Jock Soto was a legendary partner throughout his 24-year career as a principal dancer at New York City Ballet. “You can’t be nervous in his hands,’’ said Wendy Whelan in a New York Times article. Whelan appeared with Soto regularly. “He is so attentive that he almost becomes a part of your body.’’
Soto, who retired from the stage in 2005, now lives in Eagle Nest with his husband. He appears at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, in a live, online Zoom conversation about the future of dance. Joel Aalberts, executive director of the Lensic Performing Arts Center, facilitates.
Soto, son of a Native mother and Puerto Rican father, was born in Gallup. At age 5, he began studying ballet in Phoenix, where his family lived. A talent scout recommended his parents take him to New York City, and he first studied at the School of American Ballet at 11. He was hand-picked by legendary choreographer George Balanchine at 20, and he became the youngest principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Soto, 55, spoke to Pasatiempo recently, just before teaching a Zoom ballet class from his living room.
Pasatiempo: How did you get from the Navajo reservation to the State Theatre in New York, and why did you come back to New Mexico?
Jock Soto: My mom looked in the Yellow Pages to find my first ballet school. I got a full scholarship at 5. I started at the School of American Ballet in New York at 11. I was a City Ballet dancer for 24 years. One of Balanchine’s traditions was having principal dancers teaching classes in the school. Peter Martins, who followed Balanchine as director, encouraged me to begin teaching while I was still dancing. It was a lot, but I’ve been teaching ever since. We had the house in Eagle Nest, and my father was living there. Six years ago, I began to have anxiety attacks every time I rode the subway from Brooklyn into Manhattan. I told my husband, “I think it’s time to get out.” When we loaded all our things into a rental truck and drove through the Holland Tunnel, we were both in tears, and I’m sure our dog was in tears, too. It was a big shock. In New Mexico, we pulled the truck in front of the door, and my dad said, “How long are you staying?” I turned to him and said, “This is our home now.”
Pasa: What is your involvement in dance now?
Soto: My life as a teacher involved me traveling a lot, teaching a lot of summer courses between March and September. Now, I’m teaching on Zoom. I never leave the house! My husband set up a huge monitor, a photography umbrella, lighting. Of course, I have to look fabulous! I’m teaching professionals, New York City Ballet members, Boston Ballet, Miami City Ballet. I teach for Ballet Taos, North Carolina Ballet. I have my music on computer; I have Bose speakers, a dance floor and barre I set up. On my monitor, I can see the individual students and offer corrections. Because they haven’t seen each other in person, when I have a group of 10 or 12 professional dancers and I’m explaining something, I’ll see all their beautiful heads come towards the monitor. They’re just smiling and staring and waving at each other. It’s really sweet.
Pasa: You will be discussing the state of dance with Joel Aalberts. You retired from the stage in 2005.
Soto: When Joel asks ... about the future of ballet, it’s going to be really hard. At New York City Ballet, they’re not even in class together until January. It kind of scares me. You know how close dancers have to be. There is no partnering right now. Maybe in Russia, but not here.
Pasa: You were 16, a new member of New York City Ballet, when AIDS arrived. In some ways, the AIDS crisis, which decimated the dance community in the 1980s, was your introduction to pandemics and untimely death. How did you get through those years, and what advice do you have for dancers struggling during this pandemic?
Soto: I lost many, many friends in the ’80s. I got in the company in 1981. We just kept dancing through the whole thing. I didn’t realize the AIDS pandemic was happening for a while. That was a sexual transmitted disease; this pandemic is in the air. I try to encourage all my students. I can see that they are physically depressed. I’m training one ballerina now. A few weeks ago, I tried to tell her, “We will be on stage again. We will survive. It’s how we live.” Performing is what we aim for from the time we do our first plié. Even if you had a bad performance, you were still on stage. It was my life for 38 years. I was choreographed on so many times, and each time it’s like you’re reborn again.
Pasa: Which ballet or role seems particularly relevant to you now?
Soto: The last ballet that was choreographed for Wendy [Whelan] and me was “After the Rain” (by Christopher Wheeldon). It was my last season, in 2005. We had been working together for several years. We started “After the Rain,” but Chris got really frustrated after the first rehearsal. I think Wendy and I were pointing out steps we had already done in another ballet he created for us, “Liturgy.” It wasn’t going well. He called Wendy that night and also talked to me. We went into rehearsal the next day, and he said, “Jock, can you do this barefoot?” We had new music. Even the way he started the choreography, I knew it was going to be something different, and really special. When you get into a room, you step into a studio, close the door, and avoid the rest of the world. I tell students that all the time. “There’s the world, and there’s the studio. Everything going on in your life stays outside the door.” We created something new. It was magic. That’s what I am doing now. I’m trying to inspire people so they don’t give up. ◀