were you in that constellation?

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, I'm the second oldest. So I have an older brother and then much younger siblings. I actually have a couple siblings that are 10 plus years younger than I am. So it was a really fun growing up experience. Big families are loud and exciting. It was really just a beautiful way to… I think even in those early years, honestly, some of the things that God was calling me to were clear. Just in… I would direct little plays and little ballets with my siblings and, I'd get the whole neighborhood involved. And I did my first staging of sleeping beauty as a six year old.

Bill Hendricks:

Wow.

Julianna Slager:

And I had all my friends out in the backyard. Yep. And we brought all the parents. So even little things like that, it's just fun to see how those are the gifts that kind of just naturally were things that God had called me to. And so my parents were not ballet dancers, but they started to kind of see that. And they were like, okay, this kid really loves dance. And at that point I actually hadn't taken any formal ballet lessons, I had just seen ballet on PBS and some of my little kid shows. I'd seen parts of The Nutcracker and things. So my parents were like, man, she really seems to be into this, but my dad- Yeah?

Bill Hendricks:

If I can ask, what was it that drew you to the ballet? What did you like about it as a little child?

Julianna Slager:

Yeah. So I think a big part of it is the music for me. I love music. Absolutely love it. And I did play a couple instruments. I played piano and clarinet growing up. And my mom is actually an incredible pianist. And my dad played in a jazz band. He was the bass player for a jazz band back in the '80s. Just informal, but like Christian jazz, rock band sort of thing. So I grew up with the music playing in our house all the time and my dad and his friends kind of jamming after we kids were in bed. And so I think music was just a big part of me and a big part of our culture as a family. So that drew me in at first.

Julianna Slager:

And then I think for me, the way I expressed music, the best is through dancing. So even though I did play other instruments and did choir for a while and those sorts of things, for me, I always felt like I was the most in tune with music when I was moving. And so I felt like dancing was actually my best way to play an instrument, if you will. The instrument of myself. Playing that beautiful instrument that God has given each one of us was kind of something that drew me in. And I think, for lack of a better word, I would always find myself kind of in this really beautiful state where I just felt kind of like Eric Little talks about in Chariots of Fire, you just feel the joy of the Lord when you're in that.

Julianna Slager:

And so I think even from a young age, I loved that. At church as a little girl, I would always be moving and sway into the beat. And we went to a Wesleyan church, so it wasn't a church that had a lot of dancing honestly, but I just couldn't help myself. I'd be tapping my toes and, moving back and forth. That's just kind of been who God's made me to be as long as I can remember.

Bill Hendricks:

And so I take it, somewhere in there you started to enroll in lessons?

Julianna Slager:

That's exactly it. So my parents were like, all right, we got to get this kid put into a class because she clearly loves it. So, yeah, they just enrolled me at the local dance studio. And fortunately for me, the lady who ran that studio was just a really wonderful woman. She was also a Christian, which is kind of cool. And she saw just my joy and my love of dance. And after a few years of taking just, you know, your once a week lessons, she said to my parents, "Hey, your daughter really is talented and she really loves this. You need to put her in a bigger school." And so she kind of helped them find a more pre-professional training school for me to go to. And so I started driving 45 minutes to Lansing, the capital of Michigan, to go to a more serious classical school.

Bill Hendricks:

And I take it from there you sort of worked your way up?

Julianna Slager:

Yep. That's exactly it. So from there, I was hooked. In ballet, you kind of have to get serious real early, like you do in ice skating or gymnastics. And so, by the time I was 11 or 12, I was taking ballet class every single day. It was something that I loved. My parents were like, "We never have to push you. When your teacher says you need to go another day or have another rehearsal, you're just jumping up and down to go." And so I think from their perspective, they were like, well, this is something she loves and it's good exercise. I don't think they really thought anything serious was going to come of it just because that wasn't something our family had done before and we weren't familiar with that path. But yeah, it was just cool to see, I guess, how my passion for dance kept increasing.

Julianna Slager:

And I think for the most part, it was a really healthy thing for a while. But, you know, there's difficulties in dance and I don't want to shy away from that either. It's not as dramatic as TV would lead you to believe. But on the flip side, especially back at that time in the '90s, there was a lot less education on how to instruct dancers in a healthy way, emotionally and spiritually. I think that's changing slowly in ballet culture, which is exciting. And I'll get into that later, that's a big passion of mine.

Julianna Slager:

But at that time, everybody had a very ideal version of what a ballerina should look like. And so, there was a lot of pressure to be thin and there was a lot of pressure to look a certain way and act a certain way. And the school that I was in had great training, but it also had a lot of older students with bad habits. There was drug and alcohol abuse and all that sort of thing. And so I think those years when I was training, there was kind of this dualistic side of it where I knew I loved it. I knew I loved to worship God with dance. I had felt that so many times in my life. But then there was also a lot of pressure. And as a 13, 14 year old prodigious kid in classes with 16 and 17 year olds, it's really hard to get your brain focused into what is right and to stand against some of those more difficult issues, I guess.

Julianna Slager:

And so I remember as a young girl, just kind of knowing what was right and knowing what the Bible said, but then also not really having been formed enough to really push back against it. So those years were hard and I actually developed an eating disorder by the time I was 14 and I went through four years of different varieties and different levels of seriousness struggling with that. And so that was, I think, formational for me, even though it's hard to talk about and it was not an easy journey. It was formational in the sense that I really had to learn who I was and I really had to learn that God loves me no matter what. And that what he wanted for me and maybe what the world was pulling me to do were two different things. So yeah, that was a really tender time.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, I can see how that would be such a challenge at that age. I mean, ballet, it's probably akin to gymnastics or some athletics where it's a very body oriented sort of art form. But all of it's coming together right at the time when your body itself is changing there in adolescence and puberty and so forth. And you've got the love of the form, at the same time, the pressures that you talked about. And some of that is the peer pressure of watching what other people do to deal with some of these changes. I would imagine it's a scary time for a young person and I could see where they start trying to find ways to deal with, those new emotions that are scary. And a lot of those ways aren't particularly healthy.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, you got it. That's exactly it. And I think too, when you're young like that, you don't always realize that the adults around you really do want to help you. Because I just remember feeling so much shame over, okay, I'm not sure what to do with all of this. And you're so young, you don't recognize that really everybody who's lived more life than you has struggled with these things on one level or the other. But I think sometimes you don't realize that, if nobody says it. You're kind of like, oh, I'm, I'm the only one and I'm in this by myself. And so I think that was part of the difficulty of it too, was that I didn't necessarily know where to go with all of that, which again, we'll get back to that.

Julianna Slager:

But I think that's one of the reasons why I'm such a passionate teacher now and passionate about making sure that kids do have that support and that they know they have that support, because I think a lot of kids want that and they crave that support from the adults in their lives, but they don't always know where to access it.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, yes. And I know that this informs a lot of what you're doing at Ballet 5:8. We will get back to that. I take it though that your path continues on to where you keep performing and if I understand, in that world, a lot depends on who you study under. Is that that kind of how it works?

Julianna Slager:

That is, yeah. So I was really, really fortunate. A lot of times eating disorders will kind of take you out of ballet completely because they are so serious. But God had his hand on me and gave me a lot of grace. And so I did end up making a full recovery and have been in remission for a long time. And that was just a beautiful thing because I actually did not lose my love of dance, which is common when you go through something to that severity. A lot of dancers go, okay, I'm done, I'm going to go do something else. But for me, I think I always knew that dance was something that I loved, I just had to figure out how to have a healthier relationship with dance. And so that was a journey that I went on.

Julianna Slager:

And when I was about 16 years old, I think I started getting a little bit more serious about my faith being an active part of my daily life. And I think a lot of kids who grew up in a family that is full of Christians, which is a good thing, kind of experience that. Where you have to go from this transition of, okay, it's my family's faith and what they believe to really going, no, wait a second.

Bill Hendricks:

My faith.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, this is my faith. Right. I want to do this on a daily basis. I actually want to seek out the Lord and I actually want to follow him, not just in word and not just on Sunday mornings, but I want to really be a Christian and follow Jesus. And I think what's cool is the hardships of all those eating disorders, as tough as that was, it showed me a lot of grace. And so I think, you see that over and over in the Bible where sometimes we want to avoid tough stuff, but honestly, that's what drives us to the foot of the cross. And I think for me, that was very much the case. I finally realized, oh, okay. I really need Jesus. This is not just a nice thing that we say, I felt it personally, that I needed redemption and that I needed help and I needed saving. So in so many ways, that was just a blessing.

Julianna Slager:

So yeah, I did. I ended up recovering. I ended up continuing to dance. I got my first professional contract when I was 16. I was a-

Bill Hendricks:

Wow.

Julianna Slager:

… Supernumerary, yep, in a professional show. Which was like, my little check of whatever, $75, felt like the golden ticket. So that was a pretty cool experience. And from there I kept dancing and trying to figure out ways to integrate art and faith. And at that time there was really just one Christian based ballet company in the whole world. And that company is called Ballet Magnificat! and they're down in Jackson, Mississippi. It was founded by Kathy Thibodeaux, who is a silver medalist in the International Ballet Competition. So just an incredible woman, amazing believer, beautiful dancer.

Julianna Slager:

And so I found them just by Google searching. I was like, just Google searching, Christians and dance, dance and Christians. Like, is there anything out there for me? So yeah, I actually turned down a couple of different contracts with secular companies to go down to Ballet Magnificat! and to dance for Kathy. And that was another amazing experience. I had never really even conceived of how ballet and faith could work on that professional level. I'd seen like praise dance in church and those sorts of things, but as a professional artist, that was not something that I thought was possible. And I kind of thought, okay, ballet is ballet. You have to do Swan Lake, you got to do Cinderella. That's what ballet is. But I think the Ballet Magnificat! style of dance was so different from what I'd experienced in the classical ballet world that I was really just in awe kind of how ballet could be used in this different way.

Bill Hendricks:

What made it different?

Julianna Slager:

So one of the things I love about them is they do all original work. And so instead of staging ballets that you've seen a lot of times, they create ballets and they're all based on either Bible stories or themes in scripture. And so I think that was really inspiring to me. When I was there, they were doing a ballet based on the story of Ruth. And it was just beautiful. And I remember watching it as a student and just going, wow, like this is everything I've wanted to do. It has all of the technical element it's so professionally done, these are top rate, beautiful ballerinas.

Julianna Slager:

But yet we're telling a story that actually matters, that has some substance to it. We're not talking about this poor, sad girl who's turned into a Swan and everybody dies in the end. At some point those stories stop being nostalgic and you start going, what is this story about and why am I spending my whole life telling these stories that don't really matter? So I think for me that shifted my mindset quite a lot to going, oh, okay, so ballet, it's a great art form for storytelling, but what you have to do is you have to actually tell a story that means something.

Bill Hendricks:

Yeah. So if you will, and I don't want to, steal your thunder in the story, but I'm just curious how all this ultimately landed on Ballet 5:8? I take it, you take inspiration from Ballet Magnificat! and think, hey, maybe, maybe I could do this?

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, you're exactly right. While I was in Jackson, I was dating this really great guy who was a student at Moody Bible Institute at that time and we got engaged. And so then I had to make that tough choice of going, okay, I found this thing that I really love, but then I also have this person that I really love. And so I ultimately made that decision to leave Ballet Magnificat! and moved to Chicago and got married to my now husband, Jeremy. And so he was in his senior year of college and I was there, kind of just working in the different ballet studios in the area. I was teaching and choreographing and coaching and that sort of thing, really just to put him through college and pay the rent so he could finish up school.

Julianna Slager:

And I started going, you know, this is fine, but I really miss telling stories through dance that matter. And so I think for me at that time, I went, okay, how do I do this in a Chicago context? And I think, Ballet Magnificat! opened my eyes to how things could be done, but I also recognized that, okay, how you do things in Jackson and even in the South, honestly, and you're in the South, you know this, it's a little bit different.

Bill Hendricks:

Yeah. A lot different. Yes.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah. The culture up here. And so, you know-

Bill Hendricks:

Different demands and different expectations and different mindsets.

Julianna Slager:

Exactly. Even just, only 10% of Chicago are Evangelical Christians.

Bill Hendricks:

Yeah, right.

Julianna Slager:

Which is, kind of a stunning number. And so there's just not as much of a Christian culture here and it's not very popular to just be a Christian or go to church. Like it's not a cultural thing for us. And so I think in that sense, I was like, okay, if we're going to do something similar, but it's going to be here in Chicago and we're going to focus on making art that is going to draw in the people around here, we have to make something that is actually going to be interesting to them. And I think that was a journey for me because I was, at that time really used to just kind of, okay, how do we put a Bible story on stage? Or how do we put these really clear Christian themes on stage?

Julianna Slager:

But I think what I learned through being in Chicago and being in the mainstream dance world is that a lot of people up here, they had no interest really in seeing that. And I think for them, they were a few steps back, if that makes sense. They weren't ready to just see a Bible story on stage or to just see dance that was set to worship music. They were not on that page because to them, faith was not something that mattered and was not important. And so I think what I kind of learned is okay, if I'm going to do something that impacts the people of Chicago, we have to go a few steps back and just introduce them to who God is in the first place.

Bill Hendricks:

Hmm. I love that.

Julianna Slager:

Thank you. Yeah. I think the Lord really inspired Amy, who's my co-founder, and I to think that way. So even before we started the company, we were going, okay, how do we create dance with themes of faith that somebody who has no connection to the Christian faith would be interested in watching. And so I think that's where our idea blossomed from. And we've really taken a lot of inspiration from Romans 5:8, which is where our name comes from. Because God reached to us first. That versus talking about how God reached out to us before we had any thought of him before we cared about him at all, he did that first reach out.

Julianna Slager:

And that's really what I want from Ballet 5:8, is to be able to embody that in a physical sense to say, okay, we're reaching for people that are not reaching back necessarily. They're not necessarily going, oh, I'm really interested in Christian dance. They're just going out for a nice night and they want to enjoy an evening, a special night with friends or family. And when they come to our performance, they are greeted first with the excellence of the form. But then they're also given questions to think about. And I really believe that the Holy Spirit is our main artist, he's our main player. And so my goal is really just to set up an experience in the theater where people can be in the quiet kind of sacredness of the theater and watch something beautiful. And in that space, the Holy Spirit can meet them and he can work.

Bill Hendricks:

So if I can put it this way, you're bringing a story to people who, frankly, didn't know they were looking for a story? But they are, and you're doing it in a way that is engaging. Obviously, a big term at the Hendricks Center is cultural engagement. But that's what you're doing, you're engaging people, you're inviting them. You know, here's something to look at and consider and ponder a bit, here are some questions that this raises. And if I understand the format, and I'll just go ahead and say, I was privileged to see one of your ballets in the Dallas area a couple years back called Reckless. And we can come back to Reckless. But after the performance, the dancers came out and there was a dialogue between people in the audience and the performers and it was a pretty interesting time for people to ask questions, people to make comments, the dancers to talk about their own experience, their own perceptions of the story, et cetera. So that's kind of the format that you have.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, exactly. And so kind of our like tagline, if you will, is discussions of life and faith. And so that's exactly it. We want to present something, but we don't just want the audience to, kind of be on a one way street where we're giving and the audience is just receiving. We love having that time of dialogue at the end where the audience, if they want to, they can stay and ask about things. And we've gotten so many people over the years from different backgrounds, with different questions and different worldviews, and it's honestly such a beautiful way to go, okay, we've all experienced this piece of art, what does it make you think? What is it bringing up for you? What does it challenging you to think about that you maybe weren't thinking about when you walked into the theater?

Bill Hendricks:

Yeah. Let me just read the mission statement for ballet 5:8 for our viewers and listeners. Your mission is to engage communities in Chicago, the Midwest, and across the nation. And I guess now even some internationally. Engage them "in conversations of life and faith, as you said, through innovative storytelling and breathtaking dance.

Bill Hendricks:

There's so many wonderful pieces packed into this. We've talked a little bit about engaging. It's not just a show. I mean, there is a certain showmanship of performance, it is after all on a stage, but there's an engagement. The audience is invited to enter into this experience, not only with their attention, but then ultimately with their questions, their reactions, their impressions. Conversations about life and faith. And what you've done there is, I guess you're telling the story and letting the story be, here's life as it is. And then what does faith and what does God have to enter into this? Innovative storytelling. And so that brings us to Reckless. Tell us about Reckless. I thought it was such a mix of wonderful themes and art forms and so forth. Go ahead.

Julianna Slager:

Thank you so much. Yeah. So Reckless is one of my favorite ballets that we're doing currently, and it takes the story of Hosea and Gomer and kind of imagines a backstory for Gomer. And you know this better than I do, but most of the book of Hosea is a poem. So a lot of it is not the facts about Gomer and Hosea, it's more talking about how that relationship is mirroring God's relationship to Israel. And so what I tried to do with the story was to kind of bring Gomer's backstory out so that we understand her as kind of a living breathing person. But I tried to keep intact all of the different things in the rest of the poem and how God describes Israel and using that to kind of personify Gomer, if that makes sense. So I almost worked the text backwards a little bit to create this character.

Julianna Slager:

And then because I really want people to see the Bible as something that's relevant in today's society, we actually set the whole story in 2019 Chicago. And so that for me was just kind of a way to help people understand, the Bible is not just something in 2,000 years ago, whatever 5,000 years ago, long time ago, Old Testament, especially. Those kind of things are still happening today. They're still relevant today. And what God has to say about them doesn't change. And it doesn't have, I guess, a different take in the 21st century. But I think sometimes you have to help people imagine that. And so had we said it with everybody in togas and in Bible times, I think it would not have hit the same way that it did. Putting it all in the 21st century, you felt very much like, oh, wow, okay, this is a relevant issue for today.

Julianna Slager:

And then we worked with a lot of friends. We have great friends at International Justice Mission. And we worked with Rebecca Bender Initiative when we were in Dallas. And we've got a lot of amazing friends who are working in the ministry of helping women and men out of the trafficking industry. And so that's something that I've kind of been aware of for a while of the impact that kind of that sex trafficking and prostitution and pornography industry is having, especially honestly, on this younger generation, it's a huge scourge.

Bill Hendricks:

Absolutely.

Julianna Slager:

And you know, because it's so available via the internet. It's just awful. And knowing what I do about how all of that transpires in our modern culture, I really felt like telling Gomer's story through that lens of trafficking and imagining her as a woman who'd been caught in trafficking and then has this really difficult decision when she meets Hosea of whether to stay faithful to her husband or go back to the life that is honestly more familiar and is something that she's kind of addicted to. And so we tell her story that way, but then of course, Hosea is our parallel for Jesus, and you just see the incredible love that he has of constantly going back to Gomer and searching her out and bringing her home, even through all of the decisions that she makes that are not very wise.

Julianna Slager:

It's just an incredible story. And I love how we were able to bring together so many pieces of culture and scripture and things that are quite ancient, but bringing them right into the modern age because, honestly, humanity has not changed very much over the past few thousand years.

Bill Hendricks:

Sadly.

Julianna Slager:

So those themes are the same. I know, it is. And it's funny how that works. But to show people that we have not educated ourselves out of these problems. They're still alive and well.

Bill Hendricks:

Yeah. And whether you explicitly get into it or not in the conversation after the performance, it sets up the reality that our world's a mess and it needs a savior. And that becomes really unmistakable. And I loved how you used the dance, the movements, the lighting, the staging, the props and the whole set design, all this stuff, to see over the course of the whole ballet, a redemption and a transformation take place and to tell that story.

Julianna Slager:

No, thank you. It was a fun one to put together. Even little things, like we used a lot of flashlights on stage, which is unusual in a ballet. But that theme of light in the darkness, and even using the lighting design to show, kind of when Hosea's on stage, how that light gets brighter. And you see it in every element, from the dance and the really overt moment to the very subtle things on stage.

Bill Hendricks:

So this is a great moment to ask this question that I wanted to ask on behalf of particularly artists who might be with us today on The Table. Describe if you can, the process of creating a ballet, because as I understand it, this production of Gomer, but of Reckless, this was not something that you went in your office and a month later you come out with all the pieces together. This was like, if I could use the term, a gestation that happened for you over time. Tell me, how does a work of art like that come about?

Julianna Slager:

That's such a great question. So for me, I think there's kind of the layer of my brain is always got this background noise of like, hmm, that's an interesting story. And that's just something that I keep track of all the time. I have a notebook on my desk that just has a lot of ideas that are all over the place. Some of them are probably good ones, some of them probably aren't, but I try to write them down when they come to me. And so the story of Hosea and Gomer is one I was familiar with. I'd read it and heard sermons on it. So it had always kind of been in the back of my mind of like, oh, I'd like to explore that someday.

Julianna Slager:

But then as I'm going through that process, I'm also, every season, kind of praying over, okay, God, what do you want us to do this year? What are the stories that you want us to put on stage? And usually he'll just kind of bring a few of them back to my mind that are kind of on my running list. And so when we did Reckless, that was something that God just kind of brought to my mind of like, okay, it's time to bring this story to life. It's time to bring Hosea and Gomer story onto the stage.

Julianna Slager:

And so once I kind of feel that from the Holy Spirit of like, okay, this is the season for this piece, then from there, I kind of go into this very personal creative time. And it's funny because I almost can't even form words around it when it first begins. Because for me, I think dance is a language that's almost deeper than what I can speak at first. And so I just start with… Sometimes it's drawing shapes, sometimes it's listening to music. I mean, there's just a lot of abstract creative work where I am mulling over the concepts and the themes. It sounds funny, but it's a very kind of dancer way to think about it. It's almost wordless.

Bill Hendricks:

Do you sometimes either see or feel, or actually find yourself performing dance moves and choreography and so forth?

Julianna Slager:

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I have these times where I can just go into the studio by myself and I'll have a playlist of music that strikes me in different moods or different feelings. Then I'll just improv. Sometimes I'll video tape it and then I'll go back and re-watch it and be like, oh, that was good. Or like, nope, nope, that's not it, you know, whatever. But yeah, I do. I try to collect a lot of those intuitions on the piece very first. And then from there I have to write a libretto. And so that is the story outline of the show.

Julianna Slager:

And especially with something like Hosea and Gomer, because the text itself, doesn't give you a ton of details about their personal lives. I had to do a lot of research to get into that character mindset. And so I did a ton of research. I interviewed survivors, I interviewed people who work in ministry with trafficking survivors. I honestly went down a very long YouTube thread and there's this really powerful series on YouTube about sex trafficking, where they're interviewing traffickers, current traffickers, both pimps and the prostitutes that are in the lifestyle. And that was incredibly hard to watch, so I don't know if I can say I recommend it because it was heartbreaking, but I learned so much just about their mindset and why they do what they do and how they justify it to themselves.

Julianna Slager:

Because I think that was one of the hardest things about Gomer was like Gomer, you know, I get it, how you got into this, but then Hosea rescues you and marries you and why do you go back? I really wrestled with Gomer on that one. I was like, I don't understand why you would do that. But on the flip side we do that to God all the time. So on that level I did understand because I was like, wait a second, Julianna, you've done this before, where God says, hey, I'm going to rescue you from this and then we willingly go back to our sin.

Julianna Slager:

So anyway, learning to kind of unearth these characters and it's almost like getting to know a person, the more that you research and study, the more that they become clear in your mind. And so I write all of that down. I write down words that describe every character in the piece. I start to develop, what's this world going to look like? And for Gomer and Hosea, I wanted their world to feel sometimes real, but sometimes almost like you were in a dream or like Gomer is kind of having this post traumatic stress syndrome within the ballet because of her really difficult experiences.

Julianna Slager:

So I wanted the set to be able to change on a dime. The dancers on stage, other than Hosea and Gomer, they actually can become the scenery in this piece. And you saw that on stage. Like sometimes they're a couch and a clock on the wall. And then sometimes they're living, breathing people on the streets of Chicago and sometimes they turn into cars or street lamps. I wanted it all to feel very surreal so that you've got that sense of, okay, is this real or is this something she's remembering? And we kind lived in that in between space, which I felt represented women who've been through trauma in a way that-

Bill Hendricks:

Absolutely.

Julianna Slager:

… The audience could understand.

Bill Hendricks:

Somebody coming out of that lifestyle, it's not like a minute and now I'm out of it. It's like a transition and I'm out of it, but I'm still kind of in it. It is surreal, I would think. So that's beautiful.

Julianna Slager:

Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. So kind of developing all of that is the pre-work and then I take it into the studio and then I have an incredible team of dancers. We've got, I think, 20 dancers this season and they're just amazing, credit to them. They take my ideas and they just take it way further than anything that I could imagine in my own mind. So they're a huge part of the process and it's helpful too, because I'll say something and then in a kind way, in a respectful way, they kind of will also take it, but challenge it and go, okay, like I like that thought, but then also what about this angle? Have you considered this?

Julianna Slager:

Which I feel makes a story much stronger because I've vetted it through all these other artists who are really good at building characters and storylines so that we make sure it's realistic. So that we represent the people in the story in a fair and honest way, because I never want it to be okay, here's Julianna's take on what Gomer went through. I really want it to be dance journalism if you will, where we're bringing the story of survivors through Gomer's voice, but we want to do it in a way that's authentic.

Bill Hendricks:

And so that brings us to this last part of your mission statement. This ultimately culminates in what you like to call breathtaking dance. I don't know exactly what all you mean by that, but to me that strikes me as, I want to put something on this stage that when people watch it, they gasp, they're delighted, they're amazed, they're awed, they're struck, it takes your breath away. And so that it actually has an effect. It's not just a pretty thing or a nice thing, it makes an impact of some sort.

Bill Hendricks:

But in saying that, this also brings us to the dancers. You've got a whole school there as part of Ballet 5:8, as I understand it. And you are bringing the science and the craft of dance as well as the art to bear. I mean, you're dealing with people's bodies here. And also that you alluded to earlier, you're cognizant that I'm not only dealing with your body, I'm dealing with your soul and your emotions and your whole being and I want to be appreciative of that and sensitive to that. Talk to us about working with these dancers and developing and growing a dancer.

Julianna Slager:

It's really, honestly, one of the greatest honors of my life to work so closely with so many of these young people, and you know this because you're a parent as well. Your kids are grown, mine are still little, but in so many ways, you're like an extra parent in some senses. Especially because I'm with them like 30 hours a week, so it's quite a substantial amount of time that I get to be around these young people and that I get to impact their lives. And I think aside from the nuts and bolts of ballet and teaching the positions and the correct terminology and the correct coordinations, I try to always bring us back to Jesus. And so I try in every single class that I teach to just remind them of how this relates back to who God is.

Julianna Slager:

One of the big ones right now that we've been talking about in class is how every single person is made in the image of God. And so, because of that, I'm like, that's why we have to honor our bodies through dance and not self depreciate. Because we're made in the image of God. That's such a beautiful and sacred thing and nobody can put a numerical worth on somebody who's made in the image of God. You are priceless. And so because of that, as dancers and as artists, we have to hold ourselves in very high regard. And so that informs how we talk to ourselves in our mental dialogue. We're not saying I've got bad feet or I'm a terrible dancer or whatever it is. We're saying, okay, I have things to improve on, I have things to keep working on, but I'm made in the image of God and so that matters. How I speak to myself matters. How I carry myself matters. How I speak to others matters.

Julianna Slager:

And so, those are the kind of things that we try to weave in within the dance training is helping these young dancers understand their incredible worth in Christ and how much he loves them. And I think one of the most important things I teach is that dances is secondary. It's beautiful and I love it, but I always tell the kids, dance is passing away, like everything else. Nothing in this world is eternal except for our souls and the Lord himself. And yes, he made this earth and there's lots of good in it, but nothing that we do is going to matter as much as who we are and our relationship with the Lord.

Julianna Slager:

And I think that's something that I wish I would've understood more at their age because there was a time where dance was everything. And I just thought it made or broke my worth as a human being. And so I think, more than anything, I want them to know that. No contract, no level of talent can ever replace the love of God and can ever fill you in the same way that He can. And so that's something that we're always talking about and we're always diving into. And sometimes I'll joke with them at the bar, they're all sweaty and I go, guys, this is worship. I'm like, this is worship. I know your lungs are bursting and your muscles are burning. I'm like, this is worship what you're doing right here, serving the Lord through this talent that he's given you.

Julianna Slager:

I could go on and on because I'm so passionate about it. I love it. I love being able to take ballet and the beauty of it, but kind of update it and take some of the ick out of it and give students a much better experience and a different experience than I had.

Bill Hendricks:

That's beautiful. And yes, your passion for the dancers comes through and certainly came through for me when you and I had a conversation offline. And one of the things that struck me about that conversation was, we had been talking about the fact that for most people who dance ballet, it's somewhat of a young person's game. In other words, for most people, not everybody, but for most, somewhere in their mid thirties, late thirties, the body sort of has run its course as far as what's really demanded there. And those powers begin to diminish a bit. And what you talked about was, I want to build into people so that it's not just while they're dancing that they have that value and worth it, that they've got something to take from this season of their life as they go into whatever God has for them next. And so I'm trying to build people, not just build a great production company.

Julianna Slager:

Absolutely.

Bill Hendricks:

I thought that was very farsighted.

Julianna Slager:

Well, praise God for that. But no, you're exactly right. I think there's nothing more important than saying, okay, what we're building here is far transcending any one show we put on stage or any one accomplishment we make as an organization. But knowing that the people that we're impacting are eternal and what happens to them and where they go from here is one of the most important things.

Bill Hendricks:

Yeah. Well, I suppose, it doesn't directly relate to the theme of a Christian in the arts here, but I think it's a very relevant issue that's on the table for many, many of our listeners. You've got this wonderful company that you're running and traveling and all this kind of stuff. And you've mentioned the fact you've got three littles at home. And I'm just wondering, what insights or thoughts might you want to bring to us about, okay, yes, I have my career here, but I'm a mother and a wife and I've got responsibilities to my family. How do you work that out? And what are the challenges of that and what have you discovered in doing that?

Julianna Slager:

Yeah, it's such a great question. I think the biggest thing I've learned honestly, is that you can do a lot of things in life, but you can't do them all at once. And so I think that's something I've had to grapple with, because I'm the kind of person that I want to do it all at once. I want to do all the things at the same time and I've just realized that that's not helpful or healthy. So I've become very good at prioritizing. Okay, you know, in this season, this is what I can do, these are the things that I can do. But I kind of almost have to limit myself to keeping my focus on the main things that I can accomplish reasonably with those seasons and days. And that's changed.

Julianna Slager:

When my kids were… They're 10, six and four now, so they're out of the diaper phase, so that's a huge accomplishment when you're a parent. You're like great, we're out of diapers. That's good. When they were really, really little, I couldn't stay super late at night at the studio. I had to be really diligent about making sure that I had other staff members that could take some of that load. Jeremy, my husband and I made the decision to spend some of our vacation time going on tour. So he would come with the small babies and I, and we would just go, okay, we're going to do part work, but this is also family vacation. So we're going to just kind of like all roll with it together. So I think some of those decisions have really helped me to go, okay, I can't do everything, so I need to pick what I'm doing. And obviously raising my kids is always going to be the thing I pick first. And Jeremy and I have made that decision together to prioritize that.

Julianna Slager:

And then at the studio, there are some seasons where I can give more and some seasons where I have to pull back. And I think you have to always be aware of that in yourself as a leader to say, okay, my kids are a little bit older now. Now if I need to sub in, if somebody gets sick and there's a 7:00 class, I don't mind coming to sub in. But there was a time when my kids were really little where it was like, you got to find somebody else because I just can't, with the three little kids and especially babies, can't upset that rhythm in the evenings. So I think just knowing that and knowing that it will change even more as they become teenagers. I don't know, maybe I'll need more Saturdays off to watch somebody's baseball game or whatever it is as they grow, that's going to shift again.

Julianna Slager:

And so I think I've been really comfortable over the years telling the staff, okay, this is where my family season is at, this is what we need. Jeremy and I will sit down every year and say, okay, this is our non-negotiables. We need to have this night, this is going to be our family night every week. So we got to make sure that stays open. And this is what we need in terms of vacation time and the nitty gritty of family life. And then I talk it over with my staff. I'm just really honest with them and they know that those needs will change. And so even the way we hire staff sometimes changes a little bit of like, okay, this past year I did a lot of video editing, which was great. It's kind of one of my secret ninja skills is that I can video edit pretty well.

Julianna Slager:

But now this year I'm setting a new, full length ballet called Bear Face, which is based on Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis. So all of my time is going to be in that. And so I'm like, okay, I can't do the video editing because that's very time consuming. So we got to hire somebody to do that because I can't take that time away from my family. So I think that's, for me, really been the secret to having the ability, I guess, to do well in different areas. And I'm still not perfect. I don't want to come off sounding like it all works out every time. But I do think that being really hyper aware of the priorities and not being afraid to say what you can and can't do has been huge for me.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, one thing that's evident is your kids know you love them, but they also know you really love your work. So that means that for them, when you come home, mommy's happy for the most part, which means work is a positive category. So that in itself is a tremendous benefit.

Bill Hendricks:

Julianna Rubio Slager, thank you for being with us. Again, her company is called Ballet 5:8. I take it, it's ballet58.org. Is that your website?

Julianna Slager:

Yes. You got it.

Bill Hendricks:

So check that out. Great model for those of us who are artists as well as people of faith. And for The Table Podcast, I'm Bill Hendricks and I invite you to subscribe to The Table on whatever subscription service that you are on so that you can stay with us as we continue to discuss issues of God and culture. Have a great day.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to The Table Podcast. Dallas Theological Seminary. Teach truth. Love well.

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