Dance has been very, very good to Zane Booker, and the openly gay dancer and choreographer does more than his fair share to return the favor.
The Philadelphia native is debuting a new work entitled “The Red Envelope” during Philadanco’s performances at the Kimmel Center this weekend.
“It’s based on three vignettes,” he said. “The first section represents the contract between Faust and Mephistopheles. The characters are based on that story. The piece explores the question, Would you sell your soul to the devil? Not physically, the devil as a being, but with all of the greed and stuff. What will we sacrifice to get that kind of thing? What does that dynamic feel like when you’re confronted? I think if it all happened at one time, people would feel really different. But because we do things gradually, we can deny it. But when you face a contract like, ‘I’m going to sell my soul for all of these things of this knowledge that I want,’ that’s what I was exploring with this piece.”
Given the economic climate and some of the corporate shenanigans going on, it’s a rather timely subject.
“It was inspired by recent events and also because I worked on ‘The Faust Story’ about 10 years ago as it just started in Tokyo, Japan,” Booker said. “That was a piece that we worked on [and] I’ve just been really interested in starting to develop a relationship with that story. The duet was a great way to start that and, secondly, the timing was right because of the whole greed thing. The timing was right to make that statement.”
Booker started training early — at age 7 — with the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and, by 14, he was performing with Philadanco. He went on to become one of the company’s principle artists and pursued a degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He moved to New York City and continued his training, and was invited by none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov to study at the American Ballet Theater. Booker described the experience of working with the iconic dancer as “ridiculous excitement.”
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “For me, the first time was like an out-of-body experience. You hear the voice speaking to you, you see the mouth moving but you don’t necessarily hear the voice. But after I worked with him, it really becomes a normalized situation. He really made me aware that I was a company member. We were a team and it was a company situation. After the awe kind of wears down, he’s this icon and getting this job is one of the best things that ever happened to you. You sit with that for a couple of weeks and then it really normalized. You just start to feel like you’re colleagues in a way. He really mentors quietly. He’s not a big lecturer.”
His experience with the School of American Ballet earned Booker the chance to perform and travel outside of the country. It also afforded him opportunities that were just too good to pass up. During a trip to Holland, Booker auditioned for the Netherlands Dance Theater and spent the next six years dancing for the company. Then in 1996, Booker accepted an offer to join Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. In 1999, he left Monte Carlo to accept invitations to appear as a guest artist with major ballet companies around the world, including the new National Theater of Tokyo and Philadanco, among others.
It’s no surprise that Booker is multilingual these days.
“Most of the time you just end up working in English,” he said. “In the Netherlands, we worked in English, French and Dutch. When I worked in Monaco, some of the directors didn’t speak English so well, so I had to learn French.”
Booker said that working with so many dance companies and experiencing so many cultures strongly influenced his style.
“I think every company that I went to and every major choreographer who was there left a big impression on me stylistically. I think it’s hard to work with the Netherlands Dance Theater, the Ballet of Monte Carlo or even Philadanco, for that matter, and not come away with their DNA imprinted on you. Every company has an artistic style. It leaves a big impression on you in the way that movement comes out of your body.”
Booker added that the styles of ballet performed in Europe tend to be much more adventurous and elaborate than what American audiences generally see.
“If you take one of the five top European choreographers right now, you can say they’re pretty well known in Europe,” he explained. “They lead contemporary ballet. That style is spread throughout Europe. So the style in America is very different because they haven’t been influenced by those choreographers that much. So there’s a hybrid version of modern and ballet that doesn’t quite exist or hasn’t been cultivated in America. In America, the division is pretty set between what’s ballet and what’s modern.
“Now there are some choreographers who are changing those kinds of things in America, but there isn’t a majority of companies doing European work. I think we in America do work that is not as theatrical or profound because we don’t have the money that Europeans have. We can invest the same kind of theatrics into ballet that operas can do in America. It gives it a different scope and palate. The only time that you have that big palate is when it’s a big classical ballet. So a lot of the classical ballets tend to get revised and revamped because they say the public likes them. Some of the other stuff has to be introduced to America.”
Another big difference Booker found between the American and European worlds of ballet is the perception of the art form. In Europe, ballet isn’t as associated with femininity or homosexuality as it is in the U.S.
“I think that there’s a certain amount of denial in America that doesn’t necessarily exist in Europe where sexuality is concerned,” he said. “I think because the tradition of dance is not as associated with homosexuality in Europe, you don’t often have to go on the defensive and that’s the first thing on people’s minds. A lot of the European dancers are trained at a very young age and it’s almost like a sport. It’s a very masculine thing to do. I haven’t been over in Europe for about 10 years now, but I didn’t feel that I had to defend my homosexuality or hide it. That being said, there were no androgynous men. That’s not the norm. People are staged to represent male if they’re men and female if they’re women. That is similar in both places, but I’m sure the lines [can be] more easily blurred — especially in the modern [dance] world.”
Back in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, Booker focuses most of his energy on creating choreographies for universities, ballet companies, operas and musical productions for groups like the Philadelphia Dance Company, Mogador Theatre-Paris, the Jackson Ballet Competition and the Opera of Monte Carlo. He has also taught dance for companies and schools in the U.S., Europe and Australia.
Booker said he now prefers choreography to dancing.
“I’m not performing as much anymore. I used to love performing and I still do, but not as much. I might do a spoken-word performance or something like that, but at this point in my career, I like choreographing.”
Booker is used to making statements with his work, as he also channels his energy into a good cause as the founder and artistic director of the Smoke, Lilies and Jade Arts Initiative, a socially conscious, multimedia dance theater company promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.
“I feel like it has a lot of support,” he said of his work with SLJ. “The community was really ready for something that came directly to the LGBT and African-American community. I’m very proud of the work. We have this event in January each year which combines panel discussions with dance and artists. I like feeling like the work is part of the conversation that is happening in society and that there is a focus to it that is beyond making abstract art. I like that it’s a socially conscious company and I like that people respond to that. I like that I’m introducing a whole group of young people to a way to have that voice and make great art.”
Booker’s latest piece can be seen during Philadanco’s performances through Sunday at Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, 260 S. Broad St. For more information, visit www.lilliesandjade.org or call (215) 790-5847.