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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: "Every Step You Take" by Jock Soto

 Jock Soto, who retired from his role as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet in 2005, has written a memoir that is both affectionate and affecting.  It is a sweet ode to his mother, who passed away three years ago and who was instrumental in the way his dance career  - indeed his life - unfolded.
Mama Jo Soto was a Native American who married a Puerto Rican man against the wishes of her entire clan.  Mr. Soto's reactions to her dying, her death, and the husband she left behind, play out against his memories of his own life as a professional dancer.  This is not a tell-all about Mr. B or the dancers of NYCB in the 80s and 90s.  Although Mr. Soto acknowledges his adolescent outbursts, his dalliances with older men, and his forays into New York City nightlife, this is not salacious material.

Instead the reader is rewarded with an intimate look into the world of professional ballet. Following Mr. Soto's rise from a tiny Phoenix, Arizona studio to the hallowed stages of City Ballet in New York, we see also his rise from an insecure and naive young adult to a confident yet humble man.  Throughout his life he struggled with the duality of worrying that he left his family behind because of his chosen profession and desperately needing  freedom to explore the great big world.  Although much of Mr. Soto's absence from his family's life was due to ballet, it was also in part because of the tension that existed between himself and his father over his being gay.  He admits to purposefully staying away from his family because of this - and it tortured him until his mother's death.

Personally, I was happy to read about Mr. Soto's ascension to esteemed principal.  I loved hearing about his passion for ballet, for choreography - and for his ballerinas.  I loved how he called them - Heather Watts, Darci Kistler, Lourdes Lopez - "my ballerinas." He forged several remarkable friendships with these women which was reflected in their work onstage.  The best kinds of dance partnerships are built on mutual trust, and this is also true of choreographers.  Mr. Soto had an intimate relationship with the amazingly talented choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, but their professional partnership also resulted in thrilling work.

As a teacher, I also loved reading Mr. Soto's comments about technique and the methods he uses to teach the students at SAB. He tells male dancers to become invisible behind their ballerinas, to place their hands in such a way that the audience can't see them, and above all, NEVER drop a ballerina (a very important lesson he learned the hard way from Heather Watts).  Partnering is all about the ballerina because, as Balanchine famously declared, "Ballet is woman."  Not that we can live without fabulous male dancers!

Mr. Soto's memoir is a quick, fun read.  That he was so talented and gifted yet remained humble throughout his career, always hungry for more and never complacent, is a wonderful guideline for all of us.  As he transitions to a career involving cooking - his second love - he will no doubt bring that same passion to the rest of his life.

Special thanks to Danielle Plafsky at HarperCollins for sending me an advance reader copy.  This book will be available Oct. 4, 2011 and can be ordered at Amazon here, among other online stores.

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