Down to earth and approachable, former Smuin dancer Jonathan Powell isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. After eight seasons of performing with the Company, the dancer took his final bows on stage in March 2018. “I’m so thankful that my eight years at Smuin have been just so happy and blessed. I’m so glad that everyone’s been so supportive of me all these years. They’ve let me grow and find who I am as a dancer, and just be myself,” Powell observed in a recent conversation. Support and encouragement are progressive themes in his journey as a dancer. His first encounters with ballet stemmed from necessity, rather than outright passion. “I was trying to pick which classes I was going to take in high school and I knew I didn’t want to do gym,” Powell remembered. “My older sister was taking a dance class that counted towards the physical education credit. I thought: ‘That sounds cool!’” That seemingly inconsequential decision at 14 was the first step that lead Powell to discover his love of dance.
Powell had a somewhat nomadic childhood, so when his family moved to South Dakota, and then to Pennsylvania the following year, he often made long trips to neighboring towns simply to take ballet class. Upon graduating from high school, Powell joined the dance program at Indiana University under the tutelage of famed ballerina Violette Verdy. To hear Powell tell the story makes the extraordinary seem quite ordinary. “She pulled me aside one day and said ‘Jonathan: you’re really good and you should go to a professional ballet school.’ And I said: ‘That sounds great! I’d love to!’” Powell promptly unenrolled from Indiana University and set his sights on San Francisco Ballet School. “[The School] let me stay the year on scholarship and they paid for my apartment for my roommate and me. I was very thankful for that.”
After just one year of training at the school, Powell was offered a job at Ballet Memphis. “I asked my teacher, Jeffrey Lyons, if I should take the job or stay and improve as a student,” Powell recollects. “He told me to take the job, because you’re still learning ballet all the time, whether you’re taking class all day or rehearsing all day.” Powell attributed this move to the world of professional ballet as what ultimately helped him find his style as a dancer. “In a ballet school, you’re just doing ballet all day every day, maybe sometimes you get a contemporary class,” he recalled. “It’s all so structured and disciplined that it’s hard to know who you are as a dancer in that environment.”
Following a successful seven-year stint in Memphis, Powell joined Smuin in August of 2010. “I was really excited,” he said of the new experience. “[Smuin] had different teachers everyday, they had a pianist almost everyday, and it was in San Francisco!” Powell had previously danced with John Speed Orr and Matt Linzer, who were both dancers with the Company at the time. Fortunately for Powell, the familiar faces didn’t end with the dancers. When choreographer Trey McIntyre was brought in to create a new work for the Company the same year, Powell’s existing relationship with McIntyre made for a comfortable transition to Smuin. “Trey McIntyre had been the resident choreographer at Ballet Memphis just about the entire time I was there. So, we were doing a Trey piece every year,” Powell recalled. “I had gotten comfortable with his movement style and what qualities he wanted.” McIntyre’s resulting ballet, Oh, Inverted World, was one of Powell’s favorites to perform with Smuin. “I loved how athletic it was–you’re just in shorts and no shirt, you get all sweaty. It was a really fun cardiovascular event,” he mused. “I also really enjoyed [McIntyre’s] Be Here Now, particularly the section with Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart. I liked dancing with Tessa [Barbour] and Terez [Dean], and being featured for a moment felt special.”
Athleticism aside, Powell enjoyed the element of showmanship present in many of Michael Smuin’s works and valued Smuin’s signature entertaining style. “It’s not pretending to be something it’s not,” he said of the Company founder’s works. “Doing Fly Me to the Moon and Dancin’ with Gershwin was great. I loved running around with those big fans,” he grinned. “It’s just for the visual spectacularness! I really appreciated that.”
As for his favorite more classical Smuin roles, Powell had an admitted bias. “I loved doing Romeo and Juliet with my wife Erin; that was a real treat. I liked doing Baby It’s Cold Outside with Erin, actually… just about anything with Erin!” Powell’s enthusiasm for dancing with his partner in life was quite palpable. “She’s a great dancer, and she knows when something doesn’t feel right and how to fix it; how I can help as a partner. She knows a thing or two about a thing or two,” he beamed. One of his most memorable moments with Smuin came as a surprise during his very last performance with the Company in Carmel, California. “I was dancing with Erica Felsch in Moonlight Serenade. I did the very last jeté with her and she ran offstage. She was supposed to run out and tap me on the shoulder. But, Erin had put the costume on in secret while I was dancing and came out to meet me instead of Erica Felsch,” Powell continued. “[When Erin] tapped me on the shoulder, I started crying on stage. That was really, really special.”
There’s a definite tenacity that Powell has gleaned from his many years as a dancer. “Being a ballet dancer for 15 years really trains your brain to focus when it needs to focus, to wander when it needs to wander, and to stick with it. Whatever you’re doing, stick with it until it’s done,” he affirmed. “I’ve taken away a sense of pride of doing something every day, whether you feel like it or not, because, even though ballet has been my passion and my career, you don’t always want to do it everyday. But, you do! You put on your dance belt and slippers and do your darndest,” Powell enthused. Rather ironically, Powell’s “very first rehearsal as a professional dancer was for Garrett Ammon’s Walk the Line. And, in my last show in Carmel, one of the very last pieces I danced as a professional dancer was Garrett Ammon’s Serenade for Strings,” Powell observed. Undoubtedly, Ammon’s works served as rather poetic bookends to his fruitful time as a dancer. Despite his successful 15 year career as a professional dancer coming to a close, Powell gives the impression that he’s just getting started.