Every Step You Take
- Jock Soto
- 231 pp.
- October 14, 2011
A look back at a meteoric career in the New York City Ballet.
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
The less you know about the New York City Ballet of the 1980s and 1990s, the more likely you are to enjoy this memoir by Jock Soto, one of its principal dancers at that time.
However, someone like me — who saw dozens of performances by every dancer Soto mentions during that period and who would like to know about those evenings when the author’s good friends X and Y threw away chunks of choreography from their Balanchine roles (just didn’t dance them) or when his good friend Z’s arrest for assault hit the papers (what on earth was going on?) — will be disappointed at the omissions, evasions and hints so shielded that the story seems to be written in code.
A ballet fan may also be saddened, for Soto, one of the greatest partners in NYCB’s history, as well as a fluent and intuitive classicist, barely discusses dancing as an activity outside the social dynamics of who gave him his lucky breaks or what his emotional relationships were with his friends in rehearsal. Every Step You Take is a book about relationships, rather than ideas or artistry or even arts management; and unlike the dignified film documentary on which it is based, the book unabashedly works the celebrity angle and mines sensationalistic details that do not illuminate what the audiences saw on stage. Soto still teaches at NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet, and understandably, he walks on eggs when he speaks of friends who are currently colleagues at the school or the company. He lets himself go when describing his two most intense love affairs, when enumerating his offstage flings (most are identified by comical tags rather than named), when therapeutically exploring his motivations for trying to shed his childhood background so ruthlessly and when framing his mea culpas to individuals he hurt or ignored.
The memoir is really two stories: One, by turns enigmatic and reductively blunt, is about Soto’s meteoric career at NYCB (chosen for the company by Balanchine when Soto was 16, he was made a principal at 20) and the glamour crowd with whom he once traveled and engaged in merry transgressions. This story contains such sentences as, “I’ll never forget the first time I was invited to join Andy [Warhol] at the Algonquin Hotel” and “It was always amazing to disembark from the plane and find the Mercedes limos waiting for us on the tarmac.”
The other story, balanced and trustworthy and increasingly reflective, concerns the fraught relationship Soto had with his impoverished Navajo-Puerto Rican family between his teens and his early 40s and how, as his mother was dying, he learned to look outside himself and see that the world was larger than his own ambitions, disappointments and achievements. This account contains such sentences as, “Nature performed herself dramatically in this desertscape, serving up sudden dust storms and flash floods that seemed to come from nowhere and immense dark rain clouds laced with fierce bolts of lightning that you could watch advancing from miles and miles away.” I can hardly believe that the same hand wrote the entire book.
The schism may be at least partly the result of the fact that, as Soto explains, the memoir wasn’t the author’s idea but rather that of his publisher or agent, who had seen the 2008 film “Water Flowing Together,” a careful and understated documentary about the dancer that was telecast on PBS, and guessed that there was more to be told. As it turns out, there was quite a lot more, concerning, for instance, the arrogant management, bullying and demoralizing favoritism — demoralizing because it was based on offstage allegiances rather than on artistic merit — that characterized NYCB when Soto was dancing there (and enjoying his position as part of the inner circle). Soto gives cues that he is aware of the dark side of this world; however, his loyalty to his friends in the ballet company suppresses his efforts at transparency in this part of his storytelling.
Yet, even that could be passed over if the author had used his book to discuss for a general readership the ballet technique he was immersed in as a performer and still is as a teacher or if he had given more thought to what engages his imagination in the ballets he enjoyed performing — by Balanchine, Robbins, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon (for a time Soto’s offstage partner and a choreographer for whose explorations of a post-Balanchinean idiom Soto takes some credit). That the author possesses an imagination is not in doubt: He does offer one lovely account of a ballet, Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” with a vivid picture of his pas de deux in it with fellow principal Wendy Whelan; and his description of how his mother taught him the Hoop Dance of her Native American heritage when he was barely more than a toddler is exact and eloquent.
Soto also has an analytic gift, which he begins to reveal in a passage on learning to partner ballerinas and on learning, as a homosexual, to project an image on stage of romantic heterosexual love in his partnering. Unfortunately, he is not writing in a publishing climate in which ballet dancing — the very reason he merits a memoir — is valued for its own sake. And so the analysis of partnering quickly segues into a discussion of the diplomacy required to partner a choreographer’s cast-off flame and his current one on the same day. One wishes Soto well in his retirement from performing and in his affectionate and stabilizing marriage to chef Luis Fuentes. For a dance-goer, though, his book is a heartbreak.
Mindy Aloff, a member of WIRoB’s editorial board, is an adjunct associate professor of dance at Barnard College and the editor of the newsletter for the Dance Critics Association. During the 1980s and 1990s, she was a senior critic at Dance Magazine and served as the dance critic for The Nation (1983-1993) and The New Republic (1993-2001).