After the dance

Retired ballet star Jock Soto is back in the spotlight---this time on the big screen.

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BARRE FLY Jock Soto, still dancing and teaching, is the subject of a new documentary.

BARRE FLY Jock Soto, still dancing and teaching, is the subject of a new documentary. Photograph: Gwendolen Cates


[Ed note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

Water Flowing Together—the new documentary that examines the life of now-retired New York City Ballet principal Jock Soto—represents an experiment in genre for both subject and director alike. "For me, it was such a natural extension of what I'd been doing as a photographer," says first-time filmmaker Gwendolen Cates, who met, shot and befriended the half-Navajo Soto while working on her 2001 photo book, Indian Country (Grove Press). And being on film was new for Soto. "I had never been in front of a camera that way, though I did get used to it," he said. The result of more than 120 hours of footage, Water Flowing Together looks at Soto's Navajo and Puerto Rican heritage, as well as his coming out as a gay man, his rise through the ballet ranks before retiring in 2005, and his current life of teaching at the School of American Ballet while also running a catering business with his partner, Luis Fuentes. The film screens this week as part of Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera Festival 2008.

TONY grabbed some time with the dancer in between rehearsals for Romeo + Juliet, whose January reprise of New York City Ballet's spring production offers one more chance to see Soto, 42, in his break-from-retirement role as Lord Capulet.

You asked Gwendolen to make this film about your life. Why?
I wanted to show people how, after dance, you don't just die. You continue on. And I obviously was not embarrassed at all of being gay and I wanted that to be noted, and to show how accepted I was in New York and with my family. I also wanted to do it for my parents, to show how much people sacrifice for their kids for a career that's not going to last forever. It was a dedication to them.

You came to New York by yourself at 14 to study dance, while also coming to terms with being gay. How did you handle it all?
[New York City Ballet's] Peter Martins was like my father figure. He sort of guided me through life, along with [Soto's dance partner] Heather Watts and people I was always dancing with and spending time with in the studio. I was very lucky to have a boyfriend when I was 16. Also, just sort of witnessing what was happening with the gay community and people dying [helped me to grow]. This was 1981, when I was in the company, so AIDS was very much there. I had several friends who passed from it, including one of my best friends at the time. He died and [the public line] was that he died of Hodgkin's disease, and it wasn't, it was full-blown AIDS. And then it just became this normal thing, like: Okay, well, people are just dying.

Were you ever ostracized for being gay in the ballet world?
I never had a problem with it—I mean, maybe a couple of times, if I was dancing in Alabama or something. But we were surrounded by each other. I wouldn't say it's fifty-fifty at the company—half gay, half straight—but maybe it is.

Your boyfriend, Luis, is barely in the film. Can you tell us more about him?
He's a chef and a sommelier, and he's incredibly handsome. We met at a bar, the Park, on the gay night. It was late, and I saw this guy standing alone, smoking a cigarette and having a beer. That was when you could smoke. I went up to him and said, "What's with the suit?" because he was wearing a suit and tie. And we've been together ever since! It's been four and a half years.

And now you run a catering business together. What are some culinary pleasures that you can indulge in now that you have retired?
Well, certainly caviar. Foie gras. And butter and cream!

The film briefly explores your friendship with Andy Warhol. How did you meet him?
I had met [Warhol pal] Paige Powell through a friend, and she called me one day and said, "Would you like to have dinner with me and Andy?" And I said, "Hell, yeah!" I must have been maybe 20. We went to the Algonquin, which I thought was really fancy, and I ended up inviting ten friends. And there he was, sitting across from me.

What was he like?
He could be fragile. He loved to cuss, and he loved to ask dirty questions. He fell in love with Heather Watts—he loved her eyes—and he wanted to take our pictures. I remember going to the Factory so he could take my picture to give it to me for Christmas. And when he died, Paige called us to say we had to come to the Factory fast and get our portraits before they got taken away. Heather and I got them and we couldn't fit them in a taxi, so we got on the bus! People were staring at us. But the portrait is still hanging in my apartment.

You were boyfriends with former New York City Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon for years, though that fact wasn't in the film at all.
No. [Coyly] But his choreography was.

Why the decision to leave out such an important bit of information?
I didn't want to get into too much about personal, personal issues. Gwendolen and I talked about it a lot, and there was a moment where I said, "I don't really need that, because it's not about him, this is about me and my family." So it just sort of worked out that way. There was no reason to talk about my past with him.

The film does focus quite a bit on your dance-related physical pains. What still lingers?
My right hip and my knees are not good, and my calves. I had quit everything [physical] two months after I retired, and I would go to Equinox, get on the bicycle, put my earphones on and watch television—without even pedaling! I'd just sit and watch television. I was like, Why am I even here? So I quit Equinox and started taking boxing lessons, and I found that it used the equivalent of stamina that I used when I danced a complete ballet. I love it. I'm sweating profusely after an hour, and that's what I wanted. I've also gotten bigger—I couldn't dance now in a unitard or anything like that—but I love it. I highly recommend it. It's also the complete opposite of what I used to do.

What's an aspect of teaching that really touches you?
I get to see the results of [the students] through what they have done. I mean, there is a boy in the company now who came from Puerto Rico and didn't have any money, but wanted to come to the school so bad. And we couldn't offer him everything [moneywise] because he was okay, he wasn't great. His mother and his aunts and uncles all had a bake sale to raise money to bring him to stay here for the year. So he came and he worked like a dog—it's like the best success story you could ever imagine—and he's now in the company, doing solos. When he came, maybe seven or eight years ago, who would've known? That's such a great, proud feeling to see what he did for himself. Giovanni Villalobos. He's wonderful. He worked every single day, never complained, nothing. I would never pat myself on the back or take credit for anything they do, but guiding them is fun.

Water Flowing Together screens Fri 11 and Jan 18 at 8:30pm.

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