Jermel Johnson is Philadelphia Ballet’s only Black principal dancer. He is the last remaining dancer in the top ranks who was hired by Roy Kaiser, the company’s former artistic director. And he was the first the company dancer who started at Philadelphia Ballet II and moved all the way through to principal dancer.
An audience favorite, Johnson is known for his extreme flexibility, powerful jumps, and artistry. He was awarded a prestigious Princess Grace Award in 2008.
But after 19 years in Philadelphia Ballet, nine of them as a principal dancer, he will be retiring in the spring.
“My body is not recovering as easily as it was before,” said Johnson, 37, who is healing from a back injury and has dealt with chronic knee issues since high school. “I can still do the majority of the things I could. It just takes a bit more time to recover.”
Long hours in the car don’t help. Five years ago he moved to Quarryville, Lancaster County, where he lives with his husband, David Jackson Jr.; and their children Jaden, 6, and Aliyah, 3. Before the pandemic, Johnson would commute by train to Philadelphia, giving him time to stretch out. But things are more complicated now, so he drives up to four hours a day for class and rehearsal, often sitting on two softballs taped together in the car to relieve pressure points.
“I’ve got the two kids that are growing very quickly and need me around,” he said. “And then my husband’s been working nonstop. He’s a first responder, so they didn’t get a break during the whole pandemic.
“So yes, family and my body” made retirement seem like the best next move.
During the months the ballet was off the stage, Johnson graduated from massage therapy school, which he sees as his next career. He also designs and makes jewelry, which he sells on Etsy, and will be exhibiting in December at the Cosmopolitan Club.
During the digital season last spring, his boss, artistic director Angel Corella, tried to make things easier for Johnson’s body and family life, arranging for him to dance a series of solos. They felt like his farewell tour but were really due to the practicalities of the time.
“In my head, it kind of was [notice of his pending retirement],” Johnson said “because I just wasn’t sure if would be able to get my body back enough. But I wanted to be able to finish on stage and celebrate. I missed the dancers. It’s nice to be back in the studio working with them. And then now I can ... have a fun farewell.”
“It’s a very sad time for us, for the whole Philadelphia Ballet,” Corella said. “His character, his intelligence, his demeanor towards everyone else in the organization — that’s where he’s leaving the mark in Philadelphia Ballet. He’s quite a special person.”
When he’s not rehearsing, Johnson helps his fellow dancers, often massaging aching colleagues and teaching them about injury prevention. While there is no formal agreement yet, both he and Corella hope he will join the company’s wellness staff after he retires from dancing. (He also works as a massage therapist at a spa in Lancaster.)
As for his dancing, “he’s a really, really, really hardworking dancer, and he really understands his body,” Corella said. “He has so much power in his body. A lot of the dancers, they have to work to get that power. He has to actually work to control that power.”
Even after months away from performing, he was in top form for the digital season. “When he took off his leg warmers, ... we just couldn’t believe it. Sasha, the filmmaker, said, ‘It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen that kind of muscle tone.’ We were all very jealous.”
His body is also a mixed blessing.
“For as flexible as I am,” Johnson said, “if I don’t keep up on the massaging and releasing and rolling, I literally can’t walk. I sometimes will sleep with a roller ball in my bed, because sometimes I get a cramp in the middle of the night.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Johnson, one of four children, started dancing after seeing a performance of Nutcracker on TV.
“I was a runner and I would always race the big, big kid. I was always tiny and scrawny. But I was fast and had lots of energy.”
After seeing Nutcracker, “I started trying to mimic how they would go on their toes and doing all the jumping. And my mother, because I had so much energy, worked to find a place where I could start dancing.”
First stop was a small after-hours program at his elementary school. From there, he went to another after-school program, at the Baltimore School for the Arts. That led to an audition to BSA’s full-time high school, which he attended for three years before spending his senior year at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York.
Johnson was smaller than most of the other boys, so was planning to study an extra year at SAB. But just for fun, he attended the audition for what was then called Pennsylvania Ballet. To his surprise, he was offered a second-company contract.
“I was excited to be getting paid to dance. And I’m glad I [took the contract], because here I am 19 years later. I never imagined that I would be dancing that long, let alone in one company for that long.”
He didn’t enter the company as the dynamic dancer he would become.
“I didn’t really see many people who look like me,” he said of being a Black dancer, “so I didn’t know if it was something that, like, I could do in the long run. And more specifically classical ballet.”
Even now, there is not a lot of diversity in the ballet world. Johnson is one of five Black dancers in the main Philadelphia Ballet, and there is one Black dancer in Philadelphia Ballet II. Corella says he will replace Johnson with another Black principal dancer.
But early on, Johnson was determined to prove himself.
“It was my main focus trying to do as much as I could to strengthen my technique. I remember wanting to be known as the technician, which is a fun idea. But then I like kind of set myself up to be so stiff and rigid. And then eventually, I’m like, ‘OK, just let it go.’ Then, I started to really have fun in the kind of show my personality. And then I think that’s when I started to get noticed.”
Among his favorite roles were Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Siegfried in Swan Lake, both the Christopher Wheeldon and Corella versions. Wheeldon first noticed him when he was in PBII. He also enjoyed Nutcracker, where he played nearly every men’s role and this year is adding Drosselmeyer to his repertory.
He also grew close to the late Barbara Weisberger, founder of Philadelphia Ballet.
“I connected with her very early on, and she was like my ballet mother. So she became a huge mentor for me for years. I was like, ‘I’m connected to this company. This is where I’m gonna be.’ "