Pennsylvania Ballet’s Jermel Johnson Leaps Through Barriers

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 7, 2013

Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer dances the lead in the company's winter contemporary program this weekend. EDGE spoke to Johnson about his career, the barriers he's crossed & his renowned leaps.

From the moment Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Jermel Johnson leapt across the stage, stunningly framed by a metallic triangular set in the company's production of Matt Neenan's "Carmina Burana," his command in the air was clear. He and fellow cast member Francis Veyette, another great jumper, danced the pugilistic duet that required them to execute huge aerial layouts, capoeira laterals and air slicing jetes.

This weekend Johnson dances the lead in George Balanchine's "Square Dance" on Pennsylvania Ballet's winter contemporary program that includes Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain" and Twyla Tharp's comic ballet "Push Comes to Shove."

Pushing through barriers

As an out gay black male ballet principal dancer of a major American company, Johnson pushes through several fading barriers. It is, indeed, still rare to see an African Americans men or women in classical ballet companies, even though that fact doesn't necessarily point to industry racism. For years, Meredith Rainey was the only African American soloist at PB, as excellent as he was, still couldn't land certain lead roles in classical dance; without doubt, he pushed the barre toward role equality for minorities in ballet.

Johnson talked about his rise at Pennsylvania Ballet at City Institute Library earlier this week. An audience member asked him what kind of pressure it puts on him as being one of the few African American principals in classical ballet, and how it feels to be a role model.

"I don't see myself as a role model, because I do what I love. I've just had a hard working mentality from my parents. I told them what I wanted to do and they knew it could be rough, but they did what they could to make it happen."

He did acknowledge that younger minority dancers have contacted him via social media "Some younger dance students contacted me on Facebook and left messages like 'we love watching you dance ballet and you've been an inspiration to me. ' That touched me in the context of giving someone hope."

Fast rise

In 2003, Johnson was in New York studying at the prestigious School of American Ballet, when he was hired by Pennsylvania Ballet's apprentice company and quickly advanced to corps de ballet, then soloist and became a principal dancer last year. His fast rise bought him international attention in 2008, when he received a prestigious Ballet Fellowship from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA.

Johnson isn't cocky about his ability to stay in the air and focuses on the physics of jumping all the time. "My jumps get higher... I can up-jump from a still position, things like that. I feel very relaxed and free in the air. But there is a lot to learn always."

His fearless flights have brought him some level of injury and he works to counteract the accumulated toll just moves can have on the body.

Last year, Johnson was cast in his biggest role so far: Jesus in Robert Weiss's "Messiah," which he said was immensely satisfying but emotionally challenging to act and dance.

Johnson notes that he has had to strengthen his partnering skills and is now not only dancing them with ease, but enjoying them as well. He finished a stellar run as Cavalier in "The Nutcracker," dancing the central pas de deux with the technically brilliant PB principal Amy Aldridge. Johnson and Aldridge will partners again in "Square Dance," scored to music of baroque composers Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli. In March, Johnson will dance a role he's wanted to do since he started his career: Puck in Balanchine's magical "A Midsummer's Night Dream."

Johnson talked openly about his life as a dancer and sharing it with his life partner, David Jackson (aka DJ). They have been together five years. Jackson is a paramedic and one time fire chief in Lancaster County. He is now an avid dance fan. After a performance recently, Jackson presented him with the new member of their family, a chocolate Labrador pup. Johnson proudly showed a mobile video of Bella at dog school after our conversation.

Pennsylvania Ballet's 'Balanchine/Wheedon/Tharp program runs for five performances at the Merriam Theater Feb 7-10. For tickets online check | 215-893-1999

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.