Jock!

I saw a documentary last night at New York City Ballet’s State Theater that I really really loved. AND it’s going to air on PBS on April 8th, so everyone can see it! Don’t worry, I will definitely be reminding you all closer to April :) It’s called WATER FLOWING TOGETHER and is about the life of recently retired and widely beloved New York City Ballet dancer Jock Soto (pictured above after the showing speaking with photographer / filmmaker Gwendolen Cates — whom I’m told is related to Phoebe, though I don’t know if it’s true — and a moderator whose name I didn’t get).

(image from here)

There was some real hype over this, and I’m always ready to pounce in such instances, but in this case the hype was deserved. Although the film gets off to a slow start, it quickly gains momentum. I think what makes it so engaging is Soto’s interesting background and wonderful personality. He’s part Navajo, part Puerto Rican, and he grew up on a reservation in New Mexico, before moving to Phoenix (!) for ballet school. The film’s title is the name of his mother’s clan. There’s some great footage of the West, and my favorite parts of the film are (in addition to clips of his rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s tear-jerking duet “After the Rain” with the equally engaging Wendy Whelan, who is interviewed as well) those about his Native-American roots. (This could be partly because I have a Native American great-grandmother — Blackfoot to be exact — though I know next to nothing about her since, sadly, she’s been all but erased from my family history). Anyway, Jock’s mother was an artist and used to make Katchina dolls (how I miss Arizona…) and ceramic bowls, and he and his brother used to make and sell Indian Fry Bread (how I SO miss Arizona…) when they were kids. After he retired from NYCB in 2005 he went to culinary school and he and his partner, professional chef Luis Fuentes, have just begun a catering business, so I guess those foodie roots were always there!

Another thing that struck me: Jock’s homosexuality has always been accepted by his mother’s side of the family. American Indian culture, she says, holds homosexuals in high esteem because of their difference. (His paternal Latin side: not so accepting; aunts and grandmas keep asking when he’s gonna get married and, because his father hasn’t said anything, he feels uncomfortable revealing his sexuality to them). But interestingly, Indian society is also matriarchal. So, where women are valued, so are gay men.

(photo by Paul Kolnick)

And, like his longtime partner Wendy Whelan, Jock has such a sweetly endearing personality and a great sense of humor. He laughs easily at himself. Upon entering his apartment (which he openly tells you is a typical NYC dancer shoebox that he nevertheless pays $1,850 for) there’s a sign that reads, “No liquor served to Indians after 6:00 p.m.” Later, while preparing for a performance, he says, “as I put on my makeup and my costume and do my hair, I think, what a strange occupation for a 40-year-old man,” and at another point, trying hard to conceal his fear of and heartache about permanently leaving the stage says, “well, June 19, 2005 will be the last time I’ll ever have to dress in drag.” At one point, he actually lets loose and cries over his eternally pained body and his pending retirement. The scene makes him human and vulnerable and it really drives home that it must be so awful for a dancer to have to leave what he’s lived his entire life for at such a young age.

Anyway, it’s an excellent film and I left out a lot: his meeting and befriending Andy Warhol (I wish Cates had actually gone into a bit more detail on this); his ruminations on his coming to NY at only age 14, living without his family and dropping out of school in the 7th grade; and a lot of amazing dancing, including some great footage of him flying all over stage with his young little sprightly teenage body! Please do watch it on PBS in April, though they have to chop a good twenty minutes off for TV, which seriously frightens me since PBS seems to have a knack for making everything they show as bland as possible. If they cut any of the parts I just mentioned, there will be hell to pay!

It already seems this film is a slightly different version than that others have seen. In her lengthy review, Tobi Tobias mentions several classroom scenes where he’s teaching students at the School of American Ballet (from which aspiring NYCB dancers must graduate), which seemed to be missing from last night’s version. And smartly so, I think: “Classical ballet being the last bastion of chivalry in our disheveled era, Soto works continually to encourage a worshipful attitude in the gentlemen toward their ladies.” Considered the quintessential “manly” dancer though he may be, something about that line kind of makes me want to vomit.

Sometimes it can start to feel a bit stiflingly cliquish inside the State Theater if I’m there for too long, but I had a nice time hanging out before and after with Philip and Ariel, whose reports are here and here.

8 Comments

  1. I really hope that this airs on the West Coast. Jock Soto’s always fascinated me, because not only does he seem to be a great artist, but I think great partnering is slowly becoming a dying art, where flashiness and higher jumps are highly valued in men, whereas partnering falls to the wayside. I see this in SF Ballet dancers as well (which I’m much more familiar with, over NYCB) as well as in ABT, where the men look great in solos, and not so free and comfortable in their pas de deux’s (is that plural?).

    Perhaps this reflects societal gender priorities more than anything that is going on in dance alone? Perhaps it’s not “cool” in a masculine sense to be deferring to your (female) partner over yourself. Who knows.

  2. This was a wonderful write-up! When I got home and called my mom I was like “Tonya Plank is tough!” I told her all about your run in with that evil lady in the first ring! You were so brave!

  3. I hope it shows there too, Jolene — I’m sure it will (although, oh, didn’t the PBS there leave something else out of their programming a while back?…) I hope partnership isn’t a dying art — (and with what I said, I guess I was more referring to Tobias’ terminology which sounded old-school to me, which seemed to contrast with the way Soto was raised in his mother’s tribe — I just want to roll my eyes when anyone says ‘worship’ in that context). Unfortunately I didn’t see much of Jock before he retired, but I’ve heard he was an excellent partner. I think Marcelo Gomes is also a great partner, and Jose Carreno too. I remember Susan — ugh, can’t think of her last name!!! — well, the one who used to partner with Jose before she retired — she said Latin men make the best partners. I’ve noticed the same in ballroom — it’s the Latin men who are usually content to remain “the frame” and the others who go wild trying to be both frame and “picture” as well…

    Thanks, Ariel — haha, I forgot about that woman! She made me so mad!

  4. It’s Susan Jaffee — I can’t believe I forgot her name :S

  5. An excellent commentary on a powerful and moving film and a wonderful night! Two quick observations: first, I have been attending NYCB performances for about 30 years and I have to say that Jock Soto was the best male partner (with the possible exception of Peter Martins himself) that I have seen at NYCB during all those years. And second, I know that Ms. Cates did not want to further lengthen the film, but I actually wish that she had included more scenes of Jock teaching class at SAB. I had the pleasure of observing a few of his classes at the school and he is a truly outstanding teacher.

  6. hi~~~

    many thanxx for the extra info. went directly to the laptop to search for info on jock soto after serendipetously viewing the pbs show about him just now.

    am not a huge balletomane, so although i enjoy watching dance ocasionally, and am a former new yorker (now living in arizona ~ tucson), i admit i had not heard of him
    (or most of the other dancers mentioned, sorry)!!!

    whew ~ what a story. what beauty and commitment (of all involved).

    question: i didn’t hear the term ”two-spirit person/people”, which i heard as a correct title for gays in native american cultures; not true of navajo? or did i just not catch it?

    thank you again.

  7. Hi Joyce — thanks for writing! So, was it already broadcast out in Arizona last night? It was originally supposed to air last night, but then they’d changed it here to air on Friday, so I assumed it had been changed all over the country! Darn, I was going to write a post on it to remind people to watch beforehand!

    They said at the showing here that they had to cut it by about twenty minutes, so it’s possible that they took that part out about the two-spirit personality. I hate it when they cut stuff! I’ll watch it on Friday here and let you know. Thanks again for writing!

Comments are closed