Performing and Parenting: Julia Aplin

I’m not much of a fitness person. I’m a commuter cyclist (streetcars make me nauseous), but on a scale of nerd to jock, I land squarely on the bookish end.

Recently, however, I’ve started exercising. I’m taking kickboxing classes several times a week, and, lately, between my scenes in rehearsal you’ll find me casually doing wall-sits, or push-ups, or planks, revelling in my mock-jock pretentiousness.

I started working out because I’d been having a bit of back trouble, and I decided to get proactive when an RMT told me that nothing is actually wrong with me, I just have no muscle in my back, so stress is pretty much all that’s holding me together.

If I’m completely honest, I’m also working out because I have this secret notion that I should get super-duper fit before I even think about trying to have a baby. For all kinds of reasons: because I imagine fitness will have to take a backseat to other considerations for a while, because I want to bounce back from pregnancy to return to performing, because I’ve definitely absorbed all kinds of societal pressures about healthy childbearing, and because surely being fit will make conception and childbirth a breeze… Right?

Okay, let’s just agree that there are some major flaws in my assumptions here. I recognize that this is all a manifestation of my desire to have more control over the ultimately uncontrollable: the reality and the effect of having a kid.

Still, while I’m thinking about my body, I wanted to talk about parenthood with someone who uses her body in the most incredible ways, and someone whose career has taken her in all kinds of unexpected directions. Julia Aplin is primarily a dancer and choreographer, but her artistry has taken her into all genres of art, including musical performance and composition, visual art, and theatre. She has even choreographed for videogame characters, in her co-creation Halo Ballet. She is a certified Mitzvah Technique teacher, holds a B.A. and B.Ed, and frequently leads a generous and inviting dance class called “Over 40 for Non-dancers.”

I first met Julia when she created some hilarious farce-flamenco for Soulpepper’s The Barber of Seville in 2013. Since then I’ve had the honour of seeing lots of her work, including pieces in Dusk Dances, Zolla, and an early workshop of her co-creation The Yellow Wallpaper, which will be premiering at Theatre Aquarius and the Registry Theatre this summer. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Julia’s ten-year old daughter perform; last year, Julia, her partner, John, and their daughter performed together in a gentle and touching SummerWorks show about their family camping trips.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo by Craig Chambers, Anna Chatterton and Jordana Deveau

Have you always been a dancer?

Yeah, I was trained as a dancer. I started when I was eight years old, I trained in ballet until I was about sixteen, and then I saw Gaby Camino—she came and did a piece at our school and it was modern. And I was from small town Ontario… It blew my mind. I was like, oh my god, that’s what I want to do. So I went to university for dance and then I moved to Toronto and joined a contemporary dance company and I worked there for fifteen years.

But you’re also an interdisciplinary artist, in that you do theatre and music as well as dance. 

Yeah, that all happened after I left the company, when I had my daughter. That was a big turning point in my life.

And tell me about your daughter. How old is she?

She’s ten. She’ll be eleven in a month.

Does she dance?

She dances a lot. It’s funny because when she was little, when she was five, I asked her if she wanted to do dance lessons and she was like “Phsshaw, I know how to dance.” But then recently, maybe three years ago, one of her really good friends was talking about dance class and she said, “Well, maybe I’ll try,” and she just loves it so much, she goes four or five times a week, she begs to do more.

So ten years ago you and your partner, who works in the arts as a musician and sound designer, decided to have a kid. What was that decision like? 

I just always wanted to have a kid, and I had to convince John it was a great idea, ’cause he was kinda like, “Eh.”

And was it a matter of “I’m in a stable relationship, let’s do this,” or did the stars align in a career/financial sense, or…

It was sort of all of those things. We’d been together nine years, maybe ten. I was ready to stop dancing full-time, so that was a big thing for me, and his career was getting more stable. He was artistic director of the Music Gallery at that time, so he had a salary for the first time ever. It wasn’t huge, but just having a stable income for more than one or two gigs was pretty big. And we had bought this house together. So … I just really wanted to have a kid.

That’s a lot of big life changes all at once—leaving a company, changing your career, buying property with your partner, having a kid. Was it a challenging time? 

Yes. Yes, totally. It took me a while after our daughter was born to figure out who I was again. Because right up until then I was… I was at Dancemakers for fifteen years, that’s what I did, it was my job. I worked with people I loved every day, and then…. I got pregnant, and I stopped.

How much of an impact did your pregnancy have on your decision to stop?

I was ready to stop and the company was going through a lot of change. A lot of people were leaving, and Serge, the artistic director whose work was the reason I was there, was leaving, so it was time. I went cold turkey, which was really, really tough. I had thought, “Yeah, moving on, I’m going to go have my baby and start a new career, everything’s going to be fine.” I didn’t realize it was going to be tough.

Did you keep working through part of your pregnancy?

Yeah, about six months. Or maybe five months. I’m trying to remember, it seems so long ago now.

Do you remember what that was like?

I remember we were working with artists from Japan. It was a big project that I was heading with two other dancers, and we were commissioning international choreographers to create work with us. So I couldn’t not do it, but I was two or three months pregnant. You’re not supposed to tell anyone until you’re past three months, so I wasn’t telling anyone, which, in retrospect, was probably really stupid. I was exhausted and I was nauseous, and the choreographer had us doing these things like get up get down get up get down, run around, fall down, get up, I was like, BLEEUURRRG. It was pretty bad, but I didn’t tell anybody, because that’s the official word. But in retrospect it was stupid. Not stupid to do it, but stupid not to tell anybody.

Julia Aplin
With Tiina Kiik, left, in Zolla. Photo by Omer Yukseker.

So you left at six months. I’m curious to know, since as a dancer you are so body aware: what was it like being pregnant? Though I suppose you can’t know what it’s like to not be a dancer and have a kid! 

I loved being pregnant. Some people don’t, but I loved it. It felt so great the whole time, except for the pukey part, but that passed quickly. And at the time, I was going through this career transition period and I thought I was going to go to med school, so I was doing all these pre-med courses as well, at night. I’d go to my biology lab, and I remember holding on to her little foot, she’d stick it out inside my belly and I’d just hold on and it was just really cool. What else—oh, I remember thinking during labour, “Oh I’m not going to have any problems, I’m in shape, I’m a dancer, and I can handle pain” and… Nope. Doesn’t help!

Oh, that’s so… exactly the opposite of what I wanted to hear.

[Laughter] But I know other people who didn’t have any problems at all!

So you were going back to school? 

Yeah, it was this big transition. I starting taking classes when I was pregnant, I was initially looking at med school and then I decided to go to teachers college. And it was a big change. I was thirty-five, and most of the other students were younger, and also I was sitting at a desk for long periods of time, which I just wasn’t used to, in this environment where you really had to think differently.

And was there art and dance in your life during that period?

Not while I went to school. There was with John and my friends. I would still go see their shows and hang out, but I thought I was going in another direction. After teachers college, I took a job as a long-term occasional teacher at an arts high school, teaching dance. I thought it would be awesome, but it was kinda lonely, because I was the only dance teacher there.

After that I left the TDSB, and I went to teach at an independent school called the B.E.N. School-House. It was kind of cool how that happened: when I went to do my B.Ed I had to find childcare for my daughter and I was looking all over the city. I did so much research on childcare facilities, and I would go visit them all, and I couldn’t do it. I’d say, “I can’t leave her at this place,” and “I can’t leave her at that place.” I was at the end of my rope. I was walking home one afternoon, crying, thinking, “I can’t go to school, I can’t do anything anymore,” and I ran into a friend who told me to go look at one more place and she sent me to the daycare associated with the B.E.N. And I thought, this place feels good, I can leave my daughter here. It’ll be hard but she’ll be okay.

It was huge for me, finding childcare that worked for me and allowed me to go to school. Later, I talked to the people who were running the daycare and who were building this school based on the same principles, which was the B.E.N. School-House. They were looking for a grade one and two teacher, and it something that I thought I could do. And I was there five years, but part-time. And while I was there I started doing art projects again: dance, choreographing, singing.

What was that return to dancing, now that you were balancing having a kid and teaching part-time?

Well, it’s sort of an ongoing struggle, right? This Yellow Wallpaper project I’m doing is kind of directly related to that, how in our culture, even today, women are taught—to be a good mom, you sacrifice yourself. You put that part of yourself behind a wall, and you pretend everything’s fine and you soldier on and take care of your kid. But it comes back to haunt you. It really does. So it took me that many years, that time, to reconcile that I have to do this, to have a good family.

In our culture, even today, women are taught that to be a good mom, you sacrifice yourself. You put that part of yourself behind a wall, and you pretend everything’s fine and you soldier on and take care of your kid. But it comes back to haunt you.

Meaning you have to be creative?

Yes. If I don’t dance, if I don’t create, we’re all going to have a sucky life. That’s kind of what it came to.

That’s a pretty amazing realization.

Kind of! Like, why didn’t I know that before, right? But there’s so much pressure on women especially to give that up. But what do you want to model for your kid? As adults, how do you want her to be, do you want her to sacrifice her dream? No. So that’s part of it too, doing the modelling for her. One of the things I learned from my bachelor’s was that ninety percent of learning is from modelling.

Do you see your drive to create rubbing off on her?

I think she just is creative, I don’t feel responsible! My only responsibility is to supply the crayons. John says our only job is to not get in the way.

Do you and John have a system for balancing one person’s creative project versus the other’s?

I’m kind of like the CEO. But I think that started because I had that year off, and because I felt that responsibility as the woman to do that. So I took it on, and in retrospect I should’ve opened the door more for him to come in. It’s easier for me to organize than to stress about things not getting done. I’m trying to learn to relax about those things a little bit. Just last night, John had a gig and I had a gig, but I had my gig first—[laughter] I was first! So he had to arrange the babysitting. That’s our new thing we’re going to try, him arranging the babysitting, but it gave me so much stress ’cause he’s got a different style. When I have the gig I arrange it months ahead of time, who’s going to pick her up and where they’re going to take her and what they’re going to feed her and all that stuff. But it all worked out!

It’s been ten years since you had your daughter. Can you reflect on how parenting has changed the art for you in any way?  

Yes, but I’m trying to think how to explain it… My friend Sandy Dodson, who’s a mother of two, says when she goes into a studio now she’s so happy she kisses the floor. So you really appreciate when you’re actually there because it’s a struggle to get there now. Whereas when I was younger it just felt like yeah, I’m in the studio, it’s what I do. But now, especially because we produce our own projects, you have to find the funding, you have to book the studio, book the sitters, you have to arrange all the other stuff around it so that when you actually get there it’s like Ahhhh, this is so great. So that’s one of the big ones. It’s more precious.

My friend, who’s a mother of two, says when she goes into a studio now she’s so happy she kisses the floor.

Has being a parent necessitated a different kind of financial planning around creative projects?

Well, that’s hard to say too because I didn’t do so many of my own projects before. With Dancemakers, I sort of had my full-time job that could partly support my other projects. So during breaks I could create stuff, but I knew that I’d be going back and have the income again. But of course it’s totally different now because my daughter wants her ballet lessons and she wants to go to summer camp and I want to make sure there’s food in the fridge, and that she can get that pair of tights that she really wants. So it’s a balance between taking projects that will financially support our family, and creating projects that I want to do. Like the Love Project I’m doing at SummerWorks this year—I really want to do that project, but there’s no money in it, so I have to consider how many hours I can devote to it when I still have to pay the bills and pay for summer camp and all that other stuff.

Julia Aplin
With daughter Jenny Aplin and parter John Gzowski in The Hum.

Last summer you made a show with your partner and your daughter. Have you and John done other projects together?  

John and I have done a lot together. It’s totally easy working with John but when we throw our daughter in the mix it can be more challenging. My needs fall to the wayside. If we’re backstage and I need to warm up but John needs to set up the tech gear then tech gear wins and the kid always wins, basically, I mean she’s only a kid so if she needs attention before a show, she gets it. Right? Then it’s me, I need to warm up, I haven’t done my vocal warm up, I haven’t done my physical warm up, and I’m going on stage. Okay! So that part, the selfish part, of me is grumpy but the best part is when we were on stage together, that was really fun.

When you were having a baby, were your peers having kids?

No. Not at all. Well, that’s not entirely true. At Dancemakers our technical director was having a baby, and our general manager was having a baby but none of the artists were having babies. There were a few people that I knew, like Andrea Nann, who’d had babies, but there weren’t a lot of role models. People weren’t really talking about it at all. Andrea was very supportive, she brought over diapers, gave us tips… She was amazing.

About five years ago, I re-found a group of dancer friends, friends who I had lost touch with and who had children. One friend in particular has a girl the same age as mine, and I wouldn’t be able to do as much as I do without her support. We help each other along and make it all work. Friends are sooooo amazing,

I’m curious about the broader industry of dance. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but certainly in ballet there’s that kind of… time limit to a career that might coincide with having a kid. So I guess I’m wondering, does the industry support having a kid?

It does now. Even in the last ten years, there are a lot of dancers that have babies. And even the ballerinas now, they have babies and they go back to work. And the length of a dancer’s career—there’s really no perceived limits anymore. The show I’m doing now, the baby of the show is thirty-five. Everyone else is… tipping up the other end of the scale!

Why do you think that shift has happened around motherhood?  

Partly all the work that other women ahead of us have done, you know like Leah Cherniak and Banuta Rubess… They just keep going, so they’ve sort of paved the road for us to come along and say, “Oh, okay, it’s possible.”

Do you want your daughter to go into the arts?

She’ll do what she wants. I do think she will go into the arts—she just loves drawing and painting, and singing and dancing, and she loves sports, and she’s really good at math. And other stuff too, but she has all these ideas about shows she’s going to do when she’s older. I think she will. And I think she also knows that it’s okay if she doesn’t.

Does she talk about her parents being artists?

It’s funny, because mostly she thinks it’s a pain in the ass, but every once in a while she’ll say something like… What did she say the other day… Oh, you know that really awful show, Full House? And you know John Stamos’ character, he’s a musician and he had twins, and she said “Oh, you know, those kids are really lucky,” and I said, “What do you mean?” and she said, “They’re going to grow up with musicians, that’s really cool,” and I was like, “Okay!” But mostly on a day-to-day basis it’s a big pain for her: “Mom’s got a show tonight, I’ve got a babysitter, ugh.” Like, throwing the guilt knives, right?

Anything else you want to add?  

Yeah! The one thing that I might not have mentioned, because I’m always complaining is: it’s really fun. It’s so fun to have a kid! It’s so fun. That’s why you do all the spreadsheets and you do all that planning, because it’s awesome. You can’t even explain how awesome it is, and it’s always changing, the kind of awesome it is. The one-year-old awesome is completely different from the eleven-year-old awesome.

By

Courtney is from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and has performed and created theatre from coast to coast. She is currently a company member with Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Illustration By

Kris is an illustrator and iced coffee connoisseur. A self-proclaimed enthusiast for all things unordinary, Kris spends her time pondering over outer space and indulging in the arts. She is driven by an innate curiosity for both people and the planet.


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