In love with dance - By Aruna Rathod
An exclusive interview with Steve Rooks, former principal of Martha Graham Dance Company and current Professor and Chair of Dance at the Vassar College, USA.
Steve Rooks is very comfortable in Mumbai. He was here in the second half of March on invitation from the Sumeet Nagdev Dance Academy (SNDA) in Mumbai for a workshop and finalising the choreography for the 10th year celebration of the academy in April.
The world-renowned Martha Graham Dance Company’s former principal, Rooks who is now the professor and chair of dance at Vassar college in the USA, loves the dedication of the Indian students. “I have seen a lot of classical Indian dance and I love the dexterity and expressions of the dancers. I believe that expression is vitally important and it’s the transition from being a dancer to an artist,” says the lean Rooks.
This time, Rooks had a lot packed in since he had a short stint with the workshop and the choreography for SNDA.
His journey with dance goes back to his early 20s. It was not always dance that attracted Rooks. “Initially I was into music and even went to Austria to study music. My life changed when I attended an African-american performance and it fascinated me. The men were strong and powerful, unlike the impression one has about dance. I connected with the form. I had a moment of ephiphany. I was drawn to it, and decided I had to do this and I began learning at 20,” remembers Rooks. Rooks would take dance classes at night to stay connected with dance and his life changed when a choreographer from New York saw him. “He was setting up a company and invited me to apprentice. I took a chance and did well. Later I auditioned at the Alvin Ailey, a prestigious dance school and got a full scholarship. From five classes I was taking 18 classes a week. I lost 20 pounds in the first month. It was a great journey,” says Rooks. After being promoted, he then travelled with them for various repertoire performances. “Meanwhile, I was also following the Martha Graham technique, and taking classes at their school. Once Martha Graham saw me and two months later they offered me a contract. I moved there and stayed with them for over a decade.”
At present, Rooks teaches choreography, contemporary and modern dance. “Dance is definitely an expensive passion – it involves a whole lot of costumes, shoes for the dancer and in case of stage performance the technical aspects and much more. When I pack for a work trip, I have my regular clothes, my dance clothes, my shoes, my ballet slippers, dance pants, socks and performance dancers keep buying more as the stuff wears out,” laughs Rooks.
His advice, “Start early. When you start late, you have to work hard. You are competing with people who have started at 10!! One has to push as it’s intense, strenuous and competitive.”
Rooks believes that there’s great dancing in all people. It’s a passion. It’s something you feel from within that you must do. While New York offers a lot, Rooks believes that some parts of Europe, and South America, especially Peru, also offer a lot to the field of new contemporary dance.
Rooks loves Indian food and the vibe of Mumbai. It was his third trip to Mumbai and he looks forward to many more.
Celebrating 10 years of SNDA
Rooks and Nagdev also planned and choreographed their performance to be held on 28th April called the TRIDHA - A Triple Bill Evening to celebrate 10 years of the Academy.
TRIDHA - A 90 minute evening will consist of 3 contemporary dance productions will have:
Dhrut - A dialogue of Past, Present, Future & Time with a synchrony of rhythm, speed & space. Dashanan (premiere) - Sumeet’s solo performance choreographed for the first time by his Martha Graham Dance School teacher/choreographer Steve Rooks. Inspired by Ravana, the performance is a hypnosis of an Anti-hero in hindsight not just mythologically but in present times. Sumeet’s last solo ’Talkative Dancer’ was tagged as ‘Poetic & Philosophical’ by Dance Critic Leela Venkataraman and travelled to many cities of Europe, America and India.
Knowledge with anxiety, wisdom with wickedness, and power with smugness characterise the choreography of ‘Dashanan’. Inspired by Ramayana’s mythological figure Ravana (depicted as a demon), Dashanan – the 10-headed, journeys through ten distinct ideologies of Ravana imagined in the present that contrasts himself against the backdrop of a successful failure. The movement vocabulary is a mix of Graham inspired physicality and Yakshagana, an Indian traditional theatre form that combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make up and stage techniques.
Trishna - This production is inspired by the statement - ‘how women in a large section of the Indian Society are looked at?’. Its scenic interpretation is inspired by real life instances of a domestic helper and her husband (name undisclosed on request).