Juliet Doherty is one of the new rising stars of ballet. As many have observed, she seems to have been built for classical dance, with her endless extensions and beautifully arched feet. But in the world of ballet, being biologically blessed means very little without the requisite hard work to learn how to use your gifts to your advantage. And despite a rocky relationship with the art when she was younger, Juliet’s commitment to the art has seen her star climb higher and higher.
She’s picked up a slew of awards over the years, including gold at the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix. She’s danced with in Radio City Music Hall with the famed Rockettes, performed in the acclaimed new musical Little Dancer and attracted herself a legion of fans numbering in the hundreds of thousands, as a glance at her social media will tell you.
Juliet is upbeat and charming, and talking to her now you wouldn’t have guessed that she was once a ballet-averse kid with a ‘horrible attitude’, as she candidly puts it. Such honesty can only indicate that her ‘horrible’ days are well behind her. To be open about past mistakes and learn from them as Juliet has will go a long way towards making smooth that steep and rocky path to success that she is steadily ascending.
C&V SESSIONS WITH JULIET DOHERTY
What did you have for breakfast?
I made banana ice cream, which is frozen bananas blended together. That’s my favourite breakfast.
What did you wish you had for breakfast instead, if anything?
Nothing. I love having ice-cream for breakfast. I think it’s the best thing. Sometimes I’ll mix things in, like I’ll put cocoa powder to make it chocolate-y or fruits like blueberries.
Was the performing arts something that you’ve always wanted to do as a career?
Performing was something I’ve always loved from a young age.
My first stage show was Annie when I was 6. I played one of the girls named Molly. I loved acting and singing and connecting with the audience, that was very special.
Ballet came later for me though. For several years when I was younger my parents had to force me into class. I was only interested in ballet when I was older and able to appreciate it more and hear my mother – it was a bit harder to be coached by my mum when I was young. But when I was older I was able to hear her more and take her criticism, and I started to appreciate ballet more and love it.
The dynamic between you and your mother must have been different from that of a normal coach-student relationship. How did you guys balance that aspect of having a mother/daughter relationship on one hand, and a coach/student one?
Sometimes when I was younger I would bring things into the studio from outside – like if something happened in the car I would take it to the studio. I remember having a horrible attitude in the studio when I was younger and not being able to take my mum’s corrections during rehearsals.
But my parents talked a lot to me and I started to mature and I finally flipped a switch.I started to hear my mum’s coaching and not take it personally – I realised that this was the studio, not at home, and I needed to respect the art and respect the coach. And I started to improve more.
We definitely have a different relationship from a normal student-teacher one. It’s a great one; I’m very lucky. Now whenever I come home I always take classes with my mum. It’s definitely different from what it used to be.
Now I’m more mature and I now know that you can’t just come into class with a poor attitude. You have to be able to show up and be willing you hear what people say to you. Because that’s what’s going to help you down the road in your career. There will be so many people telling you their opinions and you need to be able to hear everything people say and take it or leave it. You have to be able to come into any situation with an open mind.
Photo: Gregory Batardon
Why did your mother have you stick with dance despite your initial resistance?
We didn’t have many options! I wasn’t very interested in after-school sports. I knew that kicking a soccer ball definitely didn’t feel the same as dancing! I was definitely too soft for sports and couldn’t handle anything aggressive like that.
My parents told me to stick with it, and I did love it. Even if I wasn’t super interested ballet all the time, I’ve always loved the expression and being on stage and performing. I always knew I wanted to be on stage singing or dancing or acting or some combination of that.
What made you decide to focus strictly on ballet as opposed to other forms of dance, or acting?
I started going to the YAGP when I was 9 and that was when I got a glimpse into the world of strict classical ballet. I got into the finals and even though I was young I was so inspired by all the professionals at the gala and the more senior students. It made such an impression on me and I think that was what first lit a spark. As I continued to train I fell more in love with it. The classical side takes so much discipline and concentration that it becomes something you almost crave. When you’ve worked so hard and feel like you’ve poured everything you’ve had into it, it’s so rewarding.
But I’ve kept up singing lessons and acting on the side. I try to keep an open mind because I love all of those things. I don’t want to say that I only want to be a ballet dancer. There’s so much time even after your professional ballet career is over and you need to have other interests to keep yourself busy and be open to any opportunities that come up.
Last year you had your first Prix de Lausanne experience. You’re quite a seasoned and accomplished competitor but was the Prix vastly different from your previous experiences?
It was. Usually in competitions you show up and perform your piece and that’s it. But the Prix is almost like a little short intensive course – you’re evaluated in your classical and contemporary classes and your 2 performances. And they watch you all week in the studio and on-stage. That was very different for me, totally new. And it was my first time performing on a raked stage – I went from dancing all my life on a flat surface to having to learn how to dance on an angled stage in 5 days.
Juliet in our Fouetté tank
From the audience’s perspective the rake doesn’t seem very significant, but it seems like quite a big thing for performers to adjust to – especially if you’re in pointe shoes.
Sometimes the rake can help you, if you can figure out how to use it.
But I remember – I did Swanilda and that first diagonal is the hardest part, and I remember before my variation thinking, “okay! Let’s see how this goes!” and not feeling completely in control because you’e going at an angle and your pointe shoes are not completely on the ground in any way because the stage is slanted. I just hoped for the best and as I was getting more into the performance onstage I kind of relaxed into it. But at first you can really feel the difference in your body and you really have to adjust.
You had a small slip during your classical variation. Was that due to the raked stage?
Yes, I remember being so unsure during those first turns and that’s what happened.
What was going through your mind? What did you tell yourself to get through the routine?
When you’re in the performance you have to completely let go of what happens because it’s going to get in the way of the rest of the routine if you hold onto it the entire time. So I wanted to pretend that it didn’t happen and just kept going.
But afterwards, as a dancer you analyse everything so it was definitely on my mind. But I think pretty much everyone who went out there had some little thing, and we’re all students so it was a learning experience. That’s what the Prix is about – the entire experience of being in the class and on-stage and working one-on-one with coaches. So it’s a learning experience, not just a competition.
That’s a good mindset to have. It’s easy to get so caught up in the competition because that’s what you practice so much for.
A lot of competitions you practice one solo over and over again, but in Prix you have to be strong in the class and in contemporary as well. You have to be well-rounded and not just good at your one solo.
You seemed more comfortable by the time your contemporary piece came around.
I was definitely more comfortable because I wasn’t in pointe shoes, first of all! And contemporary is more flexible and you can kind of make it your own. If you make one little mistake it can’t really be seen, you can change it a little bit and move on.
But classical is very strict, it’s more black and white. If you make one little tiny mistake, it’s very obvious because it’s supposed to be a certain way and it was choreographed so long ago. With contemporary you can make it your own a little more.
And it was my second piece – having the classical variation be my first piece was a bit nerve-wrecking. Once you’ve been out there and gotten a feel for the audience you feel a bit more comfortable coming back out.
Juliet’s contemporary piece at the Prix de Lausanne
Do you have any plans to compete this year?
I’m not planning to compete in the spring. I just finished performing in Little Dancer with Tiler Peck – I had to take a leave of absence from San Francisco Ballet for that and I didn’t want to defer the entire year, so I’m going back to finish up the entire year there.
I’ll be a trainee, which is halfway between a student and an apprentice, so I’ll be working with the Artistic Director and the main company a little bit more. So I’ll probably be staying in San Francisco for the rest of the year.
Why did you decide to enroll in San Francisco Ballet?
It was a big decision, but we knew as a family that the things I wanted to get to and accomplish meant I had to push myself a bit further.
I kind of had no choice – if I wanted to keep growing I had to go away as there’s not that much happening in New Mexico. When I won YAGP at 14 I had a few different choices as to where to go and I had a good feeling about Patrick [Armand], the artistic director at San Francisco Ballet School. I went to their summer program and enjoyed it there and I love the city. So far it’s been a good fit for me.
Do you get to be mentored by the dancers in the main company or is the school very separate from the main company?
It’s pretty separate but it’s becoming more integrated.
In the past few years I’ve taken class from several principal dancers. And for my variation at YAGP last year, Grand Pas Classique, I was able to be coached by Sofiane Sylve who is a principal dancer. I feel very fortunate to work with her because she’s performed it so many times.
I’m normally coached by Patrick – he’s incredible and it’s great to have his coaching. But it was nice to get a woman’s perspective as well, because she’s been in pointe shoes and done the variation. She was able to give me a lot more of helpful hints.
Let’s talk about Little Dancer. You’ve been involved in it for a long time – since the workshop process.
Yeah, I wasn’t part of the first workshop in 2010. I hadn’t heard of it then. They had a second workshop in 2012. The casting agency for the show contacted me and asked me to audition for the show in May of 2012. So I did, and was cast in the lab, as they called it.
I went to New York City that summer for 2 weeks – we learnt some dancing and all of the songs from the show. It was very bare. Just minimal choreography, reading lines and singing that we presented to investors to show them what the show could be like with their help.
After that, I went back to San Francisco and didn’t hear anything for 2 years until they contacted me in 2014 and told me it was coming a show and asked me to be a part of it. I was faced with a touch decision, because I had just been promoted to trainee at San Francisco, but I decided that I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be on stage and be dancing and singing and acting – all these things I enjoy. It was an incredible experience to be part of the show.
Juliet at the Prix de Lausanne
Photo: Gregory Batardon
It must have been amazing to perform such new material from such a talented group of creative that were involved in the show – Susan Stroman, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty.
Susan Stroman, our director, has so much experience in Broadway and so much success to show for it. It was an amazing experience to be in the studio with her – not many directors are as open to hearing your opinion or being so workable. With Susan, she wanted to hear everyone’s opinion and was so gracious with everyone. It makes you want to work harder, knowing that someone appreciates what you’re doing.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote the lyrics and composed the score and it was incredible to be in the rehearsal room with them when they’re working. Sometimes they would get thrown things, like if some music needed to be changed because there was a battement added and the music needed to be bigger. Stephen would just make something up off the top of his head and it would sound perfect. Lynn was always writing and changing lines. It was such an experience to see that process happening right before my eyes.
Was it hard to keep up? Because when you’re putting a show together things are changing all the time, like you said, with the line changes and blocking and staging and all that.
We didn’t freeze the show until we fully opened. We performed the show for 4 weeks at the Kennedy Center before we opened properly and ran for 10 days after that.
But for the first 4 weeks we would rehearse in the day, changing things, and perform the show at night. So every night we were performing a different show. You had to be so quick on your feet and remember all the changes from the lines to the music to the choreography. You really had to think and be completely aware the entire time.
What was it like performing 8 times a week, especially with such a physical, dance-heavy show?
It was tiring, I have to say. By the time my day off came I wanted to just lie in bed the entire time.
It took a lot of energy every single night. We have one dance in the show that’s a 5 to 7 minute number. We’re at the barre and at the center, dancing and singing in full voice, doing battements and holding a note for 16 counts. It took a lot of stamina that I had to build up.
It was a process that we had to get used to, because in dance you have to hold your stomach in and keep your core really strong, but when you’re singing your core has to be really relaxed. It took a while to find that balance. We were looking at each other in rehearsal thinking, “how are we going to do this? We can’t get the notes out when we’re dancing!”
It took a while to figure out, and we also had the support for the rest of the cast onstage who weren’t dancing; they could back us up in case we needed to take a breath. In singing lessons, the coach will tell you to find your breath in certain areas. It helps so much when you’re dancing to find those moments when you can suck on the air to keep singing!
It definitely strengthened all aspects of my performance to be able to do that all at once – dancing on pointe and singing and keeping character.
Photo: Oliver Endahl; Ballet Zaida
Did you reach a point where you could let go or was there too much to keep track of in the show?
I was enjoying the performance every single day. But in the beginning, there was a lot of thinking and keeping track of everything, all the different changes. Once the show opened we all as a company kind of relaxed into our performance, be in our characters and feel so comfortable doing what we’re doing.
Do you have a favourite moment from the show?
My favourite moment was probably the opening number, C’est Le Ballet. I remember being backstage the moment before we go on; the rest of the dancers and I would all look at each other and nod our heads – “okay we’re ready let’s do it,” and then running on-stage. It’s the first time that we get to see that audience watching the show that night. We would do this crazy waltz circle at the end, just spinning and spinning, and being lifted into the air and all that. It was really high energy and exciting.
What was it like watching Tiler Peck rehearse and perform night after night?
She was so incredible. When we were rehearsing in New York, she would be in rehearsals with New York City Ballet during the morning, and come rehearse with us during the day, and she would do a performance with NYCB during the night. She had so much on her plate and handled it so well and so gracefully amidst all the chaos she probably had to go through!
She pretty much carried the show with her dancing, and zipping from the scene from scene for costume changes. It’s so funny watching the chaos backstage, and then having to go on as if nothing has happened. I remember one night, Tiler put on her coat during a quick change – she had, like, 2 seconds to do it, and when she went on stage she still had a silver hanger dangling from the back of the coat. So the woman playing her mum had to nonchalantly take it off her and hide it and go on like nothing happened.
There’s a 10 minute number at the end of the show and Tiler’s just dancing through 110%, just leaping, doing lifts and partnering. It’s crazy that she was able to do a whole show and perform a 10 minute dancer number at the end. It’s really inspiring.
You seem like someone who is a very positive person, which is important given how exacting and punishing ballet can be. Is there anything you do to consciously maintain that positive attitude?
It’s a constant battle, I think, for everyone. There’s confidence, but there’s always that little voice in your head that’s doubting you, and making you second guess yourself. I’ve been lucky to have the support of my parents. They’ve been so clear-minded my entire life. It’s great to be able to come home to that, or call them when I’m in San Francisco. When I’m having those thoughts and am really stressed out and doubting myself, I always reach out and call them for their support and guidance.
I think it’s important to have someone you can look to for that kind of support and get out of your own head – sometimes it’s not the best place to be. It’s important to clear your mind and hear another person’s perspective every once in a while, and have their encouragement.
Photo: Dane Shitagi
Your have a sister, Keely, who dances as well. Does she want to be a professional dancer?
She’s my little sister and ballet is not her favourite. She likes contemporary a lot and she’s really good at hip hop, which is not my strong suit! She does tap and all those other styles.
I don’t know if she wants to pursue dancing professionally. She’s super smart, she has great grades at school and she enjoys the social aspect of it. She has a bunch of different interests and she’s only 14 so she’s still figuring out what she wants.
Being a ballet dancer, you have to know that you want to do this from a very young age. But most other people kind of figure out what they want later on down the road.
You’re also a vegan. Was this a conscientious lifestyle change or did you grow up as a vegan?
My Dad and I have been vegan for about a year. My mum and sister are omnivorous but they do lean more towards vegetarian.
I pretty much grew up eating a standard American diet, but always what I’ve considered very healthy. But a year and a half ago I felt like I didn’t have the energy I wanted. I wasn’t feeling my best. I started doing my research and my dad gave me a book about adding more greens into your diet. That set everything in motion .
So I started putting spinach and kale into my smoothies every morning, and began eliminating animal products from my diet. Becoming a vegan wasn’t something I planned to do, it was just something that happened as I kept researching. I also happened upon the ethical side of it and learnt about the food industry and the well-being of animals. And it’s something I’ve stuck with because I believe in it now that I know about it.
I think different things work for everyone. It’s important for people to do their own research about vegan diets, and not just see someone’s post on instagram and say, “I want to do that’’. It can be detrimental if they don’t know enough about it. It’s been such a learning process for me. I’ve finally come to a point where I’ve found a pattern that works for me over a year later.
You have to go on your own journey and you can’t do what anyone else says. You have to find what specifically works for you and know enough about it where you’re not hurting yourself more than you’re healing yourself.
Do you feel the weight of your influence, because you have such a prominent following on instagram?
I’m very aware that there are a lot of young girls following me and if they look up to me I want to influence them in positive ways and be a good role model for them. It’s not really me either to be negative, unless I’m in a grumpy mood – which happens! I want to be someone people look up to and reach out to for guidance. I feel really lucky to have all these girls looking up to me and supporting me, especially on days when I’m not feeling my best. Even if I don’t know them, they’re my friends from around the world.
Photo: Haze Kware
What keeps you motivated – what’s your reason for getting out of bed in the morning and going to the studio?
It’s different every day. Different things inspire me. One thing is the pure technique of classical dance – it’s something I’ve fallen in love with. Getting up in the morning and doing your plies and tendues at the barre is kind of like a ritual that you do everyday, and when you skip a day you do miss it
Some days when I’m not feeling like I want to do it, it’s just realising what’s in the way and letting go of that, and being committed to what you set out to do. Your commitment is greater than whatever little thing is in the way.
What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses as a dancer?
I’d like to improve on everything! I think my work is far from over. I look forward to constantly working and there’s so much to learn. I’d like to be able to work on everything and hone my craft and go out on stage and perform without any reservation – that comes with more experience, I think.
I’m most comfortable when I’m on stage, so I think my strength is the performing aspect of it. And technically in the studio I’d like to keep working on everything.
So confidence has not been a big issue for you when performing, per se?
I still get the nerves, but I’ve always been more nervous dancing in front of smaller crowds inside the studio than going out on stage and performing in front of 6000 people. I’ve always felt more comfortable and more myself on stage. When you’re in the studio with 2 of your teachers standing in front of you it’s a lot more nerve-wrecking.
What accomplishment were you most proud of in 2014?
2014 was crazy! So exciting! One thing that I’m proud of is returning to YAGP and winning the gold medal in another division.
It was a last minute decision, I only rehearsed for 3 weeks and my contemporary was thrown together by my mum and I the weekend before I left. But I wanted to go again to perform and get back into the competition scene and be back in New York City, which I love. It was a whirlwind and I was just so happy to be performing in the final round, and when I heard my name called at the awards ceremony I was just blown away.
What are your plans for 2015?
I’m going back to San Francisco and I’ll finish up the semester there. I’ll probably perform with them at the end of the year showcase in May.
Little Dancer is probably going to do another run in Los Angeles this year – I haven’t heard any news yet and neither have the rest of my friends in the cast. We don’t know if they’ll be moving forward with new people or not, but there’s a possibility that I’ll be back performing in the show; hopefully it will move to Broadway in the fall.
I also have a movie to film sometime in the future – it keeps getting pushed out for various production reasons so I’m just waiting on that. Right now it’s officially untitled, but it’s called the Joy Womack project. It’s part fact and part fiction about her experience training at the Bolshoi and being the first American to be accepted into the Russian program. I’ll be playing Joy.
Did you make any new year’s resolutions?
I never make any new year’s resolutions! I should start doing that. My dad and I had a conversation in the car about his friend who created a word that he would try to live by for the rest of the year.
His friend’s word was ‘jackpot’: that he was going to live this year from the perspective of winning and having great experiences. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to find a word and live by it for the rest of the year.
Text, header graphic by Min, Cloud & Victory.
Header pic originally by BalletZaida