Sooner or later, all dancers face the inevitable: the end of their performing careers and the gnawing, terrifying question of, “What’s next?” Rarely has the anguish and soul-searching occasioned by this seminal transition in a dancer’s life been captured, and so poignantly, as in the new documentary Water Flowing Together. Created by Gwendolen Cates, the film is an intimate account of the months leading up to New York City Ballet principal Jock Soto’s 2005 retirement performance, a time fraught with both joy and anxiety as he reflects on a storied 24-year career and confronts the uncertainty of the future.
Born in 1965 on an Indian reservation in New Mexico to a Navajo mother and Puerto Rican father, Soto began taking ballet lessons at a local dance studio before receiving a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet. A few years later, at age 16, he was among the last to be handpicked by George Balanchine to join NYCB, where he became celebrated for his regal, unabashedly masculine stage presence and, above all, his impeccable partnering. By the end, he was, by choreographer Richard Tanner’s count, the most choreographed-on dancer in the company—an audience favorite and an idol to a new generation of dancers.
But the film, which draws its title from the name of Soto’s Navajo clan, does more than gloss the high points of his career. It also reveals the struggles he faced over the years, whether as a preteen straining to make ends meet in NYC (his parents sent him there alone, as they couldn’t afford to join him) or as an older man embarking on a belated quest to understand his biracial identity. Water Flowing Together, which has already garnered numerous festival awards including the Jury Prize at NYC’s Dance on Camera Festival this past January, is set to debut April 8 nationwide as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens.” Soto says he hopes the film will inspire young, aspiring dancers everywhere.
Happily, these days the danseur has found a new calling: cooking. Even as he keeps up a full schedule at SAB, where he has been on faculty since 1996 and now teaches boys’, men’s and partnering classes six days a week, Soto finds time to run a catering business with his boyfriend, Luis Fuentes (called Lucky Basset Events, after the couple’s dog). It’s a reassuring reminder that the end of a dancer’s Act I need not mean curtain call; for those brave enough, Act II is right around the corner.
DanceTeacher: I found Water Flowing Together very moving.
Jock Soto: Thank you so much. We’ve been getting such great responses, and we’re so proud of the project. Of course, now we have to fundraise again for the outreach programs—there are so many dance programs in colleges and so many dance schools in America, and eventually, Gwendolen and I want to raise money to make DVDs so we can distribute them. I just think it would be an inspiration for younger kids who want to become dancers to see how my parents really sacrificed so much for me to come to New York.
DT:What’s the distribution plan?
JS:We’re working on it. It’s coming out nationally April 8; after that, we have to work on maybe going to colleges and talking to students, showing the film, answering questions—that’s what we’d really like to do.
DT:Is that one of the reasons you approached Gwendolen about making the film in the first place?
JS:Yes, definitely. I never had a problem with my sexuality either, and I just wanted to tell everyone that they should go where their hearts send them, and not be embarrassed about who they are.
DT:Since retiring in 2005, you’ve kept busy with a full teaching load at SAB as well as starting your own catering company with your boyfriend. What is it that appeals to you about cooking?
JS:I love the passion that it takes, and I love the finished product—it’s like a performance. And I love food! Any kind of food. I wish I could snap my fingers and be in Paris right now, eating. I’ll probably teach forever, but I also want to have a restaurant—in New York, of course.
DT:You’ve said before that you almost considered quitting teaching after you retired. What made you decide to continue?
JS:Once I retired, I went to culinary school and I really, really loved my teacher. He was such a great teacher and so amusing, and during that time I was still teaching myself, so I realized that I actually liked teaching a lot, and I liked seeing the dancers get into the company and continuing. I had this dream of leaving New York and living in New Mexico in a beautiful house and cooking, but then I discovered that what I knew and what I was teaching was doing good for the students, and it’s exciting because I also started to go out and scout. I got to go to San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas, and find kids and bring them to [SAB]. I started to really appreciate it and like it much more, and it became such a nice responsibility to have.
DT:What would you say your teaching approach is in the classroom? What do you try to impart to students?
JS:Back when Balanchine came to America, he wanted to bring a technique that was better, quicker and more exciting to watch. What I try to do is bring that technique, and Peter Martins’ technique, into the future. The future is always getting better and better, so we as teachers have to take everything into the future, meaning the dancers have to get better and better. And they do, which is really wonderful to watch. I mean, the technique that these dancers have now compared to 20 years ago is phenomenal. They can do anything and they can dance as fast as possible; it’s just wonderful. So my duty is to just keep improving my technique and passing it to them.
DT:Any tips on encouraging boys in particular to dance?
JS:We have a very high caliber of boys here at SAB, and they’re such hard workers and know that they’re here for that reason, so I just try to encourage them to not lose faith. For boys in general, give it a try, and start young and start early. If you really have a passion for it, then go for it.
DT:It certainly wasn’t always easy for you, starting out as the only boy at a small local studio in Phoenix, Arizona.
JS:Yeah, but I had people who believed that I had talent, so I listened to those people.
DT:You are famous for your partnering ability. Although it might come naturally to you, how do you approach passing on that skill?
JS:It takes a lot to teach partnering, and I had to teach myself how to teach that kind of a class. I found that if I just demonstrated it very slowly and showed students how and where to put their hands and how to approach a ballerina, they would get it. It’s hard to explain. You’d have to watch me teach class, because I try to bring a lot of humor into it also.
DT:Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for other dancers making the challenging transition from dancing to teaching full-time?
JS:You have to decide a few years before you retire what you’re going to do, and give yourself plenty of time, because if you get to that point where you’re retiring and you have nothing left, or nothing to look forward to, you’re going to be at a terrible, terrible loss. What I would say is, plan your future well in advance. And don’t think it’s going to be horrible not to dance, but think of how great it’s going to be to do something else.