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Suzana Stankovic Photo: Johanna Weber

Dancing with Mega Stars

By Francine L. Trevens
ART TIMES September, 2007

About thirty years ago, an energetic, talented young dancer/choreographer, co-artistic director of a dance company, was selected by Rudolph Nureyev to dance with him on Broadway in Nureyev and Friends. This selection was not surprising, since the famous Russian émigré practiced at her dance company in Connecticut before his American performances. 

What did surprise me, when I interviewed her for an article, was that she took it as a matter-of-fact that “Rudy” prepared with her company.  Instead of starry-eyed enchantment, she spoke of the weaknesses he worked on in class.  To her, this mega star was a dancer, as she was herself, though the master dancer of his time – but not someone to worship, rather someone to work with and assist. 

She was of course delighted to be dancing with him on Broadway, but I rather felt it was the Broadway, rather than Rudy himself, which gave her the greatest delight.

Unlike others of her time, she did not speak of him as erratic or demanding. She liked Rudy, found him charming and easy to work with.

Audiences applauded the performance at the proper moments with more than the usual gusto.  An ovation followed when the performance concluded.

Fast forward to the present.  Another young, energetic and talented female dancer was asked to appear with another legend in his time – tap dancer Savion Glover — at the Joyce Theater in Invitation to a Dancer. 

This time, the ballerina, Suzana Stankovic, was barely acquainted with the well-known dancer.  They had just met at a Joyce Theater Benefit Gala in April 2007.   So, when Savion asked Suzana to do the ballerina role in his upcoming show, it was with amazement and delight that she agreed.  Her delight expanded when she realized she was to choreograph her dance role herself.

She says she was “thrilled because of the collaboration to create.”  She would not be dancing to existing music but “music” created by Savion’s tap dancing feet. This was an original concept, a novelty for her and for the audience.  She learned he wanted true en pointe ballet steps performed by what every little girl in the audience would consider the quintessential ballerina.

Ms. Stankovic, dainty and petite, dark haired, pixie faced with huge dark eyes, gave the ethereal appearance that was a perfect choice.  The moment she fluttered on stage in her wispy white tutu, you remembered every ballet class you ever attended, every ballet you’d ever seen.
            Asked how she felt working with him and “what was he like,” Suzana replied, “He was unpretentious, easy to work with.  A total pleasure.”

She felt when he asked her to do this that “There must be a reason this fell in my lap.  It must mean something.  What can I bring to it?”

She rehearsed with Savion “only three times, including the first conversation meeting in a studio where we talked it through. He described his vision, which was combining his tap dancing and ideas and my interpretation with a classical look and steps.  It was his show and I knew it was my job to do what he wanted.”

In the midst of preparing for Invitation to a Dancer, Savion went to England for a previously scheduled show, so rehearsal time was limited.

Suzana said opening night was powerful and the final week of performances was exciting.  Audiences during the run differed widely.  The dancers could always tell if they had a mostly ethnic audience, because the response was audible, indicating the people out there were with them all the way, enjoying every moment and urging them on.  White audiences tended to be more silent.  They saved their applause for the conclusion.

A proof of the quiet manners of an audience — the night I attended, the son of one of the off-stage people wandered onto the stage early in the first act.  The child, about 5, observed for a while, then began tying his shoelaces, moving from one raised dance platform to another, watching the shadows of the dancers, stretching, relaxing, even to the point of sitting on the edge of a platform. 

The audience did not seem to be distracted by the child, and the dancers continued to do their thing, paying him no mind.  This was one of the silent houses, though it erupted with a burst of applause and standing ovation at the conclusion.

No one ever said anything about the child, who did not reappear in the second act.  Suzana didn’t even know the boy had been on stage until I told her. Since she didn’t appear until the second act, she spent the first act getting prepared.  She laughed heartily, as I marveled at how the three male dancers had just gone on as if the boy were not there, and the polite audience accepted the child’s presence.

My friend and I speculated about why he was there and whose son he was, but it didn’t seem as if anyone else questioned it.
            At a Q and A after an earlier performance, Savion said something Suzana will always treasure.  Asked what he looked for in a dancer, Mr. Glover replied, “A commitment to the soul.  It has to be about giving of yourself.”

No wonder she found him easy to dance with.  It was her philosophy!

The daughter of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the early seventies,  Suzana said they had “hard lives.  It made me who I am.  Gave me their independent spirit.  They worked hard at whatever they could do.  They saved and saved.  My father and a friend put a down payment on an apartment building in Astoria in the late seventies.”  It was a fantastic investment, and Suzana lives in one of those apartments now, with her musician husband. Andreas Altmans.

A perfectionist who believes if dance does not arise from the soul it is not true dance, Suzana said, “Too frequently dancers merely perform what a choreographer creates, but do not put their whole spirit into it.”  Though she had but a cameo performance as  ballerina in this piece, she worked on it as diligently as she does when choreographing a full evening of dance for her own small company, Stankovic Ballet.

Invitation to a Dancer was in two strenuous acts. Savion and two other male tap dancers danced the first act, their taps creating the beat and the music on three separately constructed resonant low platforms.  They were joined by three female modern dancers for a good part of the second act, the men staying on their individual platforms, the women dancing about the stage, going from one to another.  After their dance, the ballerina came on to perform her classical steps to the beat of Savion’s tapping, ultimately overtaken by the ever-increasing demands of the rapidly pounding beat.

Suzana came to dance late, for a professional. She was twelve years old, into gymnastics in a big way, when a friend talked her into attending ballet class on “bring a friend day.”

“There was an atmosphere of reverence in the studio—a sense of sanctuary,” she recalls.  She quit gymnastics and threw herself into dance. By the time she was fifteen, “I felt something going on inside, a strong and emotional reaction to music.  It became an outlet for imagination.” Professionally she danced with about eighteen different choreographers with various regional companies and always found herself  “Bored.  Something was missing. I decided to dedicate myself to this inner calling.  I rounded up friends to see what my dances looked like when they did them.  In ’99 I did my first performance with my own four dancers through the auspices of The Field.  For me the experience was awesome.” She felt as if “the world cracked open, possibilities were limitless.”

Last Spring her dancers performed at the TADA! Theater in Chelsea.  They plan several more performances  before year’s end.

Suzana has an eye for interior décor, and loves decorating places. She also is fascinated with the potential of the human mind. As a dancer/choreographer she uses her interest in psychology to express motion through the body.  “Your body never lies,” she said. “You may talk gibberish, mask your face, but your body speaks for you. You cannot offer anything that doesn’t exist within you.  My ultimate dream is to have choreography open the door into the human heart and spirit. You have to get through defenses, dissolve defenses and feel, ‘that’s what I’m aiming for.’  The first step as a dancer is not to lose touch with the heart and soul, the height of humanity, the fullness of  being human.  Then, to bring all that out and share it with an audience.”

A spiritual person, she believes in life “there is a purpose to everything.  Having that sense of purpose, being adventurous, making everything meaningful gives strength to the dance.”

It also gives strength and a glow to this lovely young dancer selected by Savion Glover to portray the quintessential ballerina.


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