Jock Soto has been dancing since he was 5 years old. He fondly remembered doing the Navajo hoop dance with his mother during his early years in Gallup, and later when the family moved to Arizona. These were the first times that Soto—a world-renowned ballet dancer and choreographer—
“Yes, I suppose I do think my story is unusual,” Soto told me over the phone a few weeks before the premiere of his new choreography, all set to recent arrangements by Mirabal. “I wrote my memoir in 2011, and it was a very specific question in my book: How did this half-Puerto Rican, half-Navajo kid get to New York City and spend most of his life there? It is an unusual story.” And of course, he spent that lifetime in the big city in the highly competitive world of ballet, meeting with success despite great odds.
So, how did his life take this course? Soto recalled a childhood morning watching ballet on TV. “It just really struck me,” he said, “this gorgeous guy doing this ballet. Oh my God—the smoothness of everything, and how high he could jump, and how many turns he could do. I was like, I want to do that.” He told his mother about his ambitions, and she looked in the Yellow Pages for a ballet school. Soto's mother and father dutifully ferried him the more than 30-minute distance between Paradise Valley, Ariz., where they were living a the time, and Phoenix. “The teachers auditioned me [and] … they took me right away because I was basically the only boy that auditioned. And they gave me a scholarship, too.”
Having discovered his talent and love of the dance, at 16, he auditioned for the New York City Ballet and was accepted. He quickly integrated into that world, moving to the city and beginning to perform as much as eight times a week. “I became an instant adult,” he described. “It was difficult, but it is where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”
Though Soto is now retired—and goes whole weeks without dancing a step—he frequently teaches, and develops dances. In the next year he will even return to New York to perform with a longtime collaborator and ballerina. “People keep asking me to do things, and I say, 'Oh, God, I'm retired!' But I get sucked right back in,” he explained. After teaching at Dance Theatre Southwest, the company's founder and organizer of Festival Ballet Albuquerque, Patricia Dickinson-Wells, invited Soto to collaborate with Mirabal for the festival. Soto's reply, as he remembers it: “I said ‘hell yeah! Why not?’ ”
Soto has created four movements for the performance, featuring pieces called “Skywatchers” and “Can't.” Soto anticipates that these pieces will be a “little different than what people usually see in New Mexico,” favoring a more abstract, evocative approach to bringing forth emotion and translating that into dance. Also of note is that no one has ever performed ballet to Mirabal's music, some of which, keeping in step with the musician’s multidisciplinary expression, is entirely spoken word. “It's something never been seen before. I think it is really good to get this kind of thing going, to start something new,” Soto observed.
In addition to Soto's work, new pieces by Dickinson-Wells, as well as Trey Pickett and Natalee Maxwell will take the stage. While Sacred Journeys as a whole will be performed just twice—Saturday, March 10 at 7pm, and Sunday, March 11 at 2pm—Soto said that he will continue working in this vein, specifically collaborating with other Native dancers, musicians and choreographers. “When I first went to the Taos Pow Wow after we moved back here,” Soto remembered, “just hearing those drums brought tears to my eyes because it reminded me of my mother and us dancing side-by-side. … I try to find music that moves me like that. That's why it is really cool to work with Robert Mirabal, because the music comes deep from him.”
Find out more about the pioneering collaborative efforts being brought to the stage at this year's Festival Ballet Albuquerque at festivalballetabq.org. To buy tickets (starting at $12), visit nhccnm.org.