Life in Dance
In my early days back in NYC I was still a “concert dancer,” or "downtown dancer," terms I wouldn’t really learn until I was in New York. I took classes with Cindy Green and then Zvi Gotheiner. And, because Cunningham had sparked an interest at UCLA I went down to Bethune Street and studied at the Cunningham studio.
And, well, now it’s 20-something years later, and dance is still one of my many languages that I speak. And, coincidence, or not, I currently teach Composition I and II (a.k.a. choreography) at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City, thanks to choreographer and dancer Pat Catterson (my first Cunningham teacher). But, still, a lot of people don’t really know this side of me. They see me as a director. And, some see me as a writer. But, yes, I do “speak” dance too. Which is why I decided that this story might be fun to tell. And, it might be fun for some to read.
If you ever wondered, like some collaborators I’ve worked with have, how I know how to move people around so well…well…it’s because I’ve spent a lifetime doing it.
And, I really need to take a moment to end this story with a huge thank you to Diane Gray, who said to me, way back when I was 18 years old and in New York for the first time, “Don’t just dance. It’s not enough for you.” Thank you Diane. Now, looking back over these many years, I know you were right. You weren’t telling me what to do, you were just telling me who you saw.
For those of you who don’t know my background as a dancer and choreographer…
I started dancing a long time ago, when you did a good job in class and you got a gold star. I studied at a little strip mall dance studio in Campbell, California. I don’t remember my teacher’s names, or the name of the studio, but I remember loving to tap.
Then, in high school I somehow figured out a way to get out of P.E. class by taking a daily dance class at Sally Frazier’s Dance Studio, another strip mall dance studio, also in Campbell, California. There I continued with tap, and added the requisite jazz, and ballet.
I always wanted to play the ingénue, even though at that time I didn’t know that word, and no one ever said that word, but, now in hindsight, that’s what I wanted. Instead, I played roles like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. One of my personal favorite roles when I reflect on those times was playing a rock in Camelot. During the performances there was a fog machine spewing smoke straight onto me. It was definitely a high moment in my performing career. During that same production I had so much off stage time that I actually learned to juggle. Yep. I can still juggle.
When I was still in high school my dad met this woman on a flight to or from New York. When he came home from his work trip he declared, “You need to go to the American Dance Festival in North Carolina next summer.” So I did.
At 16 I was the youngest student there, and had had only the above experience under my belt, so you can imagine taking “big girl” dance classes with the likes of Diane Gray from the Graham School was, well, a huge deal.
Diane was the first woman I had ever watched dance that I actually wanted to be. She was my first official mentor in the arts. After my initial introduction, and love affair with the Graham technique Diane said, “When you graduate from high school you should come to New York.” So I did.
I made a deal with my dad; I could go to New York and study dance at the Graham School for one year, then I had to go to college.
I arrived at the Graham School during the summer after my high school graduation. I sublet a studio apartment on the Upper East Side, walking distance from the Graham School, and in a doorman building, so, as a kid from the suburbs of California, I wouldn’t get lost in the fray of the big bad city of New York.
During that year I studied at the Graham School. I also somehow found my way to the classes of Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. I even went over to Ailey to take a few Horton classes. I took Pilates, because, well, that’s what dancers were doing then. Toward the end of my first year in NYC I auditioned for Juilliard. Among the ballerinas I could not have been more earthbound and out of place. But, I auditioned nonetheless, and was rejected.
When one door closes another opens. I went to the University of Colorado, Boulder instead. At “CU” I could be close to skiing and the mountains, which I have always loved. Squaw Valley was my home mountain. Yes, I was both a dancer and skier, a rare breed.
I went in to CU as a Dance major, and came out a Creative Writing and English major. What I discovered there was that I could dance as much as I wanted, perform as much as I wanted (with my New York experience I could jump into the advanced modern classes very easily). Ballet was still a challenge. But, it was a challenge that I met when a wonderful teacher named Mr. Boyette inspired me to fly through the air, finally. One of my favorite phrases that he would use when someone would whine, “I’m trying to (fill in the blank with any ballet movement),” would be “Do you try to answer the phone? Or, do you just answer the phone?” It was such a great life lesson. One that I live by today.
It was at CU that I also started choreographing. So I was writing, and choreographing, and making all kinds of things on the page and on the stage. I would also say that it was at this time that I discovered the art of storytelling. I wasn’t good at it, at all. I had no idea how to end a story, or a dance. Maybe it’s because I grew up with songs on the radio that just faded out. I don’t know. But, I made dances, nonetheless. And, the dancers that I met there…many of them math majors, and science majors, were my best friends.
After graduation I had the brilliant idea of circling back to the Graham technique via London. So I applied to a summer program at The Place. Why The Place? Well, I had discovered Pina Bausch when I was in New York, it’s a long story, but I’m pretty sure I saw her first performance at BAM, and from then on I wanted to be a dancer with Pina Bausch. So off to London I went. It wasn’t Germany…I know. But, it was a hell of a lot closer than Colorado, or my home state of California.
I hated living in London. I was lonely, and it was just so gloomy. I was staying in a family friend’s basement apartment, which probably didn’t help matters. What was going to be a year, turned into a summer, and then I jetted back to California where the sun was shining, and I had some family support.
After studying dance, choreographing and writing, I figured that San Francisco would be a good place for me. I could enroll in some classes at A.C.T. and figure out how to tell actors what to do. I didn’t want to become an actor. By that time, in my early 20s, I knew that I liked to make things that were story-based, that involved music, movement, and words. I would never have called it musical theatre. Because, honestly, and I hate to admit it, but I had no idea who Sondheim was. And, my entire musical theatre knowledge was encapsulated in the shows that I saw with my family (like Cats and A Chorus Line), and the cast recording of Hair, which my dad listened to all the time.
In San Francisco I studied ballet with a wonderful teacher named Alba Calzada. She was eloquent, simple, and taught a beautiful class, that I, as a modern dancer, felt totally at home.
It was there that I met Jeff Porter, another modern dancer in a ballet class. And we set out on making our Joe Goode-inspired work. We danced and told stories. And, at night I would study at A.C.T., and hone my acting chops by studying with people like the brilliant Larry Hecht, and my Alexander technique with the most inspiring Rose Adams Kelly.
It was actually at A.C.T., where I discovered that I should go to graduate school. It seemed like everyone was. So I started looking around. And, I, like every other hopeful young actor--even though as I mentioned earlier I didn't want to be an actor, but I was sort of got swept up in the moment--auditioned for Yale. I didn’t get in. I did however get into UCLA, where I aced their auditions for their Masters program in choreography.
And, after being at UCLA for a semester, because--good things come to those who work hard--I was given the coveted teaching assistant-ship with the brilliant ballet teacher Margaret Hills. I then went on to sub for her at the Stanley Holden Dance Center. It was also at UCLA that I was introduced to the Cunningham technique, as taught by the choreographer and teacher, Pat Catterson, a dear friend to this day.
I finished my Masters, and then got a job with my friend Amelia Xann (who I had met at the American Dance Festival many years earlier) who was working for the San Diego Foundation for the Arts. I moved to San Diego to pursue a life as a dancer and choreographer there.
For a year I danced in San Diego, choreographed, and taught. I thought I was there for good. But then, as things do, life changed and the opportunity to move back to New York presented itself.
I didn’t really think I wanted to move back to New York. My life was good. I had all kinds of work. I went to the beach all the time. I wore really short dresses, and boogie boarded in Del Mar. Why would I go back to New York?
Well, I’d say, love of a man brought me back. But, love of my art kept me here. I moved back to New York. And, my first job, right out of the gate was assisting Susan H. Schulman on The Red Shoes. It was a perfect fit. Lar Lubovitch was choreographing, and Susan was thrilled that I had this extensive background in both modern and ballet.
That was 20-something years ago. And, that was my first real introduction to Broadway, musical theatre, and in particular, new musicals. On the third show that I did with Susan, at The York Theatre, a guy turned to me and introduced himself by saying, "Hi, my name's Steve." The show was Merrily We Roll Along. So, by brilliant deduction you can figure out what Steve's last name was. In that moment I finally knew who Sondheim was.