On the Rise

June 30, 2009

Noah Vinson looks like a born Romeo in Mark Morris’ new version of Shakespeare’s classic love story. Tall, slender, and boyishly handsome, he appears at ease in the ballet’s vaguely Renaissance costumes and sets. When Juliet enters the ball, he’s smitten at the sight of her, gazing in astonished wonder. When he returns to the deserted stage after the ball has ended, his longing for his new love fills every step. With its focus on narrative, Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare may seem something of an anomaly for Morris. But for Vinson, one of the newer members of Mark Morris Dance Group, it has been a chance to find his footing in a company with many long-established talents and a tightknit ensemble approach.

“This is a hard company to join when you’re young,” says Maile Okamura, who performs Juliet to Vinson’s Romeo. “You have to find your place. Noah has learned to stand up for himself and think through his approach to movement. He’s reached the point where you realize that it’s not so much about following directions as understanding the direction in which to go.”

Once Vinson, 30, thought he was headed to Broadway. Raised in Springfield, Illinois, he began gymnastics while still in grade school, but soon added tap and jazz. “Classes were fine,” he says, “but performing was always my favorite part. At 5, I was dancing on picnic tables.”

Vinson’s thirst to be onstage led him to audition for Springfield Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, where he debuted as a party guest when he was around 9, and danced the role of Fritz for the next three years. As he became more serious about his dancing, he enrolled in Springfield’s Dorothy Irvine School of Dancing, focusing on ballet. A few years later he moved to a local competition studio, Linda Ushman’s Dance Centre, where he took jazz, modern, and tap. Seeing his passion, his parents sent him to summer workshops in Los Angeles at the Edge and in New York at Broadway Dance Center. During those visits, he dreamed about being a Broadway or commercial dancer.

When he got back to school, he joined the diving team. The experience gave his movements a precision that persists even today. Other MMDG dancers note that Morris often uses Vinson as a model during rehearsals. “Knowing the line, knowing what your body is doing, whether your leg is straight, whether your foot is pointed, all that definitely helped me later as a dancer,” Vinson says of his diving practice.

Although he enjoyed the diving team, when he graduated from high school he went to Columbia College Chicago, renowned for its dance program. “Noah was extremely musical. He had an extraordinary ability to work a phrase,” says Jan Erkert, a former Columbia College professor who now heads the dance department at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” Oct. 2008).

While Erkert worked with Vinson on a broad range of contemporary technique, mostly new to him, Columbia’s multidisciplinary approach gave him a chance to work with musicians and take classes from postmodern choreographers like Joe Goode and Stephen Petronio when their companies were touring in Chicago. By the time he graduated in 2002, his Broadway dreams had shifted to concert dance and he headed straight to New York. By midsummer, he landed a spot as a supplementary dancer for Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato. Vinson was hired as an apprentice in 2003 and as a full-time company member in 2004.

With the 2006 premiere of Morris’ Mozart Dances, Vinson stepped into the spotlight in a mesmerizing, balletic duet with longtime MMDG member Joe Bowie. Their interplay unfolds over an extended passage. Bowie approaches Vinson, lifts and turns him, then shadows him. Vinson’s long, languorous line and spritely jumps offer a striking counterpoint to the senior dancer’s strapping, emphatic presence.

While the duet could be read as sinister—particularly given Bowie’s costume, a long black coat that contrasts with Vinson’s wispy garments—as Bowie and Vinson dance it, the two characters seem to share a watchful, protective connection. “There’s an understated human beauty between Joe and Noah in it,” says MMDG rehearsal director Matthew Rose. “It’s very tender. And it convinced Mark to give Noah the Romeo role.”

Morris found his confidence well placed. “Noah is very versatile,” Morris says. “He has a strong sense of curiosity and he’s a wonderful dancer.”

Dancing Romeo helped Vinson strengthen his stage presence. Working with Okamura has helped, too. “Before the show we always say good-bye to each other,” she says. “So the first time we see each other onstage is always a surprise—because Noah is gone and Romeo is there. He is very easy to fall in love with onstage.”

As the company winds up its year-long tour of the ballet, Vinson feels grateful for what the role has taught him.  “Shaping Mark’s movement in your own body can be difficult,” he says. “It’s a little scary to stand out from the crowd.” Still, that anxiety doesn’t show when Vinson performs Romeo. “Now,” he says, “I can allow my personality to come out in my dancing.”

Rachel F. Elson is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.


Photo: Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy MMDG