Dancer Joseph Watson grew up in Baltimore. When he was a child, his dad took him to see Tap, the infectious 1989 dance movie that provided little plot but plenty of platform for tappers Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. The film had young Watson dancing in the aisles, “and I haven’t stopped since,” he says with a laugh.
After weeks of harassing his parents, they agreed to enroll him in dance lessons, so he started with competitive jazz, tap and hip-hop. His mom told him that if he was to continue dancing, he had to be good at it—which lead to an after-school ballet program and eventually Juilliard, where he received his degree last year.
Watson is tall and muscular, and at first glance, he looks like he’d be more at home in basketball shorts than tights. His own father was “thrown off by it at first,” he says, but “once he saw that I was good, he was fine.”
There have always been men in dance, and the earliest ballerinas were all men. It’s often male dancers who grab the public’s imagination (and adoration): Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Astaire and (more recently) dancers like Mohawk-coifed Travis Wall from the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. And no matter how made-for-the-YouTube generation it is, the currently touring Bad Boys of Dance initiative proves there’s a lot more to contemporary male dancers than taboo tights-wearing.
Which brings us to Asheville’s Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance and this summer’s male-dominated production, Elvis & other men.
Men at work
“I like men who look like men on stage,” says Terpsicorps’ artistic director, Heather Malloy, a predilection made apparent by the buff group of guys (Watson included) in the Wedge Building studio. When Malloy started planning this season for her company (which draws professional dancers from around the country who are on summer break from various dance troupes), she was inspired by a piece called “Journey,” choreographed by the late Salvatore Aiello. Malloy had wanted to feature that dance for many years, but “it has nine men,” she points out. “I knew I couldn’t afford to hire nine men and still bring in any women dancers. So, I thought, ‘Why not just do a show that’s all men?’”
The resulting opus is composed of five pieces of new and existing choreography that examine the spectrum of male experience. The Elvis segment, titled, “Elvis has Left the Building,” is a dark look at the effects of celebrity. Dancer Chris Stuart, who plays the young, naive version of the King, notes that, “You can’t just imitate him.” To dance Elvis requires not just the ability to intuit the legendary performer’s movements, but to reinterpret those rock-star antics through the medium of ballet.
Similarly, the piece “Ugly,” choreographed to music of the Violent Femmes, is Malloy’s tribute to the punk bars of the 1980s. Asheville’s Holiday Childress provides vocals while folk-rock quartet Menage plays on stage in a nightclub set. “I’m stealing movements from stuff people used to do at those shows,” Malloy explains. “You take some of that movement and expand it, and then combine it with ballet steps.” In addition, the dancers add their own element of theatrics.
“If a dancer isn’t an artist first, it looks like they’re on auto pilot,” Stuart says.
Malloy adds, “The dancers that I chose, I choose for that. Flashy technicians are not always exciting for me. If they don’t have a soul, I’m not interested.”
“Testosterone is good”
What does interest the artistic director is the athletic ability of her male performers. She notes that although the dance world is dominated by female artists, there are relatively few women choreographers. That means when Malloy starts thinking of steps for her dancers, she’s intrigued by how far they can push physical boundaries. “I like to see things I know I can’t do,” she says. “I push them to see what’s plausible. It’s easy to make it exciting.”
The show’s other pieces—the working-man-oriented “Train” (a robust solo showcasing Watson’s toothsome sinew), the comedic, businessman-aligned “Run Ragged,” and Aiello’s critically acclaimed “Journey”—are all feats of strength.
“I like ‘Journey’ so far,” Watson says. It’s his first summer with Terpsicorps, after completing his inaugural season with the North Carolina Dance Theatre. Both Malloy and Aiello were associated with that same company, so Watson got the scoop before heading to Asheville. “People told me, ‘You’re going to be ripped when it’s done,’” he says of the taxing dance piece.
Stuart, who has performed with Malloy’s company for a number of years, reports, “This is probably the hardest show I’ve done for Terpsicorps because it’s so physical. ‘Journey’ and ‘Ugly’ are going to be brutal. Rewarding, though.”
He continues, “Usually, when I come to Terpsicorps, I lose a couple of pounds.” For a guy whose full-time job is to dance from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. five days a week, that’s saying something. Not that either Stuart or Watson are complaining about the long hours, grueling workouts or air-conditioning-free studio. Nor do they seem to mind the lack of tutus and female partners.
“Testosterone is good,” Watson muses. “It’s healthy competition. Everyone looks around like, ‘You’re going to do three? OK, I’m going to do four this time.’”
who: Terpsicorps presents Elvis & other men
what: All-male performance portraying the many phases and faces of man
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Gala night on Thursday, June 26 (7 p.m. $75); Friday, June 27, and Saturday, June 28 (8 p.m. $30, $25 students. www.dwtheatre.com or 257-4530).