BWW Interviews: Stephen Pier - Heart to Hartt
Stephen Pier has achieved a uniquely rich and varied career as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. His credits as a performer include many years with the José Limón Dance Company where the New York press hailed him as "...one of the most gifted dancers on the modern dance scene today." He went on to become a leading soloist with the Hamburg Ballet in Germany, performing the title roles in John Neumeier's Othello and Saint Matthew's Passion, and creating numerous other major roles during his nine years with the company. As a member of the Royal Danish Ballet for six years, Mr. Pier had the privilege of dancing leading roles in works of Bournonville, Balanchine, MacMillan, Bejart, and collaborating with many of Europe's finest contemporary choreographers.
Mr. Pier was invited to teach both the company and the school of the Royal Danish Ballet, and served as ballet master for the company from 1992-1996. He has taught on the faculty of the Alvin Ailey School, the Martha Graham Center, Regional Dance America, New York International Ballet Competition and for many notable companies in Europe, America and Asia, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Atlanta Ballet, Bat Dor, Introdans, Scapino Ballet (NL), Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and the New National Theater (Tokyo). He was on the faculty of the Juilliard School from 1996 - 2010. His students have danced in companies around the world: The Royal Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Martha Graham Company, Lar Lubovitch Company, Mark Morris Dance Company, Doug Varone Dancers, Cullberg Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Batsheva.
In 2004 Mr. Pier began PierGroupDance to explore and collaborate with dancers and artists in various art forms. He has created over 30 works for the concert stage, opera, theater, and film. His work has been presented by The Hamburg Ballet (Germany), Royal Danish Ballet, Royal Danish Theater, Royal Danish Opera, Bat Dor (Israel), The New National Theater (Japan), the Juilliard Dance Ensemble, The Di Capo Opera Company (NYC), Nilas Martins Dance Company, and the Dance on Film Festival at Lincoln Center. He was selected to be part of Jacob's Pillow Choreographer's Project in 1998. He co-founded and directed the emerging choreographer's workshop, "Danses", at the Royal Danish Ballet 1990-1996
Stephen was the Artistic Director of Juilliard's innovative Mentoring Program from 2007 - 2010, and, in September 2008, he began a three year tenure as director of the new "Visions and Voices: Altria/ABT Women's Choreography Project" at American Ballet Theater. In October of 2009 he was recruited for the position of Director of the Dance Division at The Hartt School, University of Hartford. Since his arrival, the program has taken on new national and international significance and attracted leading faculty and guest artists from around the globe.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Mr. Pier.
I was watching a YouTube video, and you quoted Joseph Campbell's "Follow your bliss." Would you characterize your career in that way?
Most definitely. As soon as I made the bold decision to step into that river, it swept me along. Somehow, the right person or the right event kept showing up at just the opportune time and propelled me forward. Perhaps it was because I just opened myself up to it, and there was no turning back or equivocation in my mind. There were so many people who tried to discourage me from pursuing a career in dance. I was a late starter, 16 years old, but I was extraordinarily fortunate and extraordinarily stubborn. I could do a lot of things such as science, writing, sports, music, acting, fairly effortlessly, but, when I met dance, it was different. It was something unfathomably deep. It wasn't easy at all, because I sensed how all encompassing it was.
Did you start your career as a modern dancer or ballet dancer?
I started as a modern dancer. I despised ballet because I was rebellious, impatient, and immature. There were too many rules I had to master before I could actually dance. It was reminiscent of my playing the violin; I tried and failed for the same reasons. Added to this was an uninspiring teacher who squashed any possible interest I might develop.
Your came to New York at 19 to study at Juilliard. How did that come about?
At an early point in my career I met a former Limón dancer named Libby Nye. She was teaching at ADF in New London in those days, and I had hitched a ride out there one summer from Iowa. She was the person who originally encouraged me to come to New York and audition for Juilliard. I left Juilliard after a year or so to study with Alfredo Corvino and Libby. I needed a more precise and focused training than I was getting there. When I studied with Alfredo Corvino I fell in love with ballet as a science and an art. I finally understood what it all meant. I attribute all of this to Alfredo, who showed me that it was a classical art form to which I could aspire.
You began your career with the Limon Company. Tell me more about that.
While I was studying with Libby, I discovered this incredibly deep connection to Limón's technique and repertory. It was as natural to me as breathing. It wasn't just the technique, but the concept of a man dancing this way, the physicality, the mode of expression, the beautiful fusion of formalism and expression. I auditioned for Limón and was accepted. I got to dance in so much of the company's beautiful repertoire, Missa Brevis, The Unsung, Psalm, There is a Time, and Carlotta. I had especially rich experiences working with Lucas Hoving, who taught me his roles in Moor's Pavane and There is a Time. I also worked with Daniel Nagrin, who taught me Indeterminate Figure and Strange Hero. That's the kind of work I cut my teeth on. That set the template from which I would work for my entire career. Of course, I have added a lot to that over the years, but that period shaped many of my core beliefs and approach to dance.
After Limon you went to the Hamburg Ballet. How exactly did you get there?
It seems as if I was led there. I was invited to dance in the Nijinsky Gala in Hamburg as a guest artist. I had never heard of John Neumeier or the Hamburg Ballet. So while I was there I saw his Illusionen wie Schwanensee and Romeo and Juliet and took class with the company. I loved what I saw: a really intelligent, personal, and informed synthesis of ballet and modern techniques and aesthetics. I told John I wanted to work with him and asked if he had any openings. Where I got the courage to do that I will never know; it is uncharacteristic of me. He sat a chair down in the first wing during my performance and watched my solo. Afterwards, he said he liked my dancing very much but didn't have any openings. I took it as a very polite, "Don't call us, we'll call you," and went back to New York. Three months later, I received a telegram from him asking me to join the company in March. I was ecstatic, but felt I had to honor my contract with Limón and couldn't start until August. I thought I had probably ruined my big chance. Much to my surprise, John accepted.
You danced in many of John Neumeier's works. They have always aroused a great deal of controversy. What would you say about them?
What I loved most about that period was working with a choreographer who possessed a distinct vision, passion, and dedication to his art. We also related very well to one another as artists. I learned so much from him. He entrusted me with great roles like Othello, Tybalt, St Matthew's Passion, Mahler 3 Solo, and he created a lot of things specifically for my style of dancing. He played a great part in mentoring my early choreographic efforts. It was also in Hamburg that I met two teachers who had an enormous influence on my work: Truman Finney and Irene Iakobson, Leonid Iakobson's wife, who had studied with Vaganova.
You then went to the Royal Danish Ballet. Did you find this difficult, or was your dance background outstanding preparation for working with the Danes?
That was insane! I was taking company class, rehearsing, then Bournonville classes with the ten year olds in Kirsten Ralov's class during the break, then more rehearsals and/or performances in the evening. When I was with Limón I was the "Ballet" dancer, when I was in Hamburg and Denmark, I was the "Modern" dancer. Whatever! I just danced and let other people apply the labels. What I did find interesting with the Bournonville style is that it related very much to Limón in its sense of weight. I loved the fall and rebound in the jumping, the sophisticated musicality, and the unique way of cutting space. Again, it was really designed as a technique and aesthetic from a masculine point of view. Bournonville, Limón, and Neumeier all have that thing in common: they were passionate about elevating the male as a dance artist.
You had an unusual wide repertory with the Royal Danish Ballet. Were there any choreographers you found more rewarding than others?