When 1981 alumnus Richard Steinert came back to Catawba in February, he shared more than just some dance techniques. He shared some of his life experiences with students and gave them insights into his long and successful career as a dancer, a choreographer and an artistic director at some of the country's premier ballet companies.
Steinert was a theatre major with his sights set on being an actor while a student at Catawba. He met a fellow student, Donna Cory '82 who was a dancer, and asked her out on a date. He recalls that she told him she'd be glad to date him, if he would sign up for dance classes. At that time, in the late 1970s, there was no dance studio on campus. The dance classes he signed up for were offered in a strip mall studio on the corner of Mahaley Avenue and W. Innes Street.
He got the date he sought and the dance classes drew him into a career path that he has followed since his graduation, dancing for such renowned companies as the Joffrey Ballet and Bob Fosse. Donna Cory, now the director of a ballet company in San Diego, and Steinert, currently artistic director for Ballet Pensacola, are still fast friends and regularly collaborate on projects.
"The relationships you make in college can be long-lasting and fiscally important in your life," Steinert quips as he relates this story. He said Ballet Pensacola recently offered Cory's original piece, "Freedom Dance," about non-violent protests from Wounded Knee to Tiananmen Square.
"When I told the dancers that what they were going to have to do in this piece was talk, two fainted, two quit, and two haven't quit talking," he jokes, noting that dancers must be more than dancers.
Looking back on his time at Catawba, Steinert says one of the most important things he learned was "how much I learned that I had no idea I was learning." Or he puts it another way, "The lessons I thought I was learning weren't the lessons I learned."
To illustrate his point, he shares an encounter he had as a student with now retired Theatre Arts Professor James Parker. "Parkie was directing a show – an English comedy. After the time for auditions had passed, I decided I wanted to audition. I go to Parkie and say, 'I know I didn't audition, but I'd like to.' He allowed me to. After I finished, Parkie told me, 'I could cast you in this, but I won't, because this isn't what you want.'
"I realized then that my professors had figured out my artistic voice, although I hadn't. I was thrilled and angry, thinking, 'How dare anyone know me better than I know me.' But what I learned here was a sense of the compassionate leadership of artists."
Steinert says he is reminded of this particular lesson when he auditions dancers for Ballet Pensacola. "The people who come to audition with us, spend at least a week, rehearsing while we see how they learn 'the rep.' [My experience here at Catawba] has helped us create a microcosm of the Catawba Experience – the right to fly and the right to fail. That was what I was given every single day [as a student] here.
"You can't stop the falling. Successes are great, but the only way you sustain success is through failure. Success needs to be used to sustain in this business."
He advises students "not to miss what seems like the little things," as they take their classes. "Learn the collateral lessons of the lesson," he admonishes. He shares that learning from Professor Parker how to do makeup a certain way most likely landed him his first job with the Atlanta Ballet. "Put those things together – well-rounded is where it is at now. All of those experiences come into play to make you exceptionally valuable to the person who is writing the checks.
"You need to be a little bit of everything, especially if you want to work forever. Work is out there, but you must take the opportunity for the diversity of knowledge, for diversity of thought and diversity of style."
Steinert says that the one thing he wasn't prepared for when he left Catawba was "the politics of business – the importance of understanding the financial responsibility of those involved in directing and producing whatever you're in."
"It took longer for me than I would wish to understand how the two meshed – the relationships between the dollar and the art – that was my biggest challenge leaving here. The stresses that fall on a company or organization impact you as an artist."
Steinert, who remembers himself coming to Catawba "as a frightened kid," said he left the college as "a frightened young adult." But even as a frightened young adult, he landed a job with Bob Joffrey's Ballet Company in New York City doing a ballet of his called "The Green Door."
He and Joffrey "got into a little tiff," Steinert remembers. "[Afterwards] I scurried uptown to see a friend of mine. She got me in to see Mr. Fosse and I went on the national touring company of 'Pippin' and then was in 'Dancin'' for him on Broadway. I was fortunate to have had a friend and that he [Fosse] needed someone."
Steinert says Fosse was "not difficult to work with as long as you did exactly what he said. He was quite difficult to work with if you attempted to impose your opinions. If he made a mistake in casting, he was quick to rectify it. Consistency was exceptionally important to him. I was dancing in a studio full of people with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. That's hard to believe now, but it was so true – if for no other reason than to allow the dancers to control [their] weight. My dance weight was 111 pounds, my weight now is between 128 and 130 pounds.
"Balanchine was still alive then," Steinert explains, noting that this famed ballet master and artistic director prized the slender, svelte body type.
"The way we are training dancers now is so much better," Steinert continues. "No one will insure a ballet company if you aren't caring for your people. Now, you not only have a real ethical and moral responsibility, but a legal obligation. It's better business to be a part of the cure than to be part of the disease.
"When I was a young dancer, most people's careers were over at [age] 25. Now dancers can work into their 30s and 40s. We've changed the way we train. At our studio, there's Pilates, acupuncturists, and trainers of every type. We work hard to make sure the people we train and employ are cared for physically and emotionally."
Steinert says he looks for people who are first and foremost able to laugh. "I want a pleasant workplace and I like dancers who are emotionally and physically fit – who are fearless, not afraid, and who are willing to jump in. There are a lot of social events associated with our company and I like people I can safely send alone into a cocktail party. You want people you can trust to have you and your organization's back. I want people who have something to say and who inspire me and push me artistically."
Known for his innovative and collaborative style, Steinert has worked in the repertories in companies across the United States. Since his inaugural season as artistic director at Ballet Pensacola in 2007, he has held the attention of the ballet and arts community through a series of critically acclaimed performances and projects directed at broadening the experience of the dance enthusiast. One of the hallmarks of his style is the graceful marriage of theatre and dance and the 2008 premier of his Unprocessed Materials brought the Pensacola audiences their first taste of that experience. Under his direction, Ballet Pensacola draws professional dancers from around the globe, creating a diverse and provocative performing organization.
As the director of Ballet Arkansas, Ballet Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut, and as a founding director of Connecticut Contemporary Ballet Theatre, Steinert has a long creative history with more than 30 original ballets in his repertoire. His full length Nutcracker has been in the national repertoire for more than 20 years, and his productions such as Dracula, Clue, Weisburg Suite and Quakes continue to receive critical acclaim. His choreographic works have been sanctioned by such funding organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. He has held seats on the Board of Directors of the Midwestern Arts Alliance, SWRBA, the Alcoa National Choreographic awards, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to a seat on his Arts-In-Education committee.
As a guest instructor at many pre-professional programs, Steinert is a sought after master teacher throughout the United States. He is currently an adjunct faculty member at the University of West Florida and a Scholar-In-Residence at The Bishops School in La Jolla, California. He and wife Christine are parents of two adult daughters, Laine (28) and Paige (26).
PHOTOS: Master Dance Class Conducted by Richard Steinert '81