BWW Interviews: Stephen Pier - Heart to Hartt

By: Sep. 17, 2013

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 " 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?

Well, Balanchine, of course. His work is just so exalting for the artist on so many levels. I enjoyed Van Manen, too, and especially creating ballets with Kim Brandstrup. He has a wonderful sort of abstract theatricality and a very cinematic vision of things. I always felt I was in a film of Tarkovsky when performing his work.

You also served as a ballet master with the Royal Danish Ballet. Was that a difficult adjustment to coaching and teaching dancers you worked with as part of the performing ensemble?

That was difficult, but the dancers were very kind to me. I was just starting out and remember teaching some really awful classes to the company on tour in Japan. We were all completely jet lagged. I was so appreciative of their support. I was wisely put in charge of pieces that I had danced in the Neumeier or Brandstrup repertoires. I did an enormous amount of preparation in learning all the parts, as well as all the evolutions in the repertoire I was responsible for, so I could have something to respond with when the dancers said, "Well, we always used to do it this way." I also had the moral support of some incredible artists such as Sorella Englund and Henning Kronstam. That meant a lot to me.

You co-founded and directed the emerging choreographer's workshop, "Danses", at the Royal Danish Ballet from 1990-1996. How exactly did you get involved with that, and were you happy with the results?

I realized that not only was the Royal Danish Ballet repertoire lacking in contemporary work, but that the dancers really didn't know how to work with choreographers. Many of them expected choreographers to walk in and teach them the steps, 5,6,7,8. The choreographers would get very frustrated working there. A few of us were keen to try some new ideas, so off we went. Tim Rushton, who is now the director of Danish Dance Theater, was also involved. It was a lovely little laboratory and became very popular. I think it was very good for the company and for all of us. It actually launched some careers and energized some dancers.

You left the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and then returned to the United States. You taught at a number of different institutions, most notably at the Juilliard School from 1996-2010. Was this a difficult adjustment?

I was a little tired of running into glass walls as a foreigner in Denmark. I felt that this chapter of my life was drawing to a close when, out of the blue, Benjamin Harkarvy asked me to join the Juilliard faculty. I wasn't sure I wanted to come back to the United States after 15 years in Europe, but it was Juilliard and New York City. Ben was a terrifically brilliant man and had a compelling vision for the school. He became an important mentor for me. The transition was difficult, however; culture shock, loss of security--I let go a lifetime contract at the Royal Danish Ballet-and leaving the professional world for education. I had lost almost all of my contacts in New York after so many years in Europe, so, when I returned, I felt rather vulnerable.

What were the most rewarding aspects of your tenure at Juilliard?

The students, many of whom I still have strong relationships with and some wonderful colleagues in dance, music, and theater. I was fortunate to be handed the artistic directorship of the mentoring program. I got to work with the most motivated students and faculty in the entire school, the ones who were truly creative and innovative. Besides Benjamin Harkarvy, I was also fortunate to work with the extraordinary Joseph Polisi.

What about your own company PierGroupDance? What was behind the impetus of forming your own company?

I started my first company in Denmark, "Human Movement Potentials". It was a way to stake out my own territory, to avoid being consumed by the Royal Danish Ballet. I choreographed for small dance companies and a bit for the company. I also did some guest teaching. I have since changed the name to "PierGroupDance" and continue to explore different paths through dance with that as my umbrella or alter ego.

In September 2008 you began three year tenure as director of the new "Visions and Voices: Altria/ABT Women's Choreography Project" at American Ballet Theatre. Could you go into some more detail about this project and the results it produced?

That was a jewel of a project, dreamed up by Kevin Mackenzie and Rachel Moore. The idea was, initially, to offer some guidance and encouragement to women in the company who might want to try their hand at choreography. The thinking behind it was "There are so few women choreographers in ballet. What can we do to change that? Let's create a safe, nurturing environment for women to discover their individual creative voices." I worked with a small group of dancers including Xiomara Reyes, Misty Copeland, Susan Jaffe, Elizabeth Mertz, Gemma Bond, Nicole Granieri, Nicola Curry and others for a year. They were brilliant, and it was a great success. Then the guys heard about it and wanted in on the action, so we made a separate group for them while continuing with the women. I think it not only opened up the world of choreography to them in a more meaningful way, but it also had some significant impact on the way they viewed their own performances. Some of them continue to choreograph, and all of them gained a lot from the experience. I wish we could have continued with it!

After so many years of teaching at major institutions, you became the director of the Hartt School Dance Division. Do you see this as a natural progression in your career?

It must be, because I certainly didn't plan it. I had been at Juilliard for 14 years and both the institution and I had changed in ways that made me want to, once again, strike out on my own. I had years' worth of freelance gigs lined up when Dean Flagg from Hartt called and asked if I would step in as interim director for the Dance Division. They were conducting a search for a permanent director, so he said he could work around my other engagements. I jumped in. It grew on me, so we removed the "Interim" part of my title in 2010, and I'm still here!

Since becoming Director at Hartt, what new programs and initiatives have you introduced?

Peggy Lyman-Hayes, the great Graham dancer, and Enid Lynn, the founder of the School of the Hartford Ballet, had done a magnificent job of establishing the school. My first task was to recover some of that initial integrity. I inherited a tremendous faculty of world renowned teaching artists: Hilda Morales from ABT; Katie Stevinson-Nollet, the contemporary choreographer; Debra Collins-Ryder, principal dancer with Hartford Ballet; Tim Melady from Miami City Ballet, and a really good team. I was then fortunate to have the extraordinary Nina Watt, world renowned Limón dancer and interpreter, join us. I have focused a lot on bridging the gap between the academic and the professional worlds by bringing in the past and present work of many significant choreographers to give the dancers the opportunity to learn from working professional artists. Our guest roster is as amazing as our permanent faculty: artists and works from Armitage Gone!, Bill T Jones, Yuriko, Pascal Rioult, Batsheva, Shannon Gillen, Gregory Dolbashian, Emory LeCrone, Paul Taylor, Balanchine, Tudor, Graham and Limón. It's an incredible exposure. The level of dancing, focus, and self esteem has increased exponentially. Another thing I am quite excited about is our summer study abroad program. Every year I return to Europe and teach at the Julidans International Contemporary Dance Festival in Amsterdam, among other places. The students I bring with me take classes and workshops with all the guest companies coming in. My friends at Nederlands Dans Theater have been generous enough to allow our dancers to take company class with them. It's a tremendously life altering event for our aspiring artists.

I have also initiated a new emphasis on collaborative interaction and creation between disciplines. We immerse students in opportunities to interact with other disciplines: choreographers and composers collaborate on new works, architecture students come in to study dance, music students accompany classes and perform in our concerts, pedagogy students work with magnet elementary schools, retirement communities and pre-professional programs, media arts students, creative writing students, actors, composers, and choreographers create works together. This is what faces artists, entrepreneurs, and anyone creating or making a difference by synthesizing vs. analyzing information in the 21st century.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

You can expect to see more Hartt graduates performing in companies, teaching in schools, creating dances, collaborating with other artists and entrepreneurs, and contributing to the evolution of dance in significant ways. I am doing a production of Petrushka with live orchestra, collaborating with Power Boothe, a very accomplished and creative artist, on the design elements. It opens November 22 at the Lincoln Theater in Hartford, Connecticut.

As for me, it's anybody's guess. I'm still extraordinarily stubborn, and there is still so much more I want to learn about from this art form. You can be fairly certain that I will still be exploring it the next time you check in.

Photographs: John Deane