Dancer, author and choreographer Robert La Fosse shares his favorite reads

Dancer, author and choreographer Robert La Fosse shares his favorite reads

Dear Ballerina Book Club Readers,

Connor here! I am incredibly excited to share that this month’s Friend Picks comes from the legendary Robert La Fosse! He is a former principal dancer with both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, as well as a current teacher at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school of American Ballet Theatre.

Robert is a total idol of mine. He had the career I often dreamed about as an aspiring young student; working intimately with choreographers like Jerome Robbins and then seamlessly transitioning from ballet to Broadway was pretty much what my dreams were made of.

Image courtesy Robert La Fosse.
Image courtesy Robert La Fosse.

In the last few weeks, Robert and I have spent much time discussing ABT and its history, in particular its *Queer* history. In case you didn’t know, October is LGBTQIA+ History Month, and this season at ABT, we will host our first-ever (insert gasp) “Pride Nights,”  happening Oct. 27 and Oct. 30 at Lincoln Center. These nights are really centered around the new, breathtakingly beautiful homoerotic pas de deux “Touché,” created by choreographer Christopher Rudd. In addition to the evening’s performances, you can expect to see a special photo exhibition I collaborated on with Quil Lemons for the lobby, a post-show Q&A hosted by Tommy Dorfman and much more.

Now back to Book Club and Robert! In addition to all of his major life accomplishments, Robert also published a book in the 80s titled “Nothing to Hide: A Dancer’s Life.” One thing I’ve come to really admire about Robert is his unwavering sense of self. He was never going to be anyone but himself — wearing pride like a scarf. And in that spirit, I proudly present Robert La Fosse!

Favorite books?

Image courtesy Robert La Fosse.

What was the last book you recommended to a friend? Why?

Center Center” by James Whiteside because he’s a great writer, and it’s so much fun. The chapter about his mother will break your heart.

And “Never Silent” by Peter Staley, an AIDS activist and member of ACT UP and TAG who pushed the government into action. Peter is a close friend of mine, and I think what he did is an important story to remember. His involvement in ACT UP shows how great activism can save people’s lives.

What was your relationship to reading like as a kid?

I had trouble reading when I was a child. At 20 years of age, I learned that I had dyslexia. I went to a specialist and learned some skills about how to read better. I still have trouble to this day and wish that I could be more relaxed when I read. It’s very frustrating. That’s probably why I haven’t read so many books. Audio books have been very helpful for me.

Did reading ever inform how you’d portray roles on stage?

Yes, one of my very first principal roles was “Prodigal Son.” It was the first and last time I’ve read the Bible. I read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” before I performed the role of Romeo. Performing a character in ballet, the choreography becomes the script and you have to learn how to interpret what the choreographer wants. In the beginning I was just imitating, and then after years of performing, I could make the role my own. Investigating the source material will always enrich your performance.

Robert La Fosse and Leslie Browne in “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by Martha Swope. Courtesy of Robert La Fosse.

How did you get into ballet as a profession?

For as long as I can remember, I was always playing pretend. My garage would become my theater. I would put on shows, whether I had an audience or not. I would do mock beauty pageants with all my girlfriends in the neighborhood. I was a very happy child and had a deep-seated desire to entertain everyone. Then my brother started taking dance class, and I followed him to the studio. I was very involved in choir and drama class at school and did musicals at the community theater. I had a very good dance teacher named Marsha Woody who encouraged us to go off and do summer intensives in New York at Harkness House with David Howard.

When I was 17, I went to the School of American Ballet and was offered a full-year scholarship but auditioned for American Ballet Theatre and got a corps de ballet apprenticeship contract.

You’ve collaborated with more legendary choreographers than I could name! (Cunningham, MacMillan, Robbins, Tudor, Tharp — I had to name a few.) In all of your experiences, what made for some of the most artistically fulfilling processes?

I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the great choreographers of the 20th century. But I think my relationship with Jerome Robbins is the one that had the most profound effect on me. Because of my connection to acting in musical theater, I believe that I was able to interpret the characters in his ballets with an ease and comfort that he appreciated. Getting to perform in his Broadway retrospective “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” was one of the highlights of my entire career. The rehearsal process was 22 weeks of exploring all of the dances from his musicals. I was lucky to play some of the most iconic roles.

It was a dream come true that all ended with a Tony nomination.

I’ve also had the privilege of dancing with some of the great ballerinas of the 20th century.

Image courtesy of Robert La Fosse.
Image courtesy of Robert La Fosse.

You published a book in the 80s titled “Nothing to Hide.” What inspired you to write this book?

Actually, I was asked to write my autobiography. I think they thought I had a salacious story to tell. In fact, they wanted me to call it “Stepping on Toes.” Yikes! At first, I didn’t want to, but then I started to put pen to paper and realized that I had a unique story that needed to be told. At the time when I was writing, I didn’t realize that a gay man in ballet had never published his coming out story. As it turns out, I was the first. I had been diagnosed with HIV a couple of years prior and didn’t think I had much more time, so I wanted to write down my memories. I don’t call it a biography because I had only lived 28 years. So, I call it “A Dancers Life.”

I think readers might be surprised to know that it was common to be closeted at this time — even in the arts. Why do you think so many dancers concealed their sexuality?

Prior to the AIDS epidemic, there was really no one publicly out of the closet. I believe that the tragedy of so many people in the LGBT community dying put us in the forefront of the world consciousness. All of my friends were dying and some of their families wouldn’t take care of them because of the stigma surrounding the disease and being gay.

Also, it would’ve been career suicide to go public with your sexuality at the time. Remember, Rock Hudson was secretively homosexual. It was the news that he had AIDS that began the coming out movement. We realized that as more and more people knew a gay or lesbian person the more comfortable they became with it. So, the coming out process was powerful and life-changing for both us and them. It is still the most courageous thing a person can do.

Image courtesy Robert La Fosse.

What or who inspires you most? What or who did you look to during moments of burnout during your career?

Obama and anyone who fails, gets up in the morning and tries again.

Ballet is my church. Without it, I would have no spiritual outlet. I find comfort and solace in ballet class rehearsal or performance.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert La Fosse rehearsing. Image courtesy Robert La Fosse.

What’s a passion outside of your public persona that people might be surprised to know about?

I love traveling to new cities and countries. Exploring different cultures. If anyone needs a ballet teacher in Russia, China, Greece, Africa or Egypt, call me!

Do you have a favorite pasta recipe?

I love pesto on my pasta, preferably something like a curly pasta so that the pesto sticks to it. I’m not really a cook, but boy, can I eat!

Second favorite: Alfredo linguine

My favorite recipe? Whosever cooking

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What was the last thing you read?

“A Promised Land” by Barack Obama

What are you looking forward to reading?

“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

What book have you read over and over again?

“Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke

This interview has been edited lightly and condensed.