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The Dance Enthusiast Asks New York City Ballet Principal Joseph Gordon

The Dance Enthusiast Asks New York City Ballet Principal Joseph Gordon
Henning Rübsam

By Henning Rübsam
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Published on December 5, 2018
J. Gordon "Afternoon of a Faun" Photo: Erin Baiano

The Freshest Prince in Town

Joseph Gordon is the newest principal dancer at New York City Ballet. Before his upcoming performances as The Nutcracker Cavalier I had the chance to meet this handsome, gifted artist to ask him a few questions about life and dance.  I was not the first, however, to notice this new talent. The late dance writer Harris Green had a penchant for discovering male talent at New York City Ballet and was the first to write extensively about Ethan Stiefel and Daniel Ulbricht. And again, it was Green who had the nose to single out the young Joseph Gordon in Dance Magazine’s column “On the Rise” in April 2016

Green described Gordon as having “aristocratic line, unforced assurance and charming presence.” I am certain he would have been delighted to see this rising star come into his own.

Henning Rübsam for The Dance Enthusiast: Joseph! Congratulations on being a principal! How did you find out?

Joseph Gordon: I was told on Friday of the last week of the season that I had a meeting with the interim directors the very next day. Saturday matinee was my last show and at 6pm, I got the news.

The Dance Enthusiast: I requested the interview right after your fantastic debut in Diamonds earlier that season. You had not been named a principal yet, but I had the feeling you would be. Please tell me how you prepared for Diamonds.

Joseph Gordon: It was a journey. I found out the day we started fall season that I was actually doing it. Originally I had been called as an understudy, but then — because of the vacancies in the male principal ranks — they needed me to do it. And Sara (Mearns) said it was OK if I did it with her, but you know it was … she WORKED me [laughs].

Joseph Gordon, Photo by Erin Baiano

She definitely was hard on me and very specific. She has been doing the ballet for ten years, so I had a lot to do to step up to and meet her. She really knows what she wants and it was difficult because I felt like — how do I say this amicably — that at some point there had to be a little bit of a give and a take on her end because I am starting from square one and she has been doing this ballet for a very long time. She is very well known for it and she is very beautiful in it, so it really is HER role. In the rehearsal room she had to let go of some things for me to get to that level. And it got there. But there was a period when it got a little rough. We had to close the doors and ask for no coaches, and just do the work ourselves, then we meshed. In the end, we had Kathleen Tracey and Jonathan Stafford, and they were wonderful too. I had to rise to the occasion and it was good for me.

The Dance Enthusiast: You are not perfectly matched.

Joseph Gordon: Yes, I had never partnered anyone that tall and had not done a ballet of that caliber. It was a very different dynamic to what I was used to.

Sara is very present on stage and her persona there was different than it had been in rehearsal. She was so loving and nurturing to me in the show. Just tender. I had to grow and meet her at a certain level. She was great to dance with.

The Dance Enthusiast: What I notice in your dancing is your use of épaulement. It looks so natural on you.

Joseph Gordon: Yes, at SAB we focus a lot on épaulement. Sometimes we can get a bit flat, but I like to be well-rounded, and my training was pretty well-rounded before I went to SAB

Joseph Gordon in Diamonds, Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Dance Enthusiast: You came from Arizona?

Joseph Gordon: Yes, I came from Arizona and I had teachers who danced with the National Ballet of Canada and from Paris Opera Ballet and I did some RAD. I had a Russian teacher at one point and a Cuban teacher. It was kind of like everything. But for men in a princely role like that, épaulement is so important in how your present your ballerina and yourself. Dancers get focused on what our feet and legs are doing and what most people are really watching is your face and upper body and that is why épaulement is so important. It has just been drilled into me [laughs].

The Dance Enthusiast: And you started dancing when?

Joseph Gordon: I guess when I was three but I don’t really know when I really started dancing seriously. Actually I was 13 when I came for a summer course and turned 14 that summer and was asked to stay. I stayed year round. So 14 to 19; five years at the school. That’s a lot [laughs]

The Dance Enthusiast: There's a real humanity about your dancing — not that you are emoting  — you seem to care about your partners, male or female, such as in the male quartet in Robbins’ Goldberg Variations or Diamonds, of course. You care about the people you are dancing with. Is partnering something that you especially enjoy?

Joseph Gordon: In general, yes, I like being on stage with other people. I think it’s part of a lot of us growing up together within the company for a long time. This career just goes by so fast and if you are living it on stage with your friends you should enjoy it. And I am just glad that comes through.

The Dance Enthusiast: What else is on your horizon that you’d like to tackle. What roles?

Joseph Gordon: I am learning Apollo. Hopefully that will come to fruition. I never thought I would do it. But just starting to rehearse it I can see there is a lot there. Obviously. I knew that, but in doing there is so much to learn. I’ll have a possibility to grow as an artist. It’s a beautiful ballet that I’ve always loved.

Definitely I would love to do some of the classics like Sleeping Beauty, Theme (and Variations), Tschai (kovsky) Pas (de deux), also "Melancholic" in 4 Ts (Four Temperaments). And definitely some Jerry [Robbins] ballets like Opus 19/The Dreamer. Yes, that’s a big one. Other Dances. You know, we always want more.

Joseph Gordon in Who Cares, Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Dance Enthusiast: What about the urge of doing something new and having something created on and for you? Are there choreographers you would like to work with?

Joseph Gordon: Yes, I love Alexei [Ratmansky]. Working with him is definitely always a challenge. And I would love to work with William Forsythe. I know he is coming to set Herman Schmerman. They are doing the Quintet. Not just the duet. They are doing the rest of the ballet. Hopefully. Well, I do not know what the plan is. If I am in it or if I am not.

The Dance Enthusiast: Push for it!

Joseph Gordon: [Laughs] Yes. Well, you know, you hear rumors that he is coming to make something, but who knows? I love being part of the process of making something new. It’s always exciting. I got to be in a ballet this fall by Matt Neenan. It was a good experience. He is so positive. It’s just fun to have something be your own.

The Dance Enthusiast: Outside of dance what are your interests?

Joseph Gordon: Oh, art in general. I love to go to museums. And music. Opera. Seeing friends perform with their bands at Rockwood downtown, and concerts at all kinds of venues, wherever they perform in town. I like reading and taking French classes, because I do not speak any other foreign language. And I really love to travel. I loved Japan and Italy and I have friends in Paris where I get to practice my French. And luckily we had a lot of tours to Paris over the past few years so that has been fun. I have family in London, so just being abroad with them.

This interview is scheduled with the opening of Nutcracker season. I read that Nutcracker was an inspiration for you dancing.

Joseph Gordon: Well, I do not know if it is an inspiration anymore, but the story goes that my parents brought me to The Nutcracker and that inspired my desire to dance and it all spiraled out from seeing that show when I was two or three years old.

Are there any dancers that have been an inspiration to you?

Joseph Gordon: Hmm. Yes, definitely Nikolaj Hübbe and Damian Woetzel. Whenever there is video or some snippet of them dancing I always want to watch. . . Peter Boal.

They are unaffected. Their dancing is very pure. And they have very strong techniques. Their artistry — no affectation. It is beautiful, because they let the movement speak for itself. And then they each have an individual presence onstage. They are gorgeous. So, a lot is working for them [laughs]. When you watch dancers of that caliber you just learn from it.

Joseph Gordon in Coppelia, Photo by Erin Baiano

You have a great sense of humor naming your Instagram account #notjosephgordonlevitt

Joseph Gordon: Haha, yes that is an inside joke. Whenever I would Google myself or family members would search on the net, Google always responds “Do you mean Joseph Gordon Levitt?” so I just made that my "insta".

The Dance Enthusiast: Well, that response from Google won’t be there much longer! Now, when I looked at your instagram account, it became clear that you are in a relationship with (fellow dancer) Adrian (Danchig-Waring). How long have you been together?

Joseph Gordon: We have been together for three years. About three years. It’s kind of hard to tell because we were both seeing other people. So yes, I guess three years.

The Dance Enthusiast: Do you continue having an open relationship?

Joseph Gordon: Em, NO! (laughs) I mean it is definitely something we’ve talked about and if one of us would want it we would be open to discussing it. But not right now.

The Dance Enthusiast: It must be hard working together. Do you live together as well?

Joseph Gordon: Kind of. He also has a place in Brooklyn but he mainly lives with me in the city. But we have that space if we need to have space in the relationship. And it’s also nice for us to get out of the city sometimes and go on vacation in Brooklyn. Our country home! (laughs) 

The Dance Enthusiast: Do you feel though that you are supported by a community within the company?

Joseph Gordon: I definitely have people in the company who I am very close with, but I also have a great community of  "outside" friends in New York just from going to school here. They keep me sane. They give me another perspective that is sobering. I can vent to them if I am upset at work, and since they are removed, they can give me a different view on the situation. They remind me that the world keeps spinning and ballet isn’t everything. I am really lucky to have them.

The Dance Enthusiast: Anything you would like to add before we conclude?

Joseph Gordon: Dance really saved me from going down some darker paths. And maybe that’s why a certain genuine quality comes out because [takes a breath] — this is my life. I think it also made me a strong person. 

The Dance Enthusiast: THANK YOU, Joseph! What’s next?

Joseph Gordon: I have a rehearsal later this afternoon and I’ll be going to Cape Town to perform Tschai Pas with Ashley Bouder this weekend.

The Dance Enthusiast: Have a great trip!

The Dance Enthusiast Asks Questions and Creates Conversation.
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