© Robert Warren aka Roberto Warren 2004
In 1962, soon after we moved to the North End, my good friend, Ron Jones started studying ballet. He was studying with Sandra Severo, who at that time was one of the leading ballet teachers in Detroit. Her studio was on Woodward Avenue, between Palmer and Ferry streets, about 2 blocks from the Detroit Institute of Arts.
There were other prominent ballet teachers in Detroit at that time also. Enid Ricardeau had a studio on West Warren Avenue just off of Woodward, and Rose Marie Floyd's studio was up in Royal Oak. However back then, I had no idea Royal Oak even existed.
Then there was Louis and Lorna Ravanal. They had a studio on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park. Back then, Highland Park was a really beautiful city, located right in the middle of Detroit. Now though, forty years later, Highland Park is what most people from the suburbs would call "The Ghetto", crime ridden, with shootings going on all the time. Over the years, it has really gone down a lot.
Then there was Robert and Norma Taynton's studio. It was located on the West Side of Detroit, just off the corner of Grand Boulevard and Grand River, in a big four-story Tudor mansion.
Anyways, one day I went to class with Ron. I was going to watch the class and see what it was like.
We went up a long flight of stairs, right through the center of the building, (the studio was on the second floor seems like most "city studios" are) and I walked into this huge room, that had to be 80 feet wide and a good 50 feet deep, with a couple of supporting pillars in the middle. The floors were of unpolished wood, and there were mirrors all along one of the walls, and the barres, that the dancers use to check their balance, ran along the other three. There were tall windows at each far end of the room, the kind that are reinforced with the wire mesh in the glass, and the room itself smelled of warm wood. The room seemed kind of dark, but I think it was because it was a cloudy day. I felt this bizarre energy when I walked into the room I had no idea what it was. Mind you, I had never been in a ballet studio or even danced before. Not even social dancing. The only thing I knew about ballet was from seeing Rudolf Nureyev, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union, do on The Ed Sullivan show. Little did I know I was hooked on the world of dance right then and there, as soon as I walked into that room.
In walks Miss Severo. That's what all the dancers called her always. Even the adults. She was about 5' 8", thin but not frail. I think at that time she was about fifty years old. Her hair was graying from black or dark brown, and she wore a plain skirt and blouse, buttoned up to the collar, with seamed stockings, and dance sandals, which are basically closed-toe sandals with a one-inch heel.
She looked at me (I was scared shitless) and said in what I found out was her most direct Sandra Severo tone, "Hello, and WHO ARE YOU? Are you visiting?" Once I got my breath back, I stammered, "Yes maam, Robert Warren". Ron piped in and told her I was his friend and wanted to watch class.
She had me take a seat on the floor next to her chair, which was positioned against the wall with the mirrors, in the center of the room. Her chair was the only piece of furniture in the room. Then she started class.
First the dancers worked at the barres along the walls of the class. There were three boys, Ron, Antoine, and Jim, and about ten ladies. They would do small exercises with the feet and arms, bending the knees (plies) first on one side, then the other. These exercises progressed in difficulty right up to full-fledged kicks with the legs. (Grands Battements). Then they worked in the middle of the floor away from the barre. Nothing to hold on to. The exercises in the center of the floor were similar to the exercises that were done at the beginning of the class at the barre,
Then they started dancing across the floor. Again, the movements progressed in difficulty into full-fledged jumps, and because I was sitting on the floor, the jumps seemed even higher. Especially the men. This is what put me over the edge. They were literally flying through the air. I remember the combination, "chasse, pas de bourre, glissade, assemble". The "assemble" was the part where they were flying through the air. Traveling along the floor, you swing one leg into the air, at the same time jumping off of the other leg, and as you fly through the air, you bring the legs together, and land on both feet.
I was a goner. It was then I decided I wanted to be a dancer. However, I was terrified of Miss Severo. She was an absolute tyrant in class. However, many of the teachers that seem like absolute tyrants in class also end up training some of the best dancers in the world Case in point, years later, Ron went on to become premier danseur of the Atlanta Ballet. Years later I did end up studying with Miss Severo for awhile, though. It was almost prerequisite if you were a Detroit dancer, and you had any aspirations of being good.
That first day though, I went home and looked in the Yellow Pages for another place to study. I decided to give Robert and Norma Taynton a call. TY-5-4553 in Detroit. They said they would start me out in Miss Veronica's class as a beginner. We called her Miss, but she was nowhere near the tyrant that Miss Severo was.
When I told my mother what I wanted to do, I don't think she believed me at first. At any rate, she went along with it. I think affording it was her main worry, being a single mother and all. The Taynton's told me to come on and start class and payment would be worked out later. I think also she thought I was doing it just because Ron was doing it. Granted, my original interest was probably along those lines, but once I experienced it, like I said, I was a goner.
First thing I had to do was buy some tights, a dance belt, which is kind of a jock strap for male dancers, and some ballet shoes. It was 1962
I took the bus down to Maurice's Dancewear in Downtown Detroit. It was located on the fourth floor of the art deco Metropolitan Building in Downtown Detroit, one block from J.L. Hudson's. Upon walking into Maurice's Dancewear, I fell even deeper in love with the dance world. Ballet shoes, pointe shoes, tights, tutus, costumes, makeup. It was great. The walls were decorated with pictures autographed by some of the great dancers that had come through Detroit and visited his shop in the 40's and 50's. He looked at me and kind of smiled. "Another young dancer" he probably thought. He was real helpful in giving me the right stuff, because I had no idea. Black tights. THICK black tights. I think they only came that one way for men back then. And like I said, the dance belt was like a jock strap, only the cup part narrowed to a semi-thong that went up the crack of your butt in the back, so you wouldn't have a dorky looking underwear line in the back of your tights.
Then came the shoes. He said they should be one to one and a half sizes smaller than your street shoe, and they would mold to your foot after you broke them in. It felt like they were breaking my feet in instead! I must say with all honesty that the first real physical pain I experienced as a dancer was getting used to my first pair of ballet shoes the first of many.
The Tayntons and the Taynton Studios of Dancing
Robert and Norma Taynton had traveled around the world several times as dance partners before settling in Detroit to teach. When you walked into their house, you could see evidence of their travels and experiences everywhere. Aside from the fact that the house was an authentic tudor-style mansion, being in the house was like experiencing The Theatre itself. Art of all kinds and description, an exotic bird, walls covered with books. In one of these books I read an article about Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American male ballet star that did a duet, choreographed by the great George Balanchine called "Agon" with a woman named Diana Adams at the New York City Ballet. The first time in history a black man had done a ballet duet with a white woman.
The third floor was a costume shop. They literally had hundreds of costumes that Mrs. Taynton had made by hand, or costumes that had been made for she and Mr. Taynton. Many of the costumes were festooned with real precious gems.
The downstairs living room, and the upstairs master bedroom were the rooms that served as the dance studios. I usually took class upstairs with Miss Veronica. The downstairs studio was for the more advanced dancers. These were not small rooms by any stretch of the imagination. The main studio downstairs was at least 30' by 20', and the upstairs studio was just a bit smaller. Both rooms had leaded-glass windows, and the traditional tudor-style beamed ceilings a bit low for male ballet dancers doing jumps, and of course, hardwood floors. However, unlike the stark functionality of Miss Severo's studio, the Taynton's studio was like dancing in a veritable cultural space, where you were literally surrounded by art and music. I'll never forget, the first time I heard the music from Maurice Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G" was the first time I walked through the big oaken front door at the Taynton Studios of Dancing. Which, incidentally, was how Mr. And Mrs. Taynton always answered the phone, with lilting proper British accents: "TAYN-TON STUDIOS OF DANCING" This is of course Detroit, Michigan in the early 60's mind you.
In the summertime, Mr. Taynton would turn the backyard of the house into an open-air theatre. There was a huge two-story coach house that ran along the back of the property, so the backyard space ended up being enclosed at both ends, with the house at the other end, and braces of trees on either side, making a perfect outdoor theatre space. We would erect a stage made up of panels that were about 4 feet wide by 6 feet long by 4 1/2 inches thick, (1/2" plywood over two-by-fours) and that sat on wood blocks about 2 inches off the ground, and when we were done, the stage measured about 50' x 30'. I remember erecting that stage as being pretty backbreaking work. No wonder he had me helping him. In the coach house, he had real theatre lights - fresnels (pronounced FER-nels - the small boxy ones that cast an area of light) and ellipsoidals - the more oblong ones that cast a spot of light. He also had scaffolding, that we hung the fresnels from, curtain material for a backdrop, as well as some scenery pieces. The third floor of the house had a small hallway that ended at a small window at the very back of the house. This was where he had a real follow-spot, just like the kind that is used in theatres. They had one recital where my job was to run the follow-spot for the women that were dancing. There were no men studying at the studio at that time except me and Joseph Agee, and we were both beginners. I was more advanced than him, but we were both essentially beginners, although I was on the professional training track. On that particular beautiful summer night in Detroit, at that recital, the piece of music that he had recorded on his big reel-to-reel tape recorder for the performance was none other than Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G" I was once again "a goner". Every time I hear that piece of music I think about that night.
Speaking of Joe, he only people I remember from the Taynton's studio are of course Miss Veronica, my very first ballet teacher, Rusty, Jothany Dardy, and Yolanda Gonzalez, three of the girls that danced there, and Joe Agee, who also took the beginning class with me.
Miss Veronica was an African-American woman that stood about 4' 10". As I said earlier, she usually taught the elementary beginning classes in the upstairs studio. Once you had gained a bit of technical proficiency from her, then you were allowed to move downstairs into Mrs. Taynton's class. One thing I remember clearly that she gave everybody - jete at the barre. You basically stand facing the barre with both hands on the barre, your feet in fifth position, or one foot in front of the other, crossed, so the toe of the back foot is touching the heel of the front foot. You plie (bend the knees) and slide one foot out to the side while simultaneously jumping into the air, then you land on the foot you slid out, while bringing the baby toe of the foot you originally jumped from to meet the ankle of the leg you land on.
I remember Jothany Dardy and Yolanda Gonzalez very well, because I wanted to date both of them. They fascinated me. I would come down from Miss Veronica's class and sit on the stairs, peering between the stair railing supports, watching them in the advanced class. Jothany was a pretty buxom girl, but an incredible dancer, as was Yolanda. Yolanda had incredible feet. They pointed so well, they were almost like hands. Even my friend Ron, who also knew Yolanda, because they both went to the same high school, Cass Tech in Detroit, said Yolanda had incredible feet.
One night, Jothany and I went to see the movie "Nijinsky" with Rudolph Nureyev, and on the way home, we had a car accident. No injuries, but I was being totally stupid. I was driving what was my first car, a 1964 Pontiac Catalina 2+2. 421 cubic inches, 385 horsepower. In reality way too powerful of a car for a 19 year old to have as his first car.
Anyways, we were driving down West Grand Boulevard, almost to her house, and I decided to show off a little bit by hitting the accelerator, and making the car fishtail. Well, it was raining, my back tires were completely slick. Once I hit the accelerator, I lost control of the car, hit two parked cars, and took out the fence of an elementary school. At that point, my main focus was on escorting Jothany home, so we left the car there, got on the bus, and I dropped her off at her house. I then got back on the bus, and went home. The next day, I went back and retrieved my car. It still ran fine, but the right rear quarter panel was completely smashed. My mother was not happy to say the least, because she had spent $350 buying me the car, but I guess she figured it would happen eventually.
The only contact I had with Yolanda outside of the studio was when I once went over to her house to meet her parents. We watched The Carol Burnett Show. It was 1970. I don't think they were too wild about Yolanda seeing me because they were Mexican and I was of course African-American. Maybe that wasn't the case, but I don't know. Yolanda and I did go to see the Pennsylvania Ballet at The Detroit Institute of Arts once, but nothing much ever came of me dating Jothany or Yolanda. I think that was probably because I was never much into the dating-going steady thing. I just cared about cars and ballet. Yolanda was a gorgeous girl though. She came up in conversations between Ron and I for years after that.
Joseph Agee was a music teacher at Webber School in Detroit, which was actually only about three blocks from the ballet studio. A small, guy, kind of thin, but he had this incredible baritone voice. We ended up becoming pretty good friends. I even stayed at his house for awhile when I got too big for my britches at home, and decided I was going to go out on my own for awhile. Yeah right. At 20 years old yet. Sorry, Ma. At any rate, that didn't last too long. I soon realized the error of my ways, after about 10 days and went back home.
Joe drove this really cool 1967 Buick Wildcat. White with a black vinyl top. Huge car. A few times he let me borrow it. Big mistake. It had a huge 455 cubic-inch engine in it. You could stand on the accelerator, and the back tires would just smoke. Fortunately, I didn't wreck his car. It was real big of him to loan me his car though. I probably did cost him a set of tires though. I guess I was pretty irresponsible when I was young. I cost a few people a bit of money and heartache. Like those two people whose cars I hit taking Jothany home. I was young and stupid. My apologies to all of them, although I guess it really doesn't do much good now. Those people whose cars I hit probably just think of me as "that motherfucker with the black Pontiac that hit my car in the middle of the night".
While working at the Taynton's to pay for my classes, I had a few interesting episodes. Once, I was out front tending the garden and I looked up at a window in the house next door, and there was a woman standing there in her bra. I remember, because she had some pretty big breasts, and they were kind of spilling out of the bra. She wasn't an ugly woman, either, but she was a lot older than me, probably 30 or 35. At any rate, she just stood there, letting this young boy in the garden downstairs gape at her. I guess she figured she was giving me some kind of sexual experience or something and you know what? She was. Obviously I haven't forgotten that moment.
Another time, I was working in Mr. Taynton's basement, which was basically a workshop where he made all the stage platforms, etc. I ended up finding a small olive-drab cylindrical object, which had some faded writing on it. The only letters I could make out were "U.S.". Anyway, I figured out it was some kind of grenade. However, from my military family experience I knew it wasn't an explosive grenade. (Famous last words, right?) I ended up taking it to an abandoned lot next door to the house where the woman with the breasts lived and pulling the pin
I had never seen so much smoke in my life. Mind you, this is in the middle of the day, during the summer in the middle of a city. The smoke just kept pouring and pouring out of this thing. Thick, gray smoke. I had no idea what to do, and obviously I couldn't shut it off, so I just kind of nonchalantly walked away. I'm lucky the fire department didn't show up. I ended up telling Mr. Taynton about that incident about 30 years later. I figured he never knew about it. He knew. And he knew it was me, also. Kids
The Tayntons and Miss Veronica were real good people. They basically adopted me. They were like my dance parents, me being raised by a single mother and all. I think they were pretty proud of me when I became a professional later. In fact, one day years later, after I had retired because of my injury, my friend Lamont and I were driving by, and I saw Mrs. Taynton tending to her garden. The same garden that I had helped tend, only at that point, it was 30 years before. At this point, I think Mrs. Taynton was about 85. We were talking, and I asked her, "Mrs. Taynton, was I a good dancer?' because she had seen me in many of the productions I had been in after I became a professional. She said, "Not only were you a good dancer, but you were also a good partner". Forever supportive. What a good woman. Dance parents. She said I was a good partner, because in a lot of the productions she had seen me in, I partnered, or did duets with women that involved lifts, etc.
Mr. and Mrs. Taynton have both since passed on. Mrs. Taynton in 1992, and Mr. Taynton in 1998. I guess toward the end, things got bad for them. The neighborhood the studio was in really went downhill. There were even a couple of instances when neighborhood thugs broke into the house a beat Mrs. Taynton up. A woman in her 80's! A woman that had elected to remain in Detroit and train generations of black kids like me in the arts and dance, when she and Mr. Taynton could have run to the suburbs like so many people did. I guess maybe the thugs just saw them as two "old white people" that were in the way of their "operation" or if they were crackheads, which they probably were, maybe the couldn't see anything. Mr. and Mrs. Taynton, Miss Veronica, thank you!
I attended Northern High School in Detroit for the ninth grade, and the twelfth grade. For the tenth and eleventh grades, I went to Aero Mechanics High School at Detroit City Airport. That's because I was thinking of becoming an aircraft mechanic, believe it or not. The military side of the family I think. All during the time at Aero though, I was moving further and further into the world of becoming a dancer. To the point that, when called upon to do a book report in Mr. Werthman's English class at Aero, I did my report on a book called "The Stories of the Great Ballets" I forget who the author was. It was basically a book that listed all of the great ballets up to that time - 1966, and the stories and dancers and choreographers behind them. I'll never forget, after getting up in front of the class and reading my report, (boy did I get some quizzical looks) Mr. Werthman, who gave me an "A" on my report asked me, "Robert, why did you pick THAT book?" I forget what I said to him, but now that I think back on it, I picked that book because, like I said, I was on the road to dance.
At any rate, after the 10th and 11th grades at Aero, I decided to transfer to Detroit Northern High School. There were a variety of reasons for that. It was within walking distance of my house, as opposed to Aero being a 2-hour bus ride to Detroit City Airport, which was one of the reasons. Also, we had been working on fabric-winged aircraft and basic riveting and welding for the entire time at school, and I had in my mind that nobody uses fabric-winged aircraft anymore. That was youth and naiveté' though, because of course, fabric-winged aircraft are in use all through the industry, even today. However, the main reason was that I had totally decided what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a dancer, not an aircraft mechanic or, like the other career pathing choice the Warren family makes, be in the military. Although I am sure that if I had not become a dancer, I would have joined the military, like the rest of the Warren men and I would have loved it. I probably would have gone to Vietnam, (like my friend from Aero Bill Markavitch) and become either a career-military hero, gone crazy, or gotten myself killed. But dance was my first love. I knew it full well in 1968.
So I transferred to Detroit Northern for the 12th grade. Upon transferring, I immediately enrolled in classes that befit my chosen career path: Dance, Choir, French and Drama. It was like I was my own little High School of the Performing Arts.
Jackie Hillsman and Experimental Movement
Miss Jackie Hillsman was the Modern Dance teacher at Northern High School. A rail-thin black woman, about 5' 8'', with a short cut, impeccably trimmed afro, (afros were the style for black people then) and ever-present African-style 3-inch-diameter hoop earrings. In fact, in stature and look, she looked as if she could be an African woman.
She was, without doubt, another of the greatest influences in my life not only for me as a dancer, but as a person.
Speaking of African, she was also really into the African-American/Civil Rights/Black Power movement of the time. I don't believe she was an advocate of the violence that some people in the movement practiced though. (The Detroit riots had been two years earlier.) I think she was more into the passive resistance advocated by Martin Luther King. But she was a staunch advocate of the advancement of Black People as a race either way.
Jackie was the epitome of the "Modern Black Woman" of the 60's. I got my first real dose of "Black Consciousness" from her, along with exposure to great black artists of the day, like John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Eddie Harris, Roberta Flack, Curtis Mayfield, and others. And of course, that was just the beginning, because I was at Northern, an urban black high school.
Previous to that, my exposure to "things black" had been limited. Black (and white) students at Aero Mechanics talked about it - there was even a small riot at Aero the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. However, I had never received any real indoctrination in The Movement itself from anywhere. Aero Mechanics was an anomaly an isolated little high school oasis in the Detroit Public School system. Even though, as Bob Dylan said, "the times, they were a'changin". I had been living in my own world of dance, art, cars, and airplanes.
Another thing about Jackie was that, for being as thin as she was, and having limited extension, (the ability to lift the leg high) she could really move, and she could really get us moving. Her classes were obviously totally different from anything I had studied with Sandra Severo or the Tayntons. It was the first "modern dance" I had ever done. In fact, it was the first "dancing" I had done, because previous to that, I had just done technique with Severo and the Tayntons. It was kind of good that it didn't have the technical requirements of ballet. Or at least as I understood them at that point in time, because at that point in time, I was still such a young dancer that it would be safe to say that I didn't understand them. My natural athleticism did come into play a lot doing Jackie's work though.
Her classes involved the first real "floorwork' I had ever done. That is, movement sitting or lying on the floor was actually part of class. One position was called a "Graham Fourth", named after the great modern dance innovator Martha Graham, where you are sitting on the floor with one leg behind you, and the other in the front, with the front knee and heel lifted, but with the toes still contacting the floor. (This position of the front leg is called "on the walk") The ideal position of the hips in the "Graham Fourth" is to have both hipbones on the floor, because entire movement combinations come out of that position. However, because of the hip structure of men, it's harder for men to get both hipbones on the floor than it is for women. I remember once she came over and pushed down on my back leg, because my back knee wasn't in contact with the floor. Remember how I said my first pair of ballet shoes was the first real pain I felt as a dancer? Well, this was the second. I thought my leg was coming out of its socket.
Jackie was a total advocate of "Strong Black Men". Because of that, she was not happy with black men being gay, or going out with white women. There were two other guys in the Northern High School Dance Workshop. Brian, who was gay, and Floyd, who hadn't come out of the closet yet. Mind you, we were 17 - 18 years old at the time.
I choreographed a dance once to the music of John Barry. The music was from the James Bond "Thunderball" soundtrack. It was a trio for Brian, Floyd and I. I say I choreographed it, but actually Jackie choreographed it. Like I said .18 years old. Brian, Floyd and I choreographed some of our solo movement, but Jackie put it all together. It was basically an athletic showcase for Brian, Floyd and I. Lots of jumping, kicks, and extensions. At the end of the piece, Floyd and I end up putting a noose around Brian's neck. I don't know if this was a statement toward Brian being gay, or maybe Jackie was making a statement about a lynching or maybe the whole piece was about a lynching it was still the '60's of whomever, for whatever reason, but that image remains in my head to this day.
Soon after I graduated from Northern in January of 1970, Jackie opened her own studio on Grand River. A small storefront where we could all come and rehearse. Jackie was really into choreographing ballets that dealt with the plight of being African-American or "Black" as was said back then. She ended up calling her company The Experimental Movement.
Although I don't remember all of the members' names, I do remember Bernila Ward. I dated her for awhile. Once we went to Meadowbrook, and outdoor theatre in the suburbs of Detroit, the see The Washington Ballet do "Cinderella".
Then there was Lauren, a big girl with extension up to her ear, and then Floyd and Brian of course, who were also in the company. While I was in the company, Jackie choreographed ballets to Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted, and Black", Roberta Flack's "All The Sad Young Men" and many other prominent revolutionary black artists of the day. We performed at various venues around the metro Detroit area, like Concept East, which was a cultural space started in 1969 to promote black participation in the arts. We also performed at Wayne State University, and Sacred Heart Seminary College in Detroit.
Part of the performance at Sacred Heart Seminary included a totally improvised set of solos to the music of Iron Butterfly's "In A Gadda Da Vida". There was a percussion section in the middle where we all made a circle onstage, and each dancer took his/her turn doing a wild solo. Brian's was particularly vigorous he was very flexible, and always danced with a lot of energy.
In fact, Brian always had a lot of energy. Once, right after rehearsal, some of the dancers were going to go across the street to a grocery store to get some snacks. I didn't go, but it turns out that Brian went across the street to the store in his tights! Not only did he do that, but he did leaps across Grand River Avenue, a 6-lane main artery of Detroit, in his tights. At mid-day! Imagine you are a commuter driving home, and you see some guy leaping across the street in tights! "Hmmm, there's something you don't see everyday Martha " Jackie wasn't too happy about that incident.
During my time with Experimental Movement, I had joined another professional company, Harbinger, directed by Lisa Nowak, which was headquartered in the Detroit Community Music School in Detroit's Cultural Center. I was also studying with Sandra Severo and the Tayntons still. I eventually ended up leaving Jackie's company to work full-time with Harbinger. Mainly because their style of choreography was more suited to what I wanted to do, which was more classically oriented repertoire. Jackie was not too happy with me. She said I preferred to dance with white people.
A few years later, at Detroit's Marygrove College, I ran into Jackie in the hallway outside the main dance studio. I was walking down the hallway with my girlfriend at the time, Donna Morris. I was holding her hand. Jackie wasn't too happy about that either, because Donna was white.
However, in spite of Jackie's feelings about white people, and her displeasure with my associations with white people, I could always tell that Jackie was proud of my achievements as a dancer, because she was instrumental in making me who I was. She, like Joe Agee, actually loaned me her car a few times. A 1966 Chevy Impala Convertible. When I did my solo "Fire Stealer" at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1973, in a performance with the Harbinger Dance Company, Jackie was there giving me support.
By the way, Brian and Floyd have both passed on. I can't really say if Brian died of AIDS or not, because he passed in the 70's, of a "vitamin deficiency". Word was that he was kind of out of his mind just before he passed. He was only in his 20's. Very sad. Floyd passed in 1998. His passing was caused by "complications from AIDS" as is commonly said when people die of aids. I don't know when the affliction came down on Floyd, because I saw him in 1991, and he looked fine. "Fat and Sassy" as they say. I guess when it's your time, it's your time.
Lisa Nowak and the Harbinger Dance Company
Lisa was the Artistic Director of the Harbinger Dance Company, which I joined in 1971. As I said, Harbinger worked out of a small studio in the Detroit Community Music School, located right on the corner of John R and Kirby. The studio was set up in what I believe might have been the coach house or garage of the mansion that had been converted into the Music School. Harbinger was a real professional company. Experimental Movement was also a real professional company, but Jackie just didn't appear to have the backing that Lisa did.
Lisa was a very beautiful woman of Polish descent. Reddish hair, incredible smile, eloquent speaker, boundless energy and enthusiasm for dance and the arts in general. Her imagination also knew no bounds when it came to conceptual thinking and choreography. Examples of this are "Harriet's Garage" which was about a group of little kids finding some toys in an old trunk in - Harriet's Garage - and doing what little kids do when they find such things. Only of course, the kids were adult professional dancers.
One of Lisa's early pieces was called "Saigon Bride", the leading roles of which were danced by Penny Godboldo, (who is now Dean of Dance at Marygrove College in Detroit-one of the most powerful dance figures to ever come out of Detroit), and the Jesse Shipp, along with a quartet of women. It was kind of a story ballet, but not too much of one. Basically, an American soldier becomes involved with a Vietnamese woman. He does her wrong, as some American soldiers are wont to do in situations like that, but unlike in "Madame Butterfly", she kills him in the end.
Then there was "Quadrant", which involved four dancers. Mitzi Carol, the late Chris Barron, Margaret Scirocco and I were the original cast. It was basically about relationships, and cross-relationships between four people, and how they can go awry. Visually, it was almost like a piece of moving sculpture, because the four of us just kept moving in a tight circle facing one another, as if we were going to get into a big fistfight at any moment. Actually, the dance was indeed a psychological fistfight. For the audience and us. We built the tension to such a fever pitch with our focus on one another, that audience members would always remark at how they could feel it. Sometimes I wonder if that was Lisa's original intention. You know, perhaps she just intended it to be a moving sculpture thing. But when you think about the name of the piece, "Quadrant", it suggests the whole practice of territoriality and the invasion and taking of the territory of others.
I have to give Mitzi Carol credit in this piece, because there was one lift she had to do with me that had to be pretty terrifying for her, even though, considering the aggressive energy level of the ballet, it was more than appropriate. She starts out sitting on my shoulder in a straddled position, with one leg in the front, and one leg in the back. I end up basically throwing her down toward the floor, as if to say 'Get off of me!" while executing a half-turn with my own body, but she ends up wrapping around my body and finally grabbing my leg to save herself from plummeting head first into the floor. This was actually part of the choreography at least the movement was, but the aggressiveness behind it came later.
One of Lisa's more classical and traditional ballets was "Solstice", danced to four movements of the "Winter" portion of Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons". All of the dancers were dressed in white the men in white tights and leotards, and the women in white long-sleeved leotards with ankle-length liturgical skirts. Once I got older, I think I could see Lisa's vision for this ballet. The bare branches of trees against a winter sky. The silence of a cold winter day. The movement of the women's' arms suggested the shapes of the tree branches.
Then there was "Belle Isle", with music by Keith Jarrett. Lisa was a native Detroiter, and native Detroiters all have a warm place in their hearts for Belle Isle, which is a Detroit city park situated on an island in the middle of the Detroit River. There are few urban parks that can rival it in beauty, including Central Park in New York.
The ballet was about teenagers spending an afternoon on the island. The sections included a rollicking "Beach Party" section, and a section called "The Last Time", a romantic pas de deux for a man and a woman, as well as others
I was partnered with Connie Bergstein-Dow in "The Last Time". This was during 1977-78, my second stint with Harbinger. Connie was an incredible dancer. She was always there technically and emotionally when we danced together, be it in rehearsal or performance. I think I might have done "The Last Time" with Lynn Slaughter once or twice, and with Theresa Kowall, but Connie was my main partner. One of the greatest things about Connie is that she was extremely levelheaded, which was good, because I wasn't. I would have my emotional ups and downs. Mind you, I always seemed to dance well, and partner well, but sometimes emotionally, I'd be all over the place, and Connie would be right there, putting up with me. Funny, I always had this habit of falling in love with all the women I partnered with regularly. Connie was married, though.
Once we actually did "The Last Time" on Belle Isle. It was for a T.V. spot for the company. The only problem was, we did the shoot at sunrise, meaning we had to be on Belle Isle at 5 am. It was freezing cold. Connie and I were in our costumes, wrapped in blankets. We would unwrap for each take, and then wrap up again. It was quite an adventure, and it was actually quite a beautiful experience to dance with Connie in that setting. The commercial turned out very nicely. A man and a woman dancing together on a summer morning, in a beautiful pastoral setting, silhouetted by the rising sun. Pretty heady stuff.
Lisa of course choreographed many, many, more ballets. Some while I was with the company, some while I was not with the company. I ended up doing two stints with the company - 1971 to 1974, and 1977 to 1979.
The very first performance I did with the Harbinger Dance Company was in the spring of 1971, at a Unitarian Church in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which is an affluent suburb on the eastern border of Detroit. We did a semi-liturgical ballet to the music of Aaron Copland from his "Appalachian Spring", the "It's A Gift To Be Simple" section. The thing that made this exceptional, other than it being the first time I performed with Harbinger was that I actually danced with Lisa. Here I am, a totally inexperienced performer, dancing with the company director! That was, I believe the last time she performed with the company.
Lisa ended up being one of the driving forces of dance in Detroit. There was a real renaissance going on for dance in Detroit in the 60's and 70's. There was lots of money for the arts available, and there were a lot of professional companies springing up everywhere. It was actually a very beautiful time. If you had a vision for a company, you could live that vision out, and actually be able to pay your dancers.
Carole Morrisseau had the Detroit City Dance Company, which was our version of the Alvin Ailey Company, and, as said earlier, Jackie had Experimental Movement, Denise Szykula had Nonce, then there was Meredith Campbell's group out of Northwestern High School. One of the main standouts here was The Clifford Fears Dance Company. Clifford was also legendary in Detroit then. He turned out many great dancers that all went on to national and international fame. Most via the Alvin Ailey Company in New York. There was Warren Spears, Vendetta Matthea, Carl Bailey, Willie Lee, Ron Blanco, and many others. All incredible dancers. I remember when Carl Bailey first began studying. It was sometime in the mid-70's. I lost contact for awhile, and then the next time I saw him, he was a principla dancer in the Ailey company! Amazing!
On the ballet side, ther was Enid Ricardeau's Detroit City Ballet, Evelyn Kreason's Michigan Ballet Theatre, Rose Marie Floyd's Contemporary Civic Ballet, Robert and Norma Taynton's Company Of Dancers, Dance Detroit out of Marygrove College, and Christopher Flynn's Christopher Ballet.
In the spring of 1974, things were going pretty well. I was a dance major in the Marygrove College dance program that had just been created in September of the previous year and I was in the Harbinger Dance Company. I was "living the dream" as they say.
One day, I got a call from Christopher Flynn, Artistic Director of the Christopher Ballet, which was headquartered in Rochester, MI, about 30 miles north of Detroit.
He had gotten some funding to start a professional company - "professional" meaning that dancers would be paid a weekly salary to dance (!) - and he was interested in me joining his company!
I was elated! After all, a professional company? Getting paid weekly to dance? It couldn't get any better than that!
Granted, Harbinger was a professional company, but not in the sense that the dancers were getting paid a weekly salary. The dancers in Harbinger never got paid. We were dancing because of our love for dance, the company, and Lisa.
I asked her about the Christopher thing, and she told me that she would hate to lose me, but she understood the salary thing. After all, that is what all professional companies strive for, on a certain level, to pay their dancers. On top of that, she was a good friend of Christopher's. Plus, at the time, I was all of 23 years old; I didn't have a "real" job, so it was the logical thing to do. Lisa was a great lady.
As I said, Rochester, MI, was about 30 miles due north of Detroit. A rural suburb of the city. Or at least, at that time it was; now Rochester is all strip malls. A shining example of suburban development. However, that is another issue.
The drive up there was really beautiful. I would take the main highway, I-75 north. Then I would get off at the Rochester road exit. Farms, open meadows, some cows, quite the different experience from walking or taking the bus to dance in the heart of the city. In a way, the drive alone served to open me up to the new artistic experience I was living. Especially if I was listening to Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, or Debussy's "La Mer" as I was rocketing down rural roads at insane speeds in my hot rod 1972 Ford Pinto.
The studio was right in the heart of downtown Rochester. You could tell when you were getting into the city, because you would go over a bridge above a small river called Paint Creek, and down this steep long hill that descended right to the "Four Corners" of 4th and Main, which was where the studio was. The city itself in 1974 was like something out of a movie. Typical Mid-America. Hilly, trees, Victorian homes. To this point, I didn't even know Rochester existed. I was a total Detroit city boy.
The building the studio was in was even built in the Victorian era. Perfect. There was even a cornerstone on the building that said 1874 or something like that.
The studio was in the upstairs of the building, so I went in a side door, up a long flight of stairs (like at Severo's), past the doors of the insurance company that shared the other part of the second floor, and there I was. At the Christopher Ballet, for $100 a week! A real professional company!
The studio space itself was typical. A large space, about 100 feet wide and 60 feet deep. Wood floors. The floor itself was just a little wavy, but that was just because of the age of the building. And the waves weren't enough to provide a problem for dancers. The cool thing about the space was that the wall on the far right side as you faced the mirrors had an oversized door that opened to the fire escape on the outside. It was great in the summertime, because you were dancing with the sky, the trees and the birds.
Christopher Flynn was a Balanchine ex-patriate. About 5' 9", (2 inches shorter than me), small feet that always had jazz shoes on them in class and rehearsal. The constant cigarette, even in class. (It was acceptable back then) And Nitroglycerin pills. Slightly stocky, a moustache and glasses. Very eloquent speaker. Grey jazz pants that he always seemed to have on. As I think back on it, he came from that New York City Ballet/School of American Ballet era of Eugene Tanner, Robert Barnett, Robert Blankinshine, and others.
He was another real developmental force in my life. He taught me about being "on". That is, always having your weight over the balls of your feet, so you could releve at any time. He always had us releasing the barre in the middle of a barre exercise. "Are you on? Are you on?" he would always say. We were on, allright on releve all the time. Sometimes we did everything one would do at the barre on releve with the exception of plies, and sometimes, we would even do those on releve. I think, considering his background, his technique was straight out of the Balanchine form. Changes of direction, changing legs, fast, which was why we had to be "on" all the time. Real killer classes, but my technique took a real jump forward while working with him.
We would have class every day at 9 AM, Monday through Friday. Then after class, we would rehearse until about 12:30, maybe have a short lunch break, and then rehearse for the rest of the day, until about 6 pm, at least. Sometimes many of us would stay late and take some of the classes he offered to adults in the evening. Company members in class with beginners! Hey, class was class. Hopefully we were an inspiration to them. Back then you could dance 12 hours a day, every day.
The first ballet I did with Christopher was a piece called "Yu-gen", which is a Japanese term that translates to something like "subtly profound, suggestion rather than revelation". The music was a string symphony by a Japanese composer named Yashushi Aktugawa.
"Yu-gen" was Christopher's homage to Balanchine's "Apollo" for sure. I was partnered at first with a woman named Elisa Harris. Very strong lady, and a strong dancer. The first African-American ballerina I had ever worked with. In fact, she was so strong, sometimes she could even out-jump me! And because of her strength, partnering and lifting her was a breeze.
I also did "Yu-gen" with Susan Carr from Indianapolis, and Roxanne Messina, who was from Chicago.
Susan and Roxanne were almost complete physical opposites. Susan was small and compact, a "Joffrey Girl", if you will, somewhat like Elisa, and Roxanne was tall and long-legged, a "Balanchine Girl" personified. She went on after the Christopher Ballet to become a prima ballerina at the Chicago Lyric Opera.
I loved dancing with Elisa, Susan and Roxanne. Three very different ladies. (I loved partnering women anyway) With Elisa it was like, "I'm strong, I'm "on", are you?", and with Roxanne, it was almost like dancing with royalty, like somebody like Merrill Ashley always a pleasure. Then with Susan, there was a real emotional and dramatic connection - the more you gave, the more she gave back
"Yu-gen" was cast for one male, (me) one principal female, (Elisa) and three other females. You could see the similarities to Apollo right away. A lot of the signature Apollo shapes were there. "Apollo" was definitely Christopher's inspiration for "Yu-gen". However, "Yu-gen" was NOT a copy of "Apollo"! "Apollo" was just Christopher's inspiration, the vision was all Christopher.
Another ballet that Christopher did that I remember fondly didn't even have a name! I guess the Pontiac (MI)/Oakland Symphony approached Christopher about choreographing a ballet to Mozart's Symphony #35, the "Haffner" Symphony for an upcoming concert they were doing.
We only did the ballet once, that I recall, at the concert, but I always hold a fond place in my memory and in my heart for that ballet. Every time I hear Mozart I think of it.
Then there was Swan Lake.
In the fall of 1974 the Christopher Ballet did Swan Lake Act II at Detroit's Music Hall theatre. For that performance, Christopher brought in Joanne Danto, a metro Detroit native, who was then a Principal Dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, do Odette-Odile with Edward Myers. He also hired Alvaro Tena, from the Harkness Ballet, as well as Tom Gill from the Pennsylvania Ballet.
I believe Alvaro was from Central America. He had that serious Mayan
look. Straight jet-black hair that would always whip when he did pirouettes.
His English wasn't that good, but I remember him as being a very nice
person. Once Susan Carr was sick with the flu. Alvaro came in for rehearsal
and asked her, "Zoo-san, you steeel seeck?'
Joanne Danto was a ballet goddess. She took class with us one day, and I learned a ton about placement just by watching her in class. She defined what Christopher meant by asking "Are you on?', because she was definitely always "on". When she and Ed Myers did the White Swan Pas De Deux it was a thing of beauty.
After the performance of Swan Lake at the Music Hall, there was a big reception in the lounge of the theatre. Pretty snazzy affair. Lots of evening gowns, tuxedos, and us. It was pretty hard to believe that this big affair was because of us, The Christopher Ballet. I still have pictures of me, Roxanne, and Roxanne's mother, as well as Elisa, Roxanne and I. We were all so dressed up, you would have thought it was some big society ball or something.
Christopher was definitely living his dream, though, and that was a good thing.
The next big thing we did was a tour of Michigan's Upper Penninsula in the spring of 1975. March and April as I recall. With weekly salaries and stipends! Real professional stuff!
We performed in Coldwater, MI first, at the Tibbits Opera House. (Where a review stated that I was a "very dedicated and well-trained young Black Man") Then we went on to perform in Midland, Cadillac, Manistique, Manistee, Kalkaska, Traverse City, Marquette, Houghton, Hancock, Lake Linden, Ontanagon, Eagle River, Calumet, Painesdale, Dollar Bay, Kearsarge, Copper Harbor (which is at the very tip of the ear of the "rabbit" that is Upper Michigan), and Baraga. Many times we were doing 3 performances a day at various schools in the area. A lot of the other performances, like in Calumet and Coldwater, were in the historic opera houses of the area that dated back to the 1800s.
We had two 15-passenger vans, one for the company, and one for the equipment. I drove the company van, along with Susan Carr as my co-driver, and Loi Kail, Lisa Erickson, Caroline Best, Janice Cooper, Barbara Gearhart, Melinda Jobson, Delores Bolling, Leslie Smith, and Marie Stanyar, and Gary Ed Mach, our Tech Director and Lighting Designer (who has since gone on to a career in television) and Karl major, a dancer we had hired from Toledo Ballet drove the equipment van.
Christopher and James Murray, his significant other, drove ahead in Christopher's Audi. It was one of those top-of-the-line Audis too, because sometimes we would pass Jim and Christopher on the road, like when they would stop at a gas station or something, and soon after, they would come blasting by us like bats out of Hell.
This tour was the first exposure I had had to the State of Michigan at large. It really let me know what a beautiful state Michigan really is, because we literally visited every part of the state, east, west, north, and south.
One example of many is, after our performances in Manistee, which is located on the western edge of the state on the shore of Lake Michigan, one of the hosts of the concert was having an afterglow party at his beachfront home. I decided to walk out to the lake. It just so happened there was a lighthouse out that way located on a point of land that ran out into the lake.
It was a stormy, blustery March night. Kind of made me think what the hell was I doing out there. But once I got out there, I was transfixed. Lake Michigan was raging. Like they say it can one minute, placid, the next, the equal of any ocean in the world - a ship sinker. Waves were crashing against the shore and the lighthouse, really an incredible sight. I could have watched this incredible scene for much longer than I did, but I was freezing to death, so I went back to the party.
After Manistee, our next stop was Houghton, Michigan. A long drive. Up the Northwestern edge of Lower Michigan, across the Mackinac Bridge, all the way across Michigan's UP going west, and halfway up into the "rabbit ear" of Michigan that comprises what they call "Copper Country". I guess they call it "Copper Country" because years ago the area was famous for its copper mines. You can still see some of them today. They're abandoned, though.
As I remember, the drive took about 6 hours, most of it at night. We didn't leave Manistee until late. We left right after a performance. Loaded into the vans, and hit the road. We got to the Mackinac Bridge right at sunset.
That was pretty fantastic. You have to bear in mind, I was a city boy. At this point, I hadn't seen any of Michigan's wonders. The Mackinac Bridge was definitely a wonder. 5 miles, end to end. I had seen bridges before, Detroit's Belle Isle and Ambassador bridges, some bridges in Chicago on the way the Chanute AFB, but never anything like this. There was actually a point when you were crossing the bridge where you couldn't see either end, like when you were right in the middle. You felt like you were in mid-air. And there was no pavement under your vehicle. The "roadbed" was this grate, probably to cut down on wind resistance, so you could literally look down at what would normally be cement or asphalt, see right through it, and see the water of the Straits of Mackinac some 200 feet below.
In the mid-80's some lady driving a Yugo lost control of her car in 90 mph Straits of Mackinac winds and went over the edge into the water. That must have been terrifying.
After we got over the bridge, we were supposed to head due north for about ½ hour, and then go left, or west on highway 23. Directly across the body of the rabbit. Well, we completely missed our turn, and it was getting dark out. Fortunately, we only went about 1/8 mile past the turn. Far enough to say, "No, no! There it is, STOP!" We ended up backing both vehicles up the 1/8 mile back to the exit point.
I have to admit, since Christopher wasn't with us, I guess you could say the "ranking officer" in our vehicle was me. Karl and Gary Ed were in the equipment van. I was the only male in our vehicle, and at 23, I was the oldest. Fancy that me, the lone black male in a van with 14 white girls in Upper Michigan in 1974.
Anyways, most of the navigational decisions were up to me. Sue Carr served as my co-pilot for most of the trip, even taking over driving at times, and she always helped me with my navigational decisions like backing up to go west at that turn. That was my decision though. It was really our only choice, because if we had continued north, we would have been in Sault Saint Marie. Plus, like I said, it was getting dark. It was getting to a point where as you drove along what were mostly two-lane highways, the trees that lined both sides of the highway were just a solid black wall.
Now that I think about it, for the whole tour, Christopher left it up to us to get where we had to go. The oldest of us was about 23, the youngest 14. Pretty unprecedented.
Heading west across Upper Michigan was definitely the hardest part of this drive. Everybody was tired, because we had left directly from a performance earlier in the day. It was dark. It was getting on toward 10pm. It was just our two vehicles, our headlights on the road, a star filled sky, and that solid wall of trees I was talking about. Folks started getting punchy after awhile. Sing-Along time! The main Christopher Ballet Sing-Along Song was "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers. The part at the end where they go " take me by the hand-HAND-take my by the hand-PRETTY MAMA "
Me, I wasn't much of the sing-alonger. I was driving anyways. I had a small cassette player with me, and I listened to Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring" and "Firebird" over and over again on the trip. Sue loved "Firebird". I think it was probably her favorite ballet. Actually, I think I was pretty much in love with Sue. After all, she was my dance partner! (I always seemed to fall in love with women I partnered with over an extended period of time) She kept it pretty much under control though. We did do a little hanging out outside of dancing. For instance, she went to see the rock band Queen with me at Detroit's Ford Auditorium, and we used to go to lunch at Bill Knapp's around the corner from the studio during some long, sunny, summer rehearsal days. There was something pretty special about that.
We finally got into Houghton, Michigan, which is in about the middle of the "rabbit ear" of Upper Michigan. It's located right on the Keewenaw Waterway, a river that essentially makes Michigan's Keewenaw Peninsula north of Houghton an island, and across that river is Hancock, Michigan, it's "sister city". Houghton and Hancock would almost actually be one city if not being divided by the Keewenaw Waterway.
It was about 11pm, and the first order of business was to get all the dancers off to the various places they would be staying during the two weeks we were to be in the area. Lots of gracious families opened their homes to many of us. Christopher, Jim and Alvaro stayed at the hotel in downtown Houghton on Main St., or at least I think it was called Main St. It was the main thoroughfare through downtown Houghton. Gary Ed, Karl and I stayed together with the same family.
Very generous and gracious people. It is unfortunate that I cannot remember too much about them now, 30 years later, because they were so generous. They opened their house to us. Gary Ed, Karl and I stayed in their basement, which was completely finished. The mother of the family made us all "pasties" one day to take with us on the road. "Pasties" are a traditional food of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Kind of like a hand-held pie made with beef, chicken or whatever else the chef decides to put in. A full meal in one for sure. Especially in cold weather.
Their house was perched on a hillside overlooking the Keewenaw Waterway. Note there was a street that ran along the Keewenaw Waterway; to one side being the waterway, and to the other side a big hill. As you went up the hill, side streets were terraced into the hill in levels. For instance, you'd drive up the hill a ways, there would be a street you could turn left or right on with its various houses. Or you could drive up another level, and there would be the same thing. Our house was at the third or top level.
What made this really interesting was trying to drive on it. Remember, this was late March, and in Michigan's Upper Peninsula there was still plenty of snow; and in Michigan's UP they don't use salt like they do in the big cities (to their credit).
The roadbed had to be at a 30-dergee angle, at LEAST, with 7-foot snowbanks on either side, and of course, at the very bottom of the hill was the main highway, and after that, the Keewenaw Waterway. So naturally, if you lost it going down the hill and started sliding, you could theoretically slide all the way down, across the highway, and into the river!
Now imagine inching down the hill in a fully-loaded 15 passenger van! The locals told me that I should first put the vehicle in neutral, then inch my way to the bottom of the hill, applying easy on and off brake pressure, being careful not to fully lock the wheels, because if I did that, we'd start sliding, and if we started sliding, we were in trouble. And in case we did start sliding, the strategy would be to put the vehicle into the snowbank, because it wouldn't stop anywhere else, except in the river. I guess you could call descending these hills a system of controlled stopping.
Going up the hill was just as much of an adventure, albeit different, because at least there was a bit more control, and at least we didn't have to worry about sliding into the river, although I guess we could have done it backwards. The technique was to put the vehicle in first gear, and drive slowly up the hill, because in first there was no chance of you spinning your wheels, because the van would not be able to do its automatic upshift to second gear.
Anyways, we never had any problems, but it was definitely a white-knuckle thing, every morning, and I would always have to yell at everyone to make them be quiet, because I needed to listen to the tires as we rolled, so at least I could hear them lose traction, because once you stopped hearing the "snow-crunching" sound under the tires, that meant you were sliding.
During our tour of the "Da U.P." (As the natives say), we did over 28 performances in two weeks, in different types of performance situations.
The usual day would include three performances, sometimes in three different towns. For instance, we might be at a school in Lake Linden first thing in the morning, performing for kids in the main hallway of the school, because the school didn't have suitable auditorium space, or a gym. Then after that, we'd pack up, hop in the vehicles, and head to Dollar Bay, and do the same thing again, only this time in the school gymnasium. Then we'd head back to Houghton for a rest, and that night do a formal performance in one of the city auditoriums.
At that particular time, the repertory we were performing was "Yu-gen", "Pulcinella", "Swan Lake", and a short, jazzy ballet I choreographed to music from "Red" by the English progressive rock band King Crimson. At the schools, we would only do selections from these ballets; 4 little swans from "Swan Lake", a pas de deux (duet for a man and woman) from "Yu-gen", a selection from "Pulcinella", and then my "Red" ballet. In addition, Lisa Ericsson would do a demonstration of barre work to the Pachelbel "Canon".
We did have off time, though, and we had lots of interesting experiences during those times as well.
Some of the good people involved in hosting our residency in Houghton owned a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Houghton. One night, they graciously closed the restaurant to have a private party for the ballet company. They had tons of delicious food, but what I remember most were the vegetarian enchiladas. I must have eaten 20 of them. When I got done, I could barely move. Of course, this was helped by the fact that we had done 3 performances that day, I was totally famished, and my hunger was increased even more by a couple of puffs of marijuana that was provided by another one of the hosts.
Another time, we went over to the athletic building at Suomi (pronounced S00-mi) College, which was across the waterway from Houghton in Hancock, Mi, to use the sauna facilities. Again, this was after a long day of performing. No pot this time. Maybe a little apricot brandy. Gary Ed, Karl and I drank a lot of that during our off time while on tour. I fell asleep in the sauna. I think I was in there for about two hours. Anyways, when we got back to the house. I slept for 14 hours straight! Thank God the next day we had no performances until the evening.
One night, a bunch of company members went to a movie at Houghton's main theatre, which was located right on downtown Houghton across from Christopher's hotel.
Naturally, we didn't spend the entire tour in performance. We did actually have some off time, and during those times, we had some pretty neat experiences.
As I said before, this was early spring in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and there was till plenty of snow on the ground, in some spots, two to three feet.
One day, one of our hosts suggested we go tobogganing and sledding. Naturally, all the dancers were up for it! The thing about going tobogganing and sledding where we were though was that you just went out in the countryside, found a hill, and went for it. Unlike in the city, where you have to go to a "prefabricated" toboggan run.
Off we went in the main company van, (I was driving) along with a couple of the private vehicles of our hosts. I think the younger of our hosts, and when I say younger I wean in their twenties, were glad to see that we were ready, willing, and able to "hang out"...as opposed to being these "stuffy" ballet dancers.
The countryside was amazing. Evergreen trees for as far as you could see. Everything was white (with that 3 feet of snow I was talking about...perfect for tobogganing.)
Finally we found a spot. A steep hill that ended with about 30 yards of flat land that ran up to a river. Yes..a river. You couldn't slide too far. We had two toboggans, and about three or four of these round dish-like plastic things that one or two people could sit in the middle of and go barreling down the hill completely out of control. You would go forward, backward, sideways, tip over, whatever. It was a blast.
Susan Carr and I ended up getting one of those. We started out with her sitting behind me with her legs wrapped around mine, holding onto my waist...I was loving that.
Anyways, we got a big push off from about four or five of the other dancers, and we were off - flying down the hill! All of a sudden, the dish spins around so were suddenly going backwards, then, to make matters worse, the dish flips over backwards! Which meant that I rolled over Sue! I got up, dusted the snow off of me, and looked around for her. She was nowhere to be seen. All of a sudden, this hand comes up out of the snow. I guess when we flipped over backward, I just rolled her right into the snow underneath me...it was funny as hell.
All in all, we in the Christopher Ballet had a blast on our tour of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We were all sad to see it end. Tired as hell, mind you, but sad to see it end, nonetheless. However, there is one more little snafu I have to tell you about regarding the trip back.
At one point, when we were driving back across the UP, with Gary Ed and Karl ahead of us in the equipment truck, I noticed something hanging out of the bottom of the truck. I couldn't imagine what the hell it was. All of a sudden, it dropped right out of the truck. Since they were ahead of me, I had to swerve to avoid it...not a fun task in a 15-passenger van loaded with people. There was much tire screeching, along with a lot of "Robert! What are you doing" I think that was because of my reputation as a hot rodder in my Pinto.
We pulled both vehicles over to the side of the road, and everybody piled out onto the road shoulder. Much to everybody's dismay, we saw that the starter had fallen out of the equipment van! And to make matters worse, Gary Ed had shut the engine of the truck off! Naturally, without a starter, there was no was to start the truck again to get going. So we decided to load all of the stage equipment into the passenger van.
So here you have it...15 dancers, the lighting director, plus all of the stage equipment in one van. Needless to say, it was a bit crowded! We were literally sitting on top of one another. Really, literally. It was big fun!
And there we were, all the way back to Rochester. There were many jokes told, (many of them about Christopher and Jim because they were lovers...kind of cruel actually, but hey, we were young) songs sung, and plenty of other hijinks along the way.
That tour was actually the Christopher Ballet's last hurrah. Come April, which is the usual time dance contracts end, there was no more government funding for the company. Christopher couldn't pay us anymore, and the company eventually folded...very sad. However, Christopher went on to teach ballet at the University of Michigan, in their renowned dance program, where, by the way he encountered Madonna Ciccone...yes, THAT Madonna Ciccone...and became her dance mentor. Later, he became ballet master for Carole Morrisseau's Detroit City Dance Company...I think that was around 1982. So he did very well for himself after the company folded. Unfortunately, and it hurts my heart to even mention this, Christopher, being gay, contracted AIDS somewhere along the line. I remember seeing him at DCDC around 1982, and he was fine - we had a good talk about the "Good Old Days" with the Christopher Ballet. Also, that was after my injury, when I thought I wasn't going to be able to dance anymore. That saddened him very much.
Anyways, after that, I didn't see him again...he died in 1987.
Moving on, that summer after the Christopher Ballet was a wild summer, I'll tell you!
A Summer Respite
All along, I had been working at the Traffic Jam & Snug, affectionately know as "TJ's" as a bartender. While the company was still solvent, I had a "quaint" garret apartment right on the campus of Wayne State University, for which I paid $90 per month.
It was typical artists fare, for sure. Wall-height windows, slanted
walls, just like something out of "La Boheme". Unfortunately,
I had to move out when the company folded. I moved home for awhile,
with my mother, then I moved into another cool garret apartment with
my friend Chris King, whom I worked at TJ's with. The apartment was
on the third floor of an old Victorian-era house on Third and Canfield
in Detroit. The house was part of what is officially now known as the
Cass Historic District. Basically one block of Canfield, between Second
and Third streets, (two blocks from Woodward Ave.) that is a dedicated
"historic" district. Part of the U.S. National Register of
That was where I spent most of the spring and summer of 1975. It was right down Canfield - one block - from TJ's, so naturally, getting to work was no problem. Neither was stumbling home from TJ's after "after-work" parties, which seemed to occur almost every night at somebody's house, because everybody that worked at TJ's lived somewhere in the neighborhood.
I think "party" was the watchword for that summer. If I wasn't working at TJ's...which was a party in itself...I was in ballet class, because dancers have to take class everyday...and then partying somewhere else. Usually with my party buddies at the time Chris King, (a local artist and later dancer, who was also my roommate), Jim, Sunni Rowell, and my old buddy Lamont from high school. Or I would spend more time laying in the sun. That was one of my favorite things to do. Have a small drink, lay in the sun, and if possible even have a tape player with for music. Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony or Mahler were the best. In fact, speaking of Mahler, another of my favorite things to do was listen to Mahler before I went to ballet class in the morning. The kitchen of the apartment had French windows that opened onto a small roof that was literally up in the boughs of a tree. So when you went out on this roof, it was like you were sitting in a tree. On a summer morning, having a cup of coffee, before going to a ballet class. Heavenly. Ah to be 23 again..
Every morning, I would take class with Iacob Lascu at Marygrove College. Lots of times this was after partying until 3 in the morning after working at TJ's all night. Like I said, to be 23 again...
Taking class at Marygrove College was an experience unto itself. Marygrove
College is a gated campus right in the middle of Detroit that sits on
meticulously manicured and landscaped grounds. Its really like being
at some kind of
As the summer drew to a close, I began to wonder if I was going to be getting another call about joining a another ballet company. In retrospect, I should have been actively scouting the possibility, but I was on my own, basically directionless, and just hanging out. Again, 23 years old.
The Wisconsin Ballet
Luckily, I got a call from my mother one day saying that the Wisconsin Ballet had called, and had invited me to an audition in Madison, Wisconsin. The Artistic Director of the company, Tibor Zana had seen me perform "Yu-gen" with the Christopher Ballet at Detroit's Music Hall, as part of the Mid-States Regional Ballet Festival, of which both the Christopher and Wisconsin ballets were a part. I guess he was pretty impressed with my split "Grand Jetes" in the air. (A running jump - swing one leg forward into the air, jump off of the other leg. Once airborne, turn your body 180 degrees, and split the legs in the opposite direction, landing on the other leg you originally swung forward.)
"You can do da spleet in de air" he said. This was really quite an invitation, because the Wisconsin Ballet was one of the leading companies in the Regional Ballet Association. I had seen them do the "Spartacus" pas de deux, performed by Augustus Van Heerden, (now with Dance Theatre of Harlem) and Cheryl Carnell, to music of Kachaturian, as well as "Bach By Jacques", performed by the company, to a transcription to jazz of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto by Jacques Loussier. Many of the people I had seen perform were to soon be my fellow company-mates.
I was to leave Detroit by bus - about a nine-hour ride, go to Madison and "audition" for the company. Basically take company class. Upon official acceptance into the company, I would then come back to Detroit, gather my things, load them into my hot-rod Pinto, and go back to Madison to stay.
Of course, the night I was to leave, my TJ's party buddies threw me a big party. I'll never forget the scene when I got on the bus at the Detroit bus terminal, with them all standing outside the bus, in various states of inebriated ness, shouting me good luck as the bus pulled off.
Tibor picked me up and took me over to the apartment of some of the dancers; (the late) Sheridan Heynes, (the late) Hector Davids, and Vivian Tomlinson. They were all dancers invited from South Africa to dance with the company. I had seen them all perform in the regional ballet festivals before. I really looked up to these guys. They gave me a hearty welcome. I know right away that they were going to be great to work with.
The next morning we went to the Wisconsin Ballet studio, out on Madison's Mineral Point Road on the outskirts of Madison proper, to take class. The instructor was the Ballet Mistress, Madame Xenia Chlistowa, who had bee a prima ballerina in Russia before defecting to the United States.
She was a tough, no-nonsense teacher of the Vaganova Russian technique. She had a keen eye, and was great for men. I had a great class, even though I was a little nervous. When I think back on it, I'm sure it was my ability to jump, turn and my strength in partnering tat got me the position with the company.
Well, it turns out that they accepted me! My first professional company that was away from home. I was slowly climbing the ladder, first the Christopher Ballet, now the Wisconsin Ballet in Madison Wisconsin!
The first order of business was to get back to Detroit, get all my stuff packed into the hot rod Pinto, say my good byes, and hit the road back to Madison. My mother was very happy for me that I got the position, although I knew she was going to miss me. I also think she was pretty amazed that I had managed to get into an actual professional company...considering the reservations she had when I first started dancing in 1962.
Needless to say, the "Party Crew" threw me another huge party when I left, and the (very fast) ride to Madison was a joyous one!
When I arrived back in Madison, I crashed at Sheridan, Vivian and Hectors apartment for a few days, until I could find an apartment. And I ended up finding a really nice place, at 2203 Regent Street, right down the street from the Camp Randall football stadium of the University of Wisconsin Badger football team. The rent was $100 per month. Pretty reasonable for 1975. Also pretty reasonable considering the fact that the company was paying me $100 per week. That was pretty good money. It would allow me to pay my rent, pay my $90/mo car payment, and have plenty of money to live on. Good times for sure. I was flying high!
The company consisted of 6 men, Sheridan, Vivian, Hector, Joe, myself, and Doug. The women were Kathy Frey, Melanie, Cher Carnell, Ellen Kulik, Charmaine Ristow, Sandra Storm, (from Detroit) and Cindy. All nice young people. I was the only African-American. Sheridan, Vivian and Hector were black South Africans. (By this time Gus - Augustus Van Heerdeen had moved on to bigger things). Now that I think back on it, I think it is pretty amazing that Sheridan Vivian, Hector and Gus were there at all, considering the situation in South Africa in the early 70's with the Afriakaaners, Mandela and all. I'm sure they were called "kafir' more than once in their
Joe and Doug and the women were all white
None of that really mattered though. Sheridan and Hector were usually the lead men. I felt that I was a stronger dancer on a lot of levels than they were, like, I had all the big "tricks", double-tour en l'air, a'la seconde turns, and an array of big jumps, plus I was physically stronger as a partner. However, they had the finesse and experience that I only learned later in my career it took to be a lead dancer. Indeed, there were times in rehearsal when they were falling through the steps being given by choreographers, but I was doing them and doubling, and tripling them. I was young and inexperienced, even though I was technically stronger.
The first ballet I learned was "Bach By Jacques". A contemporary, jazzy ballet a la Balanchine to the music of Jacques Loussier, choreographed by the company director, Tibor Zana. Loussier basically took one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and made a very effective jazz piece out of it. Only it wasn't all jazz - it would switch back and forth between classical and jazz. All the costumes were pastel colored, with everyone in jazz pants, and the women on pointe.
I had seen this piece at the regional ballet festivals and was amazed. I thought it was something I would never be able to do. Something that was way over my head. All of a sudden, here I am, in the Wisconsin Ballet learning a ballet I though was out of my league! Just goes to show you, you can do just about anything you want if you put your mind to it.
In particular, there was an opening passage for the men that in ivolved a "double a-la-seconde turn en-dedans" into a double "pirouette" landing on one knee. (two outward turns with the leg extended straight out to the side, going right into two outward turns with the toe at the knee, finishing in a kneeling position on one foot)
I never dreamed I could do that two years before joining the Wisconsin Ballet, now here I was doing it and more.
The next ballet I learned was called "The Abyss", originally created by Stuart Hodes of the Martha Graham Company. Tony Cantanzaro, who was then with the Boston Ballet, set the piece on us. It was a ballet for four men and one woman. The basic story was about how a young couple are going for a walk in the woods, and they are accosted by 3 bandits. They beat the guy up and rape the girl.
I was the leader of the assailants fancy that.
A very powerful piece. There was even a section where we had to slither across the floor like snakes. I also imagine that it could sometimes get pretty scary for the woman, (Ellen Kulik, Cher Carnell) because she got thrown around like a beanbag.
Then there was "Peter and the Wolf". I got to be the Wolf. I wore a full-coverage wolf's head, and I was required to do "double tours en l'air" (jump straight into the air, turn twice and come down). Very strange, because, having to spot the turns (snapping the head around, focusing on one spot) the wolf's head would rotate and end up backwards. This was fixed during rehearsals though.
I really got into the role. If you are required to be a wolf, be a wolf . At one performance I scared one little kid so bad that I had to come out into the audience after the performance and talk to him to show him I wasn't a real monster. The poor kid was crying his eyes out. I felt kind of bad but then again, I guess I portrayed the role pretty effectively.
WBC Nutcracker - the first of many
I was cast as the Mouse King, The Soldier Doll, and as the Snow Cavalier. The "Cavalier" being the partner of the Snow Queen in that act. I was also cast in the Russian dance. The two main roles in The Nutcracker for males are the Snow Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Cavalier - the Sugar Plum Cavalier being the most important. Sheridan usually did that role in the WBC version.
Lots of times, there is no Snow Cavalier. Many companies see that as optional. But the Sugar Plum Cavalier is never optional. Sugar Plum Cavalier is to men as Sugar Plum fairy is to the women. There are other dancing roles for men in The Nutcracker however, like the Chinese or Marzipan dance, Arabian, Russian, Spanish (for instance, Hector was cast in Spanish), and sometimes you'll see men or a man in the Dance of the Reed Pipes, but by far the most prestigious male role is Sugar Plum Cavalier...the second most prestigious being Snow.
Then, of course, as you get older, there are other roles, like one of the parents, or old Uncle Drosselmeyer. These are called "character" roles. They basically involve more acting, and the physical demands are not as great as they are with more of the dancing roles.
One of my favorite memories of doing the WBC Nutcracker was how, as the soldier doll that battles the Mouse King, (performed by Joseph Ojalvo) I along with my army of little kids had to stay huddled behind the Christmas tree onstage for the entire first act, because there was no way for us to get onstage before that, due to the fact that there was no opening in the backdrop for us to slip through. And even if there were, if we attempted to get in position behind the Christmas tree while the action was going on, the audience would have no doubt seen the curtain moving.
This also made it very hard for me to stay warm for dancing. I did tensing and releasing exercise with my muscles, and releves (rising onto the toes) in place. Imagine if I had lost my balance and fallen backwards out of the releve!
A little short synopsis of the action to that point: The Silberhaus
family is having a Christmas Party. Clara is the daughter of the Silberhauses.
Uncle Drosselmeyer shows up with the Nutcracker Doll, and gives it to
Well at the same time, the Mouse King with his army arrives on the scene, and the battle ensues. Me and my army get to get out from behind the Christmas tree.
Now obviously it isn't like this for all dance companies' versions of The Nutcracker. It all depends on how the action is staged, and the version of The Nutcracker that is being done. Obviously ours was being done that way, because the Nutcracker doll was a gift to Clara that had been put under the tree for the night, and when the tree grew under the midnight spell, the doll also grew, and sprang from the tree.
We ended up doing 10 performances of The Nutcracker at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. However, we also "took it on the road" as they say. We performed in Green Bay, Wausau, and several other cities in the central Wisconsin area.
In addition to doing the Nutcracker/Soldier Doll, in Green Bay (home of the Packers) I also did the Russian Dance, along with Vivian, Kathy, Melanie, Charmaine, and Cindy.
We ended up performing with the Green Bay Symphony.
For the Russian Dance, (if I remember correctly) we were supposed to take our positions onstage, and then the music was to start. Well, this particular time, we were still standing in the wings, and they started the music! We all looked at each other, rushed out onto the stage, and completed the dance. It was hilarious. Talk about five seconds of panic!
That particular night, it was very cold in Wisconsin, as it tends to be in December. In fact, it was about twenty below zero. Once the company bus arrived back at the dance studio, I found that my car that was parked in the weather for about 18 hours didn't want to start. As it turns out, the fact that I had straight 50 weight racing oil in the hot rod Pinto was the problem. The oil had congealed in the engine, and wouldn't let it turn over. The car was towed to the dealership. Once they let it thaw out, they put 10W-30 oil in it, which was lighter, and I never had that problem again.
Also, while trying to get the car to start, I had my gloves off. My hands froze. I was lucky I didn't get frostbite. At one point, I touched the car, and my hand actually stuck to the car. I never did that again either. It was very painful. You live and learn I guess. Any time I hear about people getting frostbite I think about that night.
That following early spring, the company changed Artistic Directors. Tibor Zana left, and Eugene Tanner, who had formerly been a dancer with George Balanchine, took over the reins. I don't really know the partuculars of what went on, and as a dancer, it was really none of my business an administrative thing that must have been really hard for Tibor being "ousted" from the company he founded.
I really learned a lot from Mr. Tanner. He was "Old School" as they say. I think he was one of Balanchine's original dancers, back before the name of the New York City Ballet was changed from Ballet Society. A great artist for sure. I really don't think our discipline levels were what he would have liked them to be, coming from where he came from.
That following April, all our contracts were up. The company was to effectively shut down for the summer. All of us who were from out of state ended up going home for the summer. Soon after, we all got calls saying that the company would not be re-forming. Very sad. Again, I don't really know what happened.
At any rate, everybody moved on. I think Kathy Frey and Cher Carnell went to the Milwaukee Ballet, and I don't know what everyone else did. I do know that Vivian is still teaching at the University of Wisconsin. Also, unfortunately, Sheridan, Hector and Doug have passed away.
Other Interesting Moments
Wisconsin Ballet Company members used to go out and party all the time.
One night Charmaine and I went to the Capitol Theatre to see a then unknown band called Return To Forever, with Chick Corea on piano, Lenny White on drums, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Al DiMeola on guitar. It was fantastic. Little did we know we were watching jazz history being made. The beginning of a phenomenon called Fusion. We had a feeling though.
There was one bar that Sheridan, Vivian and Hector told us about, "The Back Door", that we used to all go to. Me, the women in the company, everybody. A camaraderie thing.
As it turns out, "The Back Door" was a gay bar (hence the name). Over the stairway as you went into the downstairs establishment, there was a mural depicting Dorothy from the Wizard Of Oz telling Toto. "We aren't in Kansas anymore".
One night I was standing near the dance floor with a healthy buzz on watching everybody. Little did I know that standing where I was meant that you wanted to be picked up. I felt this tap on my shoulder. I swear I thought this guy was Paul Bunyan himself. About 6'6". Plaid shirt, full beard, the works.
He says to me, "Hey, baby, don't I know you from somewhere?" I was flabbergasted. "No I don't think so" I said, and made a hasty retreat. Like I said, you live and learn
Also during my time in Madison, my car insurance expired, so I had to find a reputable insurance company. I found this one guy in the phone book, and made an appointment with him to get another policy.
All face-to-face back then, none of this online stuff like now.
Anyways, he and I were talking about things, and out of the blue, he asked me, "Have you got a girlfriend?"
Immediately the gay flags went up. I thought this guy was thinking that because I was a dancer, he was going to hit on me, and that he was gay. Anyways, I went along with it. I told him I didn't have a girlfriend. There was Kathy of course, but she really wasn't my girlfriend.
I ended up telling him that I didn't have a girlfriend.
He told me he knew of this really nice girl that I should meet. Her name was Lissy. She was a really nice girl, and I should try to get together with her. I thought, "What the hell"? I got her phone number from him and contacted her. Pretty exceptional circumstance considering this guy didn't know me from Adam.
It turned out the Lissy was an EXTREMELY BEAUTIFUL girl. I mean along the lines of Grace Kelly/Claudia Cardinale beautiful. She was single, had an apartment on the west side of Madison. I could not understand why she didn't have a boyfriend or was married to some rich doctor or something. Girls that beautiful you just don't find single.
This is how fine she was:
One night I was out with some other friends at a bar dancing. One of the guys in the group says, "Man! Look at that woman on the dance floor! She is gorgeous!" Turns out it was Lissy.
She and I never really got anything together. I was still hurting from the Kathy thing, and we were all due to go home soon anyway. I spent my last night in Madison with her.
The next morning, I called the local rock radio station and asked them to play "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen in her honor, as I was leaving the city. Sure enough, it came on just as I passed the "You Are Now Leaving Madison" sign on the highway
That summer was pretty interesting. I was back home with my mother in our apartment at 506 Mt Vernon in Detroit. I was taking class every morning from Mr. Lascu at Marygrove College.
Marygrove was a really beautiful campus. Especially in the summertime. You always felt like you were at Versailles or something. An old friend from the Severo School, Antoine McCoy was also taking class there. Antoine was about 6'2" real thin, and a really good dancer. In fact I originally met him through Ron Jones. They were both working at the WWJ television station in Detroit, and both studying with Miss Severo.
At any rate, Antoine had this friend. A woman named Velma. Another beautiful girl, just like Lissy. (One thing I found out as a dancer, beautiful women are sometimes attracted to us) I thought maybe Velma was his girlfriend, but it turns out they were just friends, because Antoine was supposed to be gay anyways, but you never know. At any rate, Velma and I ended up falling in love. Personally, I was WAY head over heels for her. She was a classic Italian beauty.
When they talk about a "Summer Of Love", that's what that was for me, the summer of 1976. I used to sneak into her dorm room at Marygrove and we would spend the night together. Almost like "Romeo and Juliet", and when my mother wasn't home, she would come over to our house. She used to call me "Hot Rod Robert" because of the hot rod Pinto, and how I used to drive like a maniac. (Not because of any other reason you might think) She was also really into the singer Jim Croce.
However, it was not to last.
Velma's mother was also a classic Italian beauty. You could see where it came from. She liked me a lot. She even knitted a sweater for me. I met Velma's brother, he lived in Indiana and was really into the martial arts, (he demonstrated a "crescent kick" for me one day...came within 1 inch of my nose) but I never ended up meeting the rest of her family though. I really don't think Velma and I seeing each other was approved of by her family at large. Maybe it was because she was 19 at the time, and I was 24. Maybe there were other reasons.
One day she told me she couldn't see me anymore. Her father basically forbade it. I didn't take it too well, to say the least.
Anyways, I ended up getting over it, and at the end of that summer, I went to Atlanta with my friend Ron to study at the Atlanta Ballet.
= = Continued in hard copy version