How is it that your career brought you from Paris to Chicago?
What brought me was my height, quite simply. I was originally from the Paris Opera school. I grew fast. At 16 years, I was growing at a rate of 1.5 inches per month. I was not doing badly, but I was worried because the corps de ballet is a certain height, and I was beyond that height already, so I thought, “What do I do now?” Claude Bessy suggested that I try going to the United States, and so I spent a short time in the ABT school, and also the Rock School and their affiliate, Pennsylvania Ballet, and worked there with Stephanie Wolf and Boris Spassoff. I learned English, and began to understand the American dance style and lifestyle. The Rock School had enough money to pay for my visa and paperwork. I danced in Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker and Dracula, and was able to get in some classes at School of American Ballet, which were invaluable for increasing my speed, because that is something tall dancers usually lack. I was accepted into the apprentice program at Boston Ballet, Boston Ballet II. That year at Boston Ballet ended chaotically for everyone there when the artistic director retired and her successor quit before really taking the job because of a financial disaster. I took a Greyhound bus to all the cities where there were ballet companies, and ended up in New York at Joffrey’s New York studio, where they made an offer. At that time, I was dating Laura O’Malley, and we both went to Dutch National, where she was hired immediately and they wanted me to wait until winter to start. My mother wanted me to take Joffrey because it was a bird in hand. Then Sept 11th happened and because of heightened security measures, Joffrey wasn’t able to have my paperwork processed and I was stuck in Paris. My mother insisted that I audition for the Lido, a famous cabaret in Paris. I was hired, and it turned out to be the best experience, invaluable! I learned singing, jazz and tap from Laurence Fanon, an amazing teacher who trained with professional ice skaters, and so I got to do acrobatic divertissements. It required a lot of intense work. I developed a close relationship with the owners of the Lido, the Clerico brothers. I was happy. I had a girlfriend. But I was restless to dance ballet again, and thought, “I’ve got to go back to the States.” I quit the Lido. My parents and my girlfriend thought I was nuts, and not having any idea of whether Joffrey in Chicago would want me, I decided to go there and take class. Adam Sklute was teaching. As I was leaving the studio, Mr. [Gerald] Arpino appeared in the hallway. He greeted me saying, “You came here for me!” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I stammered, “Uh, y-ess.” That was a little over 11 years ago.
What has The Joffrey offered you that you would not have experienced had you remained in Europe?
The Joffrey gave me confidence because it lifted my morale. I’m considered a giant in the dance world at 6’ 6”. I haven’t seen anyone who is my equal in height. When you are that tall, all you hear is, you’re not fast enough, there’s nothing we can put you in because you dwarf the other dancers, the girls are too short for you to partner—all negatives, and it is true that I can’t move as fast as short people, but Balanchine training at SAB helped get me get up to speed.
What distinguishes The Joffrey from other North American companies?
What is really special about Joffrey, artistically, is the diversity of styles it is able to take on and present and do well: You can see that in tomorrow night’s program, where we’ll do Age of Innocence, After the Rain and The Green Table. We are launching a two-month tour from here and next week, we’ll do in the middle somewhat elevated in San Diego. Putting such extremely diverse styles together in one program tells you that the artistic director believes in our capacity to dance all styles well. That kind of diversity is hard to find in one company.
You are very much the iconic Joffrey dancer today in much the way that Gary Chryst or Luis Fuente or Paul Sutherland was in my generation. What responsibilities are implied by being the public face of Joffrey Ballet?
I’ve been with the company 11 years and people want to find something personal they can attach to, and you become a symbol, dancing principal roles under Mr. Arpino, Adam, and then Ashley [Wheater, the current artistic director]. So that’s three regimes, and every time there is a regime change in a company, each artistic director reevaluates the company and its dancers. I have remained in the company through all those directorships. As a representative of the company you can’t all the time speak your mind because you are the company’s ambassador and you have to subordinate yourself to the company, not only in your dancing, but in how you speak outside of the company, present yourself, and what you do outside of company time, and we have been through some changes, with a lockout where as a company, all of us were really tested. When Ashley came on board and also when the lockout took place, I realized that in spite of what we were facing, you cannot trash the company. You have to find what’s best for the company. You can voice your opinion internally on important issues, but you don’t air dirty laundry in public.
What direction do you see The Joffrey going in under Ashley Wheater’s stewardship?
Ashley is doing a really good job: It’s the best thing to happen to our company. For one thing, he has a plan! We are really fortunate to have him deliver on his plan without it being too big of a bump. He has been bringing in new choreographic work, which we all get to perform. I have never had work done on me before, and now I have so many pieces: Age of Innocence by Edward Liang and Son of Chamber by Stanton Welch, among them. It was very good to work with Stanton, because it all went very smoothly and naturally. He would speak about a movement, try it, and sometimes left it open to configure, and he worked fast. Working with Edward Liang on Age of Innocence was also good, but more controlled, setting up a goal, and then if it didn’t work, he’d step back, do a workaround. When someone sets work on you, the movement fits you so well.
If you were to become the director of a ballet company tomorrow, what would consider the most important thing to do?
I would go with the roots, the school, give a lot of attention during my first term to the school. During my 11 years, I have seen students who danced in Nutcracker when they were 10, who are now 20, coming to the shows. This is the core audience. The real issue is to create an amazing school, base and structure to build the audience that organically emerges from that base, which brings with it dance education, proper training, and a new generation of athletes and dancers. It’s a huge task to train dancers properly. Paris Opera has built a huge structure and reputation based on its pedagogy. The training is so important. Today in the United States, most schools gather together a collection of teachers into an establishment that is dysfunctional because it has no progressive curriculum and is a pastiche of styles and schools that reflect where the teacher happens to come from, rather than the needs of the student for consistency and slow introduction in stages to ballet training. Every person is potentially a great a dancer, but every person is not the same. You can teach steps, but you can’t transmit what the body knows as a small person to a tall person. The really amazing teacher recognizes this, and introduces students to teachers with a variety of body types, all teaching from the same curriculum. The goal is to train dancers systematically and not push children too fast just so you can show off how advanced your six-year-olds students are.
What was your reaction to the appointment of Benjamin Millepied to the post of Artistic Director of Paris Opera Ballet?
I was surprised because the new director has been a subject of discussion for a long time. Paris Opera was under the direction of Brigitte Lefèvre for so long! I felt that the short list of candidates was amazing. It included people such as Nicolas Le Riche, who trained there, was part of the Nureyev experience, part of the continuity, knew the house very well, and has done an amazing job. I’m not for always making a complete break. It is important to keep the legacy, even if you alter it a little bit, because it’s a world company, and people from all over the world come to Paris because they want to see specific characteristics of the French style of dancing. I wish him well and hope he does well.
Which choreographers or companies would you like to work with in the future?
Working with The Joffrey has been amazing, because it’s the hub of knowledge, and there’s so much more diversity: Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, Yuri Possokhov—I like that diversity. I would want to do some Balanchine because it would be fun to work with a legacy, a name that is still vibrant, yet established, to see what it is. New York City Ballet is kind of like the younger sister of Paris Opera, in the sense that it is the singular name of a world class city’s ballet company. Two choreographers I would have liked to work with are Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.