Every Step You Take
By Jock Soto
Harper, 2011. 288 pages.
Illustrated. Hardcover, $24.99.
“I was a dance addict,” remembers Jock Soto—and you’ll find his book addicting, too. The former New York City Ballet principal—an instinctive dancer’s dancer—has written a memoir that’s equal parts an emotional contemplation of family and identity, and a fascinating glimpse into the era under and immediately after Balanchine.
Soto’s retirement from the stage in 2005 was fraught with anxiety, as he revealed in the media at the time and in the documentary made about his life, Water Flowing Together. Like the film, his memoir grapples with the pain of the dancer who no longer performs—the denial, the throwing himself into his next step. What is a dancer’s identity beyond the stage?
The book’s emotional core lies in his relationship with his mother, a beautiful Navajo woman who eventually battles cancer. Soto also lays bare his relationship with his Puerto Rican father, which in his youth was characterized by a mixture of pride and unspoken resentment. The book takes us through his childhood on a Najavo reservation in Arizona, where he becomes interested in dance. (In hindsight, he marvels at the dedication of his family to making his dance education a priority.) His days spent at the School of American Ballet are full of teenage fun—squatting in an apartment owned by Edward Villella—yet express the growing disconnect between his new city life and the cultural identity that he was trying to leave behind. The book chronicles his cautious return to his roots, post-retirement, which intensifies after his mother’s death in 2008.
Soto joined the company with fire in his belly—hungry and like he had something to prove. It’s fascinating to see Balanchine through Soto’s teenage eyes (during his audition for the company, Soto is sure that Balanchine thinks he can’t do a plié properly). He shyly observes the great choreographer interact with principals at the time.
Heather Watts and Peter Martins figure prominently—Watts first admired from afar, then as a reluctant dance partner, then as a great friend; Martins, who choreographed starring vehicles for Soto, as both a friend and mentor.
Soto’s seamless support of the women he danced with translates into his writing. He takes the time to thoughtfully describe each partner’s individual qualities. In addition to his pairings with Watts, Lourdes Lopez, Darci Kistler, and Miranda Weese, his celebrated partnership with Wendy Whelan is beautifully addressed.
We see Soto, ever the romantic, discovering his sexual orientation, and then in the throes of young love—flirtation, joy, cheating, and heartbreak. In one of the book’s most revealing chapters, he writes about his relationship with Christopher Wheeldon, and the experience of making Polyphonia and After the Rain. We see him meet sommelier Luis Fuentes (Soto is also now a caterer); reading about their engagement in 2003 is sweetened by the knowledge that the couple is getting married this month.
After his farewell concert, Soto continued to teach at SAB and also graduated from culinary school. A wonderful touch: Every chapter ends with a delicious recipe, including those for his grandmother’s Navajo Fry Bread, Easy Peasy Tiramisu, and New Year’s Day Bagel and Caviar Treat (based on Balanchine’s caviar sandwich).
This collision of his two careers only adds to the personal feel of the book. What’s striking is how easy it is to connect with his story on every page. Every young dancer who moves far away from home is faced with living alone. Every young dancer sits in the wings or in the house, in awe of the principals onstage. There are moments of hilarity: Soto’s first horrifying experience in a solo role onstage, and irritating Helgi Tomasson in the studio. There are moments of despair: Balanchine’s death, the AIDS crisis, losing Stanley Williams, 9/11. Hanging over the memoir is his mother’s presence—a closeness, something nearer sadness than regret. His honesty and openness underlie every word. What stays with you, like what stayed with you after watching him onstage, is his fierce elegance and kind soul. —Kina Poon
Dance on TV
While PBS has been beaming dance into living rooms through its Great Performances series since the 1970s, it debuts what it calls its PBS Arts Fall Festival this month. Every Friday evening at 9:00 p.m. beginning Oct. 14, a performing arts group from a region across the country is spotlighted. Kicking off the dance portion on Oct. 28 is Miami City Ballet, which recently returned from a smashingly successful three-week tour to Paris. The triple bill, directed by Matthew Diamond (who also directed the Paul Taylor documentary Dancemaker), is about as all-American as you can get. Jeanette Delgado and 2011 Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” Renan Cerdeiro lead Balanchine’s fiendishly difficult Square Dance. For more contemporary flavor, the company tackles Twyla Tharp’s athletic The Golden Section. Then the full company canters through all four movements of Balanchine’s Western Symphony, with no curtain coming down to save the dancers from the showstopping finale of pirouettes (corps member Rebecca King reported on her blog, www.tendusunderapalmtree.com, that the dancers had to film the turn sequence seven times—that’s a lot of relevés!). The evening will be hosted, naturally, by artistic director Edward Villella. Future programs include Bill T. Jones’ documentary A Good Man, airing Nov. 11, and San Francisco Ballet in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid Dec. 16. Check local listings. —K. P.
Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro in
Square Dance. Photo by Kyle Froman, Courtesy MCB, © Balanchine Trust.
As the Cunningham Legacy Tour winds down, a cool way to view the modern master’s work from anywhere in the world comes courtesy a gorgeous iPad app: Merce Cunningham Event. The visual and performing arts magazine 2wice has reappropriated spreads from its issues spanning 2001–2007 into a panel of images and videos, to be perused at the flick of a finger. The series of 10 Events (7 photo essays, choreographed by the man himself, and 3 videos) comes alive on the screen in all of its saturated-color glory, to be treasured digitally—for free. The spreads celebrating Cunningham and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg are especially stunning—Antic Meet, with Rauschenberg’s absurdist costumes, is particularly delightful. The three video segments, filmed earlier this year, feature introductions and performances by former Cunningham stars Jonah Bokaer and Holley Farmer. Several of the works are briefly contextualized by writer Nancy Dalva of the “Mondays with Merce” video series. —K. P.
If all the world’s a stage, then flash mobs are the 21st century’s loud, if sometimes cheesy, proof. Possibly the most democratic of dance phenomena, they include people from all professions, ages, and backgrounds as well as dancers. Flash mobs put dance where it has seldom gone before, turning train stations, street corners, and TV sitcoms into instant performance venues to promote an event or cause (sometimes receiving millions of views on YouTube). If you want to be part of the fun—and possibly earn some cash—check out Flash Mob America, the organization responsible for the “spontaneous” dance outbursts on Modern Family and Rachael Ray. See www.flashmobamerica.com. —Stav Ziv