SOUL: Julie Niekrasz

Our SOUL program features the debut of Julie Niekrasz's In Search Of. In preparation for the premiere, we sat down with Ballet Memphis' rehearsal director / choreographer to discuss the search of human connection through art. To catch Julie's piece entitled In Search Of, join us for Soul starting April 22nd at 7:30pm CST.

Our Choreographer Q&A with Julie Niekrasz:

Your piece “In Search Of” is inspired by a documentary. Can you tell us a bit about that?

In my search for music and voices of the Soul era, Artistic Director, Steven McMahon, suggested I watch the 2021 Oscar winning documentary, Summer of Soul, which chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. I was inspired by the beauty of people coming to together in pure celebration of culture, music, and sharing in human connection. The 1960's was the apex of the Soul era and this festival had names such as BB King, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension and Stevie Wonder.

What prompted you to select this historic time period of civil unrest and cultural celebration?

The Summer of Soul documentary, I had never heard of it, and neither had many renowned musicians from today, including the producer of the documentary, Questlove. Sadly, the film footage from the HCF sat in a basement for 50 years. Why was this festival, meant to build community and give the public hope and inspiration, not headlining news? It was the height of cultural change in music, fashion, politics and civil rights. This festival was a response to all of that.

Julie Niekrasz, Choreographer
I hope the audience takes away a sense of belonging, community, the struggles and joys of love, and to celebrate human connection.

Describe the music you choreographed the piece to? How did you select these songs?

I chose two Booker T and the MG's songs- the first sounds like a start of a party- people are excited and on their way. I wanted this section to feel like the festival- full of youth, energy, and joy. The 2nd BTMG song has a much silkier tone, with a beautiful escalation in depth, layers, and rhythms.

For the duets, I was seeking women vocalists for this work. Women didn't necessarily have much of a voice 60 years ago, so I wanted to hear from a woman's perspective. I fell in love with Ruby Johnson's song, I'll Run Your Hurt Away. It’s almost like her voice comes from the depths of her soul, and she does not hide the cracks, the hurt, or the imperfections as she sings. She is exactly who she is and it is raw and beautiful. That is what attracted me to her song. The second powerhouse woman I'm using is Leela James, a soul sound from today. She encapsulates the same feelings that I heard in Ruby, but Leela with a softer, tender tone about trust and love, in her song Fall for You.

What do you hope the audience will take away from “In Search Of”?

Each of the four sections has a very different tone- I hope the audience takes away a sense of belonging, community, the struggles and joys of love, and to celebrate human connection. Without each other, how are we to give of ourselves to share our gifts, thoughts and passions? Why create if for no one else to enjoy it?

Ballet Memphis is calling this performance a Return to Soul, but I wanted to return to celebration as well. I think this is an appropriate time to be reminded that there is a lot to celebrate, even when through difficult times.