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By Sylviane Gold
When Charlie Neshyba-Hodges was 10, his mother started taking him to aerobics class to save on babysitting. The teacher soon asked her to stop. “I was picking up the combinations faster than the ladies in the class, and it was upsetting them,” he says. So instead of bringing him along, his mother began parking him at the jazz class down the hall.
Twenty years later and he’s still quick, says Twyla Tharp, who showcases what she dubs his “phenomenal talent” in the role of Marty, the bashful, clumsy, lovesick nightclub busboy in her newest dance musical, Come Fly Away. “You do something, he’s got it,” she says. As the other star male dancers—John Selya, Keith Roberts, and Matthew Stockwell Dibble—suavely put the moves on a trio of glamorous women to the crooning of Frank Sinatra (cover story, March), Neshyba-Hodges is the comic Every-man, stumbling, tripping, flying through the air as he tries to get through his workday and win the affections of Laura Mead’s Betsy.
Although Marty spends very little time perpendicular to the dance floor, and his pyrotechnics regularly steal the show from his more famous colleagues, the character was created before the choreography. “In the beginning of the rehearsal process,” Neshyba-Hodges recalls, “Twyla continually directed me to dance less, and initially I found it confusing. But in hindsight I realize that in taking away our first language and expecting the character to tell the story, it required us to really go through step by step to assure that we were creating a complete idea. Afterwards, once that solid skeleton was created, we could go back and reinsert the dancing.”
Tharp doesn’t remember the specifics, but she sees character and movement as “very deeply interconnected.” And whether she was working through a scene to develop the dance or plotting out dance moves in order to flesh out a scene, she says, she found Neshyba-Hodges “a very challenging collaborator, because he has so much range and he has so much flexibility.” She elaborates: “I’m not speaking simply physically. I’m talking about range. I’m talking about intellectual flexibility. I’m talking about curiosity.”
Their collaboration began in 1999, when she hired him for Twyla Tharp Dance. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. We left Neshyba-Hodges a 10-year-old taking jazz sort of by accident. His mother heard about an audition for a local Nutcracker and asked if he was interested.
“I said I would do it only if there was a lot of tap dancing,” Neshyba-Hodges recalls. “She said, ‘The whole thing is tap.’ ” So he auditioned and won the role of Fritz at the Pinkerton Dance Academy in Carson City, Nevada. Despite the complete absence of time steps, he enjoyed it and decided to keep at it. “A lot of my career has been a fluke,” he says.
That’s certainly how he ended up at the Walnut Hill School for the Performing Arts in Natick, Massachu-setts. His first dance partner and best friend had enrolled there, he recalls. “The very idea of not being with her was life-ending,” he says. “So my mother’s solution was to send me to boarding school with her. I learned proper ballet technique and began to understand what it meant to be a professional dancer.”
He continued ballet in summer intensives, and in his senior year, he auditioned for 14 companies, both ballet and contemporary. “They all told me I was too short and too stocky. So I applied to colleges. I was getting ready to go to Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, and become a biology teacher. But at the last minute, Ron Cunningham of the Sacramento Ballet invited me to dance in his company. He hired me sight unseen, after he called the director of the Boston Ballet summer program and said, ‘I need a short firecracker dancer to perform in The Nutcracker.’ ”
After dancing far more than Nutcracker in Sacramento, he went on a round of auditions once again, for 41 international companies. This time, 38 told him he was too short. (He’s 5' 5".) But he saw Tharp’s company when they came to town and sent her a video. She invited him to audition and then asked him to join her company. “I said, ‘I’m not too short for you?’ ”
He toured with the company, then went on to assist her on numerous projects, including dancing on Broadway in her Movin’ Out and The Times They Are A-Changin’. When that show closed, in 2006, he started auditioning again, but realized his heart wasn’t in it. “I was burnt out. I was very tired. I needed a different environment.” He browsed magazines looking for something that would satisfy him as dance had. He chose architecture, moved to Seattle for several years, where he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Washington. “The easiest way to explain it,” he says, “is as a dancer I design my body in space. As an architect I can design space around bodies.”
His “step back from dance,” he says, allowed him to return to dance “with a very solid focus,” and a keener understanding of “what it gives me and how happy it makes me.” At some point, he’ll go back to school to pursue a graduate degree in architecture. But for now, he’s putting the “fly” in Come Fly Away.
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Neshyba-Hodges partners Laura Mead in Come Fly Away. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Come Fly Away