Since the age of 5, Julianne Russell dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer.
And over the past 20 years, Russell has had a fulfilling career as a professional ballet dancer working for prestigious regional ballet companies, including the Ballet Theater of Maryland in Annapolis and the Manassas Ballet Theatre.
But Russell, now 31, said it was finally time to retire. For her final performance, she will play the lead role in Manassas Ballet Theater’s upcoming production of “Giselle” – a classical, romantic ballet that speaks to the power of true love – which will debut in mid-May.
“It’s such a beautiful role to play,” said Russell, who joined Manassas Ballet as a company dancer in 2012.
Russell previously served as a stunt double for the role of Giselle when Manassas Ballet did the production in 2015, and she always wanted to play the part herself.
Luckily, when the show opens on May 14, Russell will perform to an audience of more than 200 socially distant people spread across the 1,123-seat main theater at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.
The two most recent performances of Manassas Ballet, “Nutcracker” and “Peter and the Wolf and morewere also performed in front of a live audience. But Virginia’s COVID-19 guidelines at the time allowed the Hylton to have a maximum of just 75 people in the audience for each performance.
Amy Wolfe, artistic director of Manassas Ballet, said that while audiences will be larger for “Giselle,” the ballet company is still limited in the number of dancers it can have onstage.
So, in what has become a COVID-19 tradition, Wolfe split his dancers into two separate casts in accordance with updated state safety guidelines. This means that Russell will co-star with one of his colleagues, Kaitlin Frankenfield, who will play Giselle with the second cast.
“So I re-ran it as a double and this time we’re up to four shows, so each cast can do it twice,” Wolfe said.
Russell said sharing the role with Frankenfield was wonderful.
“She has danced the role before and has shared many character and choreography ideas with me,” Russell added. “We really help each other out as much as we can, and Kaitlin has taught me a lot. She’s also one of my closest friends in the company, so it was really special to work so closely together for my last performance.
Russell will appear as Giselle in the first performance on Friday, May 14, then perform in the matinee on Saturday, May 15. Frankenfield will play Giselle for the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee shows.
The performances will not have a live orchestra but will use recorded music, Wolfe said. Audience members will also be required to wear a mask and follow social distancing guidelines, and no gatherings will be permitted in the lobby before or after the performance.
Despite these restrictions, Wolfe and Russell said they were confident the performance would still be magical for those who saw it in person.
“Giselle is such a complex character,” Russell said. “She goes through so many different emotions throughout the show, and I’m really excited to try to connect with that and…that the audience can feel what she’s feeling.”
Russell said ballet dancers typically retire at a young age. Nevertheless, she plans to keep ballet for part of her life after leaving Manassas Ballet.
“I’m going to move more into making costumes, both for Manassas [Ballet] and elsewhere, and still teach [ballet]”, said Russel. “And then also I worked on my personal training certification. I would like to use it to help dancers and with cross-training and injury prevention and rehabilitation and things like that So I really want to stay close to the dance world.
Wolfe said she was delighted that Russell was willing to continue teaching at Manassas Ballet Theatre’s Ballet Academy, where Russell currently teaches, at least once a week and also helps with costume making for professional performances.
“We absolutely loved having him here,” Wolfe said. “[Russel] is a beautiful dancer and a beautiful person, and an amazing team member…. She really wants to stay in the Manassas ballet family, and I’m thrilled about that.
Russell has stated that she does not plan to continue doing ballet professionally as a dancer and that Giselle will be her last performance.
“But never say never,” she added.