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Dance: Are Some People Born to Dance?

By Francine L. Trevens
ART TIMES November/ December 2012

Mark Stuart in rehearsal
Mark Stuart in rehearsal; Photo Credit – Royce M. Becker

There are constantly new dance troupes arising throughout the country. One such troupe is Mark Stuart Dance Theatre. I attended a pre-production fund-raising preview for his new Standard Time, a very ambitious and sure to be costly exciting dance event.

Mr. Stuart came before the audience of several dozen invited guests to detail his vision of Standard Time. There would be a clock suspended above the stage. Also suspended would be time-keepers. On the stage below, the action of the three time periods would take place during the 90-minute dance piece.

He was an average looking, unassuming guy, and we all chuckled when he said that although he intended a live orchestra when the work was ultimately staged, he himself was running taped music tonight so if there were flaws…

The high quality of the dancers was most pleasing; some athletic feats made one gasp.. The clear story line of the ballet/modern dance was intriguing. But when Mr. Stuart himself came on stage to dance it was mesmerizing. He became the very embodiment of the character he was creating and no eye could wander from his commanding presence.

One might say Mark was born to dance although he did not know it until, while at Syracuse University studying finance and music composition, he went to a local bar where a Swing Dance Society was dancing. He hung out for weeks, watching them, getting to know them and thus learned to dance. Six months later,  he tells us, “I won several divisions at the American Lindy Hop Championship. In time I was teaching and performing all over the country. I had no idea where this would lead, but I was hooked and knew I wanted to keep dancing in some capacity. 

“The first exposure I had to any kind of technique was on tour with Swing!  Our first day of rehearsal they had us at a ballet barre for warm-up. That was the first time I ever tried to do a plie or tendu. Thankfully, the girl behind me at the bar (who would later become a founding member of MSDT) kept whispering in my ear what each term meant so I wouldn't be completely lost. In retrospect it all seems somewhat surreal and a bit funny.”

Mark Stuart partners Michelle Marmolejo
Mark Stuart partners Michelle Marmolejo in an intricate performance of one of his original dance pieces. Photo Courtesy of MDST

It wasn’t funny when he told his family his new career plans. Understandably, they were concerned since “I had no experience, no training, and no connections, so it seemed like a crazy idea. But now they are extremely supportive of my career and do their best to be at every show they can.” 

He never intended to become a choreographer either, but – “I had been working as an assistant and associate choreographer for various productions of Swing! when someone asked me to choreograph my own production of the show. It turned out a smashing success and I kept getting asked to choreograph other shows based on the success of Swing!  The success of each production slowly gave me the confidence that I could one day have my own company.”

He founded the company, and is working on this terrifically exciting and demanding theatrical dance piece called Standard Time.

Different versions have been floating around my head for two or three years, but it really started to come together six months ago. I've always known that I wanted the piece to be about love and tolerance, but I wasn't sure how I was going to structure it. One day it became crystal clear and here we are a few months later having completed our first workshop of the piece. It's been quite a ride.”

Because his dancers were so superb, I asked how he chose them.

We've been blessed to have fifty-seven of the most talented dancers in New York City dance with us over the course of the last few years. The show was designed and built around several of my principal dancers and their amazing talents. Unfortunately, not all my dancers were available due to new Broadway shows opening, and the filming of the second season of the TV show SMASH. We held two auditions to find dancers for the holes in the show that we had to fill.”

Being unfamiliar with his previous work I asked if this was his most ambitious project to date.

Reed Kelly, Grady McLeod Bowman, Jaime Verazin, Marcos Santana, Mark Stuart Standard Time in process
Left to Right: Reed Kelly, Grady McLeod Bowman, Jaime Verazin, Marcos Santana, Mark Stuart Standard Time in process Photo Credit – Royce M. Becker

“By far. Regardless of subject matter, creating 90 minutes of dance in 4 weeks is fairly ambitious. Not only did we want to create an evening of dance, but we wanted to create one that would make a really strong statement about human nature and our difficulty in learning from past mistakes.

“Creating three different acts, contained in three different time periods, with three different story lines that had to come together as a cohesive unit was probably a little insane in such a short period of time. But like they say, out of chaos emerges order, and out of a chaotic rehearsal process, we ended up with something that I think really moved people.” 

Who most influenced him, I wondered.

“I try not to be influenced by too many outside sources, but Jerry Mitchell has been a huge role model for me. Jerry has done everything there is to do in this business, and he still absolutely loves it. His face lights up every time he gets in a studio and starts dancing. He is 100% full out every time and he can’t help but love it.  That is a very rare thing and it is amazing to be around.”

What does he feel distinguishes his work?

“Intense partnering work. No matter what style of dance MSDT tackles, our most ambitious quality lies in our partnering. I've always wanted to combine partnering with the really amazing talents of my dancers to create a new style of movement. I think we're just starting to see the possibilities of what that can lead to. 

“I’ve always wanted to change the world. To help us be a more open-minded and loving world. I think art has the power to do that, and I think it starts by affecting one person at a time. I'd like to be in a place five years from now that allows us to have that opportunity on a nightly basis. 

“Everyone thought I was crazy to pursue this career and audacious in wanting my own company. Thankfully I’ve never been good at listening to people. There are too many people who don’t pursue their dreams because they have been influenced by what others have said, to think they haven’t the skills, strength, or knowledge to achieve them. I prefer to think that anything is possible if you just believe in it and never give up.”

With such high aims and intensity of emotion which I feel distinguishes him from so many other athletic dance companies, no wonder his dancing and choreography reach you on a visceral level.

ADDITONAL NOTE: The Clive Barnes Foundation will be presenting its annual awards to up and coming dancers and actors on Monday, December 10, 2012 at 2:30PM at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center. You would probably enjoy attending their awards ceremony, which is free. Check it out on line.