Ballet West casts Black Juliet first, but she’s more about the role than her race

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – As a classical ballet dancer, there are several roles that just make you dream.

The dual role of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, for example – with its notoriously difficult 32 fouette twists – is reserved for only the most elite of ballerinas. The role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet is another such role. And while it also requires ballet skills, Julia is only danced by the most skilled dancers, not only for the dance steps, but also for the emotional maturity it takes to embody such a character.

Ballet West’s Katlyn Addison will soon be crossing the role of Juliet off her ballerina bucket list. The principal dancer, who has danced with Utah’s premier ballet company since 2011, will make her debut as Juliet during the Ballet West performance Romeo and Juliet, beginning February 11.

But Addison’s casting isn’t monumental just because of the nature of her role. Her debut will also mark the first time a black ballerina has danced the role of Juliet with the Salt Lake City-based company.

“It’s a volunteer job. Despite my race, to be chosen as a classical ballerina to dance Juliet is a dream,” says Addison. “I’m super excited to dance this role and also just to show all ballerinas of all races that it’s achievable.”

And while Addison, who also became the first black ballerina to reach the company’s highest rank — principal — in 2021, acknowledges the importance of diversity and representation in the ballet world, at this moment, she’s much more about being Juliet than she is about their race.

Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute agrees with the casting decision.

“I am delighted that Katlyn is Ballet West’s first Black Juliet, and I am delighted that Katlyn is Ballet West’s first black lead ballerina, but I want to be very clear that Katlyn has been with the Company for a number of years for a while and is working hard to develop here,” he says. “She’s a ballerina in her own right and director of Ballet West, no matter what race she is.”

And no doubt Addison will not only bring her technical ballet skills and graceful poise to the role, she’ll be able to see Juliet through the eyes of a choreographer.

Katlyn Addison rehearses the role of Juliet, photo courtesy of Ballet West

Is correct; Addison’s skills don’t begin and end with her pointe shoes. She also does dances. So far in her burgeoning career, Addison has choreographed for the Ballet West Choreographic Festival in 2015 and 2018, the Utah Arts Festival in 2019, and the University of Utah in 2020, among others.

And while she still identifies as an aspiring choreographer working to find her voice, Addison has found that her developing sensitivity to dancing added nuance to her performance as Juliet.

“Creating choreography has helped me change my perspective from the start,” she says. “Being a choreographer, dancer and artist has allowed me to think beyond the steps I’ve given to really think about the artistry and intention that goes into the movement.”

Speaking of movement, on opening night, Addison’s monumental Juliet debut will mark a turning tide that has been gathering strength in the ballet world for quite some time. Even before the protests following the killing of George Floyd sparked racial reckoning across the country, the ballet was grappling with the current culture that has emerged from its elite past – and working to change it.

For many years, the not-so-discrete art form favored white dancers with a certain thin, forlorn body type, and presented numerous barriers to entry for dancers who didn’t fit the bill. While ballet still has a long way to go, industry leaders like Addison and Sklute are doing their part to envision – and shape – a different future for dance. In addition to Addison’s debut, Jenna Rae Herrera will be Ballet West’s first Latina Juliet and Hadriel Diniz, who plays Romeo, is one of the first Brazilian dancers cast for the role.

“I see a ballet company and what we produce on stage as a microcosm of the world,” he says. “What I want to see on stage is the world I live in, and the world I live in is a rich, diverse world filled with people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and I want to celebrate that on stage. “

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