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Spotlight on Justin Genna: Milwaukee Ballet's Resident Rock Star

Justin GennaJustin Genna. Photo: Jessica Kaminski

Meet Justin Genna. Ballet dancer by day. Rock star by night. Anyone who has seen him in his street clothes wouldn’t be surprised to find out he’s in a band. His punk rock t-shirts might give him away. But I think most might find the juxtaposition of pliés and power chords a bit surprising. But it’s true! In fact, Justin is in the process of creating a new band with fellow Company dancer Rachel Malehorn. He calls their style an experiment of playing country music with a little volume, “Think Hank Williams meets Motorhead,” he says. As Justin is our resident rock star, I thought it might be interesting to sit with him and chat about the music of Spring Series, and find out if there is a connection between playing music and interpreting it as a dancer.

I know you started dancing young so you probably were a dancer before you were a musician, right?

Yep. I started dancing at 8, and I didn’t start playing music until I was 13.

First instrument?
Bass guitar. I played a lot of grunge and punk rock.

Did you have any posters up on your wall?
I still do (laughs)! I was really into The Dead Kennedys, Nirvana, The Violent Femmes. Since then I’ve started listening to a little bit of everything, but those are probably still my favorites.

Does being a musician influence the way you hear the music in rehearsals?
It helps me find stuff in the music that a lot of people don’t hear as dancers. I’ve noticed that working over time. For example, when we did Common People, a lot of people were having trouble with the counts in Ben Folds' music, but there was a simple rock beat. To me, it was straight forward because I’ve heard it before, but a lot of people struggled with it. I guess that’s when it hit me.

Do you ever just get to rock out in your head when you’re dancing?
Usually when I’m dancing, I’m dancing. It’s completely different than playing music for me. I get pumped up dancing to good music, but it’s still different than playing. On that same note, a lot of music that I listen to, you just don’t dance to. It’s not like I’ll ever be doing contemporary ballet to the Motorhead. But that might be interesting…

Let’s get a musician’s take on the music of Spring Series. What can people look forward to in the show musically speaking.
Celts is pretty straight forward. It’s traditional Irish music, but there are a lot of drums in it. There’s this big booming war drum sound. So percussive. I love it.

Matthew Neenan’s piece [The Last Glass] is set to the music of a band called Beirut. It reminds me of when we danced to Devotchka in Petr Zarhradnícek’s Concourse a few years ago. Classic threes and waltzes, sounds Eastern European. Almost sounds gypsy-esque.

The third piece is Extremely Close, and it’s set to piano music by Philip Glass and Dennis O’Halloran. I’m familiar with Philip Glass’ music. Everybody loves Philip Glass. He uses a lot of arpeggios and full chords and descending chord progressions you can relate to really easily. There’s always a simple chord progression underneath and arpeggios on top. Everything just always fits, but there’s layers in it. It’s iconic. It's his style. That’s how we kind of are as ballet dancers. There’s a certain way we do everything that’s our own. I respect that about Philip Glass.

You can see Justin Genna "rocking" on stage in Spring Series March 29-April 1 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Leslie Rivers
Marketing Associate