Julie Marie Niekrasz is a triple threat, a dancer, rehearsal director, and choreographer who started with Ballet Memphis as a young professional dancer following training at the School of American Ballet in New York City, a trainee program at the Milwaukee Ballet, and time at the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Throughout her career, she’s danced lead roles such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet; she’s choreographed new pieces that have pushed the traditional lens of classical ballet to address issues such as social justice, and now, she’s leading the next generation of dancers as they take on both traditional and new movement styles. We spoke to her ahead of the upcoming season, where Ballet Memphis will joyfully return to the stage and their audience.
You’ve spent your entire career growing at Ballet Memphis, but you’re originally from Chicago. What has kept you rooted in this area?
I danced with the Memphis Ballet for 18 years, and I’ve been the Rehearsal Director and Choreographer for three years now. Originally, I may have underestimated the South, but I fell in love with the arts community. From the ballet to theater to the rich musical history, there’s so much here.
How has Ballet Memphis navigated the evolving pandemic world?
Last season, it was all virtual, free-to-the-public performances. Dancers got to choreograph and make their own films, while we recorded a professional film of The Nutcracker. We were fortunate – we tested every week and had no cases and were able to end our season with a big outdoor performance. This year, it’s back to normal.
Our art is so challenging and so difficult in so many ways, and the dancers have to sacrifice an incredible amount to do this every day, and when we don’t have an audience, the energy isn’t the same. Having an audience back in our home is a huge deal. We are so excited!
You’ve been a dancer, a rehearsal director, and a choreographer at Ballet Memphis. How is the experience different in those roles?
As a rehearsal director, it’s almost like speaking another language. You’re working with someone else’s movement, not your own movement. It’s as if you’re getting insight into their brain. It becomes your responsibility to keep the integrity of the piece and bring the choreographer’s vision to life.
I’ve restaged Romeo and Juliet, as well as Cinderella, and both of those roles are roles I’ve danced. It’s so fun to be able to dive into those characters with the next generation. I’m able to give them insight on the difficult spots, give them tricks, and even tell them how to run up the staircase!
How did you find your way to rehearsal direction and choreography as a dancer?
I had expressed interest in choreographing; I was already creating pieces as a dancer; I knew how to conduct rehearsals and how to rehearse the dancers. While I was still dancing, it was challenging, I would be in two pieces in a performance, and the third was mine. I was involved in every single rehearsal, and I would go from choreographing to putting on pointe shoes and dancing Juliet. But, I tried it once, and I kept trying. It was so exciting to find another creative outlet through dance.
What was your all-time favorite role to dance?
Juliet was my favorite to dance because she was human, and it gave me the opportunity to bring human emotions to life and show feelings without words — just using my body as a tool. Additionally, Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night Dream is a wonderful opportunity to be funny on stage!
So many of us think of ballet as traditional and storied, but you’ve tackled issues like social justice in your work. How did that become part of Ballet Memphis’ repertoire?
At Ballet Memphis, we work on the traditional ballets that people love. However, with Memphis’ history, we feel it’s important that we talk about what’s happening in our world and that we create conversation in the community through art.
You dedicate your time and energy to the Dance for Parkinson’s program. What inspired you to bring this to Memphis?
I knew my retirement from performing was coming, but I didn’t know what my future held. I knew I wanted dance to be a part of it. The Dance for Parkinson’s program was founded in 2001, and I had heard of other ballet companies bringing it to their communities. This represented a part of the community the ballet hadn’t reached before. It’s a highlight of my week now.
For those who have been intimidated by the arts or haven’t developed an appreciation for dance and the ballet, what would you recommend? What’s a good entry point?
It depends on the person. If someone is less familiar with the arts in general, bring them to a story ballet. They’ll understand it, particularly if they already know the story, and they can sit back and enjoy the dance for what it is. If someone loves art, bring them to a mixed repertoire show. They’ll see the versatility of the dancers and the impressive athleticism.
What are your creative outlets outside of ballet?
I love handcrafts, knitting, making scarves, making mosaics. My Polish grandmother, my Baba, was an exceptional baker. Growing up with her traditional Polish/Ukrainian desserts inspired me to start baking. During the holidays, I enjoy making pies with homemade crusts and cookies like gingerbread men, chocolate-orange dipped cookies, and Linzer cookies.
What’s your favorite meal in Memphis?
Edge Alley in the Edge District has the best steak, fries, and scallops in Memphis.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Michelle Obama’s book, and Barack Obama’s book is on my nightstand. I also just finished Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.
Who do you consider the most exciting artists right now?
I’m an old soul when it comes to art. But, right now, I’d say Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who choreographed a ballet about Frida Kahlo. When it comes to my favorites, visual artists are George Greaves, Frida Kahlo, and Ted Faires. My favorite poet is Pauli Murray. Darci Kistler, Marianela Nunez, and Maria Kowroski are ballerinas I look up to. My favorite poet and professional drummer is John Niekrasz.
What advice do you have for women who are evolving their careers from the first act to the second? Do you have particular advice for creatives?
For me, failure is and was something not to be afraid of. It’s okay to fail because it’s the only way you’re going to learn. You have to get over your own fears and judgments while staying true to yourself. Ask yourself creatively, what is your mission? Is it a sense of community? Belonging? Joy? Authenticity is critical.
Beyond faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My husband’s cooking, coffee, and art.
Thank you, Julie! All photography by Ziggy Mack.
To meet more inspiring Memphis women, visit our FACES archives.