The New York Theatre Ballet (NYTB) has been a satin-stitch in New York’s classical dance fabric for almost forty years. Under the Artistic Direction of Antony Tudor disciple Diana Byer, whose legacy is being fêted this Fall at Danspace on the occasion of her 70th birthday, NYTB has been widely recognized for its LIFT program, which provides rigorous classical dance instruction and performance opportunities on full scholarship to the city’s underserved and homeless children. The LIFT program builds confidence, discipline, and coordination, and, once in a while, turns out a virtuosic art-maker like Steven Melendez, who has exceeded even the program’s most optimistic expectations.
Since completing his instruction and beginning his apprenticeship with NYTB in 2001, Melendez has joined companies in Argentina and Estonia, and has traveled by invitation and fellowship to festivals, galas, and competitions around the globe, all to some impressive acclaim and recognition. This season Melendez is a guest principal dancer for Ballet Palm Beach. Over the past year he has been dipping his tendus into choreography.
As part of NYTB’s Legends & Visionaries program, the company performs revived classical pieces and fosters new works by emerging choreographers, like Melendez. In August NYTB brought an iteration of the program to Jacob’s Pillow, producing Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, and Melendez’s most recent work, Song Before Spring. On October 6, Song Before Spring will close another Legends & Visionaries Program at Danspace Project’s St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (running to October 8).
Created this past Winter, Song Before Spring is co-choreographed with Zhong-Jing Fang of American Ballet Theatre and harmonizes the two young choreographic voices. The piece is set to Philip Glass’s Piano Etudes on steel drums. Song Before Spring is a “plotless, yet not abstract ballet,” Melendez explains; it explores themes of human interaction and solitude with a charged, angsty movement style grounded in the Cecchetti ballet technique of the company.
Gillian Jakab caught up with Melendez via email and in person at the courtyard of NYTB’s studio space at St. Mark’s Church. They discussed the demands and joys of #DancerLife, the state of the arts in the U.S., and his choreographic process.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): I’m happy we found a window of time to talk because you have such a busy schedule with rehearsals, jet-setting, performing—I love your hashtag #DancerLife.
Steven Melendez: You know I’m turning thirty—no I’m turning twenty-five, again [Laughs.]—in September. And I’ve had a couple seasons now of injuries. They haven’t kept me off the stage, but have made my life very difficult. I’ve decided, in a moment of [reflection], that my present to myself for my thirtieth birthday will be to see how far I can push myself.
Rail: You were in Japan and Korea this summer before beginning these Jacob’s Pillow rehearsals. What were you working on while you were away?
Melendez: I try to go at least once a year. Six or seven years I’ve been doing that. I have a relationship with a school there, and I teach a summer workshop, and I perform as well. I’ve known these kids from when they were tiny and they didn’t speak any English. Well they still don’t speak any English, but I really know them now. I’ve watched them grow up. The first year I went there they were totally shy, closed off, and quiet, and now they’re like STEVEN! HELLO!
Rail: Looking back at your career since NYTB, you’ve had periods in companies in Argentina and Estonia, won an award in Hungary, and as we’ve discussed you were just in Japan and Korea, to name a few places you’ve marked on the globe. Have you noticed differences in cultural attitudes surrounding dance around the world?
Melendez: I grew up in New York, so I was lucky because I was exposed to culture, even from my background, which probably was a little bit unusual. But I was lucky to be exposed to culture and I thought that this was the greatest place on the planet, you know, New York City. All the dancers are here; all the greatest companies are here. Then I went to Argentina. I learned—from living there, from being there—that dance, and music especially, can be a fundamental part of a culture, of a society. It’s in the blood of the people, in a really cliché way, but literally you walk down the streets and there are people playing their Bandoneón, accordion, and they aren’t doing it because they want your money. They’re just doing it because they woke up and they’re just sitting on their porch, playing their thing, and they’re dancing in the street or as they go through the aisles in the supermarket.
And then when I went to Estonia, it was that, except it was for ballet. It was like the old Russian idea of ballerinas being fundamentally important to the society and the culture, and without the arts and the big Bolshoi Theatre, everything would crumble—added to this the European model, or most of the rest of the world’s model, of actually funding the arts. I worked in a state-funded theater, and we had a fifty-two-week contract, we had built-in time off, a pension, and health insurance. In one building, we had the ballet company, the opera, the symphony, and the choir. It was three theaters: the main theater, the blackbox theater, and a little satellite theater just down the road. It was an institution, and that does not exist in the United States. The actual physical aspect of it doesn’t exist in the United States. Maybe Lincoln Center comes close as it has a bunch of theaters in one area, but even that is not one organization. Financially it doesn’t exist. And culturally it doesn’t exist which is really, I think, a shame.
Once when I was in Estonia I was going to the airport and I had called a taxi to come and pick me up at my apartment. And I got in the Taxi and the driver turned around. He obviously didn’t speak any English, he goes: ‘You Onegin.” I’m like “no I’m St—yeah I’m Onegin.” I had just performed Onegin two weeks before. It’s one of my favorite ballets, and a taxi driver recognized me as [my role.] Not only was it that a taxi driver went to the show, but that it stuck with him enough, or that it was important enough for him, that he was able to recognize me two weeks later, out of context.
Rail: You returned to NYTB in 2010, and now work as a principal dancer and choreographer where you grew up (both literally and metaphorically) and got your start. Tell me about that start and how your relationship with NYTB has evolved to what it is today.
Melendez: Well, NYTB is a small company and I’m glad that I had the experiences of being in larger companies because what I think I didn’t realize when I was younger is that one is not better than the other. They are fundamentally different. There is very little chance NYTB will ever do what ABT does. Equally there’s no chance that ABT is going to be able to do what we do. Quite simply they can’t afford to do a two-hour program that only uses eight dancers. They’ve got a payroll of fifty, so they can’t do that. Equally we can’t afford to do a ballet that needs fifty dancers.
So coming back I think I found a different kind of respect for this company. And I realized that being in a smaller company is a choice that I’ve made and it’s because it gives me certain opportunities that I wouldn’t get in a larger company.
Of course now I’m older and I’ve been here a long time, so my role in the company is maybe shifting a little bit. I’m choreographing and directing rehearsals sometimes for ballets that I know and that I’ve done for many years, those kind of administrative things. But as far as how I perceive the company, I think I have a greater appreciation.
Rail: You are performing in the piece you co-choreographed with Zhong-Jing Fang, Song Before Spring. Tell me a bit about your collaborative choreographic process for Song Before Spring? How was this experience different from your personal process of making work?
Melendez: It came from Diana [Byer]. She had the opportunity to—my understanding is—to use this music; she had the rights and permissions, [as well as] the opportunity to work with the NYU Steel Ensemble, which is really far out, if you haven’t seen them in person. So she wanted to make a ballet out of it. She’d seen Zhong-Jing’s work and she’d seen some very small things that I had done, and she thought that we would work well together.
We decided that we both would have ultimate veto power over everything, and otherwise we would sort of just take it as it goes along. She and I have different ways of looking at movement. We were able to work without stepping on each other’s toes at all.
Rail: So you had the music. Did you start from there as a choreographer, or did you have movement first as your inspiration?
Melendez: I had the music first. The music is really interesting. I think when you hear it for the first time, it doesn’t even feel like music; it just sounds repetitive. But after you’ve lived with it for a while, it starts to—I think I’ve started to understand a little bit what Philip [Glass] was thinking: why his method is the way it is; what minimalism is; why it’s such a repetitive thing. So we started with that. But in actually making the movement, I did it, and I think Zhong-Jing did as well, always in silence. And then we put on the music and made it work.
Rail: Besides broadening your view of the role of the arts in society, has having worked in diverse settings influenced the way you choreograph and create work?
Melendez: Absolutely. I know that in a more practical way the style of movement and the style of dance, the actual vocabulary of movement that I experienced in Europe—I don’t think it exists in the United States. I think that neoclassical and contemporary ballet in Europe is at a different evolution than in the U.S. Interestingly, modern dance in the U.S. is a thing that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Classical modern dance—Graham technique and Limon technique and Ailey, Horton—these codified modern dances are hard to come by outside of the U.S. And equally, someone like Jiří Kylián or Nacho Duato or William Forsythe or Mats Ek—these guys are neoclassical ballet, or contemporary ballet—you don’t find that here. My experiences in Europe, technically speaking, have enlarged my vocabulary.
Rail: You are a trained ballet dancer. Do you work solely within a classical movement vocabulary or do you draw from other genres?
Melendez: I try not to limit myself. But also, if I don’t know it, I don’t know it. With that said, I watch a lot of dance. I try to go to the theater as much a possible, although I usually can’t afford it. But I’m on YouTube and I’m reading books, and I’ve got a library at home with dance history and dance books. I may not have experience with all forms—I mean I’m not a tap dancer obviously, but I know, intellectually, enough about tap that I’m sure some of it comes in the movement somehow.
Rail: Speaking of dance history, Ted Shawn, one of the founders of Jacob’s Pillow Festival in the ’30s said: “Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.” This is quite literally true for you in Song before Spring as you are both choreographer and dancer; the creator and the “stuff” of which the dance is made. How do you move between the two roles?
Melendez: I absolutely hate it. If I could have it my way, I would be out of the ballet. Part of it is because it divides my attention, which is frustrating, and confuses my intention as a choreographer with what I feel when I’m [dancing] it. And I think that’s really dangerous because it could turn into a sort of narcissistic approach to the movement. Certainly, you know if Antony Tudor walked in and said “you are feeling sad now” and I do it and it’s a big jump and I say “eh, I kind of like it happy.” I’m not going to tell him, no it’s happy. I’m going to try to find a way to do it like he said. And I feel that problem—I’m battling myself with what I know the movement is supposed to be and what the movement actually is. The other problem is that I am uncomfortable working with my colleagues, and saying do as I say, not as I do. The choreographer in me says this is on the one, and everyone in the room says: “but you’re doing it on the two.” It’s like yeah, but that’s because I’m slow and fat and old, you have to do it on the one!
Rail: Once a student of ballet as a child, you are now a choreographer, dancer, teacher and mentor. Describe the role dance plays in terms of education, development, and opportunities for kids.
Melendez: I am confident that dance education for children is one of the best ways to build essential life skills. Aside from coordination, grace, and athletic sensibility, dance education also teaches and instills the ethics of determination and hard work. Dance classes teach both self-awareness and social awareness and they teach simple skills such as following directions and personal responsibility. When dance education reaches higher levels and adds elements of performance children also learn the value of courage and in a sense they earn their own self-respect.
At even higher levels, when dance education includes understanding the long history of dance, art, and culture, students begin to have a peek into the importance of art in society and slowly, if they have not become art makers, they are cultivated into the next generation of art lovers.
Rail: Diana Byer has been part of your dance career from the beginning and is committed to providing you, and other young choreographers, the space to find your choreographic voice without the intense pressures of financial or critical success. As NYTB prepares to celebrate her legacy in the dance world, how would you describe Diana’s role in your professional life and her influence on you?
Melendez: So many things about Diana, what can I say about someone I’ve known for twenty-three years? More than two thirds of my life, actually.
Diana has had a handful of roles in my life but the one I think is most important is as a mentor. Over these years I think I have learned more from her than she has realized she has taught me, and a lot of it comes from watching her work ethic. I have always been especially interested in watching how she makes choices when she is faced with difficult decisions, and what I have learned is that she surrounds herself with mentors of her own. There are not very many people who understand that sometimes it is necessary to ask for advice, but she is one of them. I think this is one of the most important things she has taught me, and it is one quality that I hope I can emulate as I grow as an artist.
GILLIAN JAKAB is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.