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Life After Dance

Life After Dance


The new PBS documentary Water Flowing Together examines the life and legacy of now-retired Native American dancer Jock Soto

Masculine, Navajo, Puerto Rican, and gay, Jock Soto was one of the most influential male ballet dancers of our time. He inspired the creation of 100 ballets during his amazing 24-year career and was partner to some of the greatest ballerinas -- Heather Watts, Darci Kistler, and Wendy Whelan. In 2005 he retired from dancing. His final performance with the New York City Ballet sold out two months in advance. While much is known of his professional accomplishments and his incredible life on the stage, less is known of his journey. In Water Flowing Together, which is the name of the dancer's Navajo clan, Gwendolen Cates chronicles Soto's final years with the New York City Ballet as he faces the prospect of retiring. But what we also see is a gay man reconnecting with his roots and preparing for the future. The 60-minute film will have its broadcast premiere on the PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Terrence Howard, Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 10 p.m. (check local listings.)

More than a simple biopic, the film offers an enlightening portrait of an artist through the eyes of his parents, colleagues, and partners. Soto and Cates hope the film will help open doors for young people and enlighten others -- about sexuality and ballet.

Born to a Navajo mother and Puerto Rican father, Soto became interested in ballet at age 5, after seeing Edward Villella in the "Rubies" section of George Balanchine's Jewels on TV. At 14 he came to New York to study at the School of American Ballet, and in 1981, at age 16, was selected by Balanchine to be a member of the corps de ballet. In 1984 he was promoted to soloist, and he made principal the following year.

A friend of Andy Warhol's and a celebrity in the elite world of ballet who also appeared on Sesame Street, Soto was hailed by dance critic Anna Kisselgoff as, "one of ballet's most creative personalities."

"I never considered myself a star," said Soto in a recent phone interview, "I just consider myself a dancer. If you're going to be behind Wendy Whelan, you have to remember, ballet is the ballerina, 'ballet is woman.' I was just there to make her appear as if she were the queen."

He attributes this attitude to how his father always treated his mother. "I owe everything to what I learned from them," he explained.

"In a way," Soto explained, "this film is a huge thank-you. I grew up in a trailer. My mother sacrificed everything for me to get to New York. I want to speak to the younger generation. I had the freedom and the support to be myself. I want younger people to have the same freedom to be themselves."

"When Gwen and I approached each other about making the film," said Soto, "we both discussed how it could be an inspiration to teenagers who are afraid to be gay, afraid to come out, especially in the Native American and Puerto Rican communities. No one should be scared of being gay -- or being a ballet dancer," he added.

In addition to shedding light on the artist's maturing relationship with his cultural identities, the documentary lets Soto's sensitivity and humanity come across on camera with the same magnanimity and potency as his dancing. When he calls the Institute of Culinary Education and learns he needs a high school diploma to apply, he feels humiliated, as if he hasn't accomplished anything. Later the exhaustion and emotion of preparing for his last three days overwhelm him. While the film doesn't concentrate on his sexuality or make mention of his off-stage relationship with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Soto is candid about who he is, and charmingly so. "How gay do I look right now?" he asks, as he and his mother sit fanning themselves. Later he declares, "Just think, June 19, 2005, is the last time I have to get dressed up in drag," as he's preparing for his farewell concert.

As the credits roll, Soto is seen with his boyfriend, Luis Fuentes, cooking together, walking the dog, holding hands. "He's a chef and sommelier," beams Soto. "We met five years ago, right when we started making the film. He wasn't a big part of my life, but he played a part in how the film would end." They now live together in New York and are building a house in New Mexico.

"I needed to express that I didn't retire and die," Soto explained of the imperative to make the documentary. But Soto has found a life after dance. He still teaches at the School of American Ballet, and after graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education, he and his partner started a catering business together.

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Brian McCormick