Continuing our investigation Backstage at the Reif Center, this month we sat down with Myron Johnson, one of our Co-Dance Directors at Reif Dance. Myron has been with Reif Dance since last January (2016), but he’s been working in the dance world for decades. I bet his history and experience will surprise you!
Katie: What was it that brought you to the Reif Center?
Myron: There was a need for someone to temporarily fill a position as Jazz and Tap Instructor. I believe I initially came up for six weeks, and it’s been almost a year. I’m still here!
Katie: What has kept you here? What do you love about the Reif Dance program?
Myron: The kids, plain and simple. They’re awesome!
I literally got driven here January 2 and was dropped off in an apartment in Grand Rapids. I had never been here in my life. I didn’t know anything about the Reif Center. I came to teach that day assuming six weeks would seem like a long time, but it went by quickly. Within a couple weeks I knew that I loved working with these kids. They were eager and wanted to learn. I felt accepted by them and by the staff here. It was that sense of community, that sense of family that exists here that I didn’t anticipate.
I’ve never lived in a small town. My experience is not in dance schools. I was surprised by how much talent was in this area, what a need there was for a place like this, and how supportive the staff and the parents were. You know some of these parents drive a long time to get their kids to a dance class? That’s just really amazing to me!
Katie:: What were you doing before the Reif Center?
Myron: [Chuckles] 55 years of other stuff! Hmm… I studied.
I grew up at Children’s Theater in Minneapolis, and then I went to Europe, Paris specifically, and studied with Marcel Marceau and the Paris Opera Ballet. I came back to Minnesota because my mom was ill. That’s when I started my dance company, Ballet of the Dolls, in Minneapolis which I had for almost 30 years.
Katie: What was your signature with Ballet of the Dolls?
Myron: Ballet of the Dolls started in the 80s. At that time there wasn’t, what’s called now, theatre dance (or dance theatre). We were sort of the first company to start incorporating theatre, dance, storytelling through dance, etc. and reinterpreting classics in a contemporary way. I once had a reviewer say that I was “the love child of John Waters and Cecil B DeMille.” Because I’m classically trained, I have great appreciation for classical ballet, but I also know that there is plenty of that in the world. There’s not a lot of trying to bring that into a new-world aesthetic.
Katie: For those who aren’t in “the biz,” define “classically trained.”
Myron: Classical training goes back more than a century. Specifically, I studied Vaganova technique, which for some means nothing. These were the same techniques that were used to create Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Nutcracker. But, because my background had been so diverse – so much theatre, and dance, and mime, and music – being in a classical ballet company was never a desire of mine. That was just something I knew I wasn’t going to do. I kept bouncing back between dance, and then running over here and doing theatre, and then doing dance, so that eventually I wanted to bring them together to see what happens when you combine those worlds.
Katie: You’re currently working on a project in Minneapolis, The Nutcracker Not So Suite. Let’s talk about that.
Myron: I first started [doing The Nutcracker Not So Suite] in 1989 and I’ve done it almost every year since then. It had been kind of a mainstay in Minneapolis and then, when I decided to stop having my company, a couple years went by without and George Sutton, Executive Director of James Sewell Ballet, asked if I would be interested in working with them on a production. I said “sure.”
Each year is a new production with all new music, choreography, costumes, and sets, but the concept stays the same. It actually follows the literary story of The Nutcracker, not the story of The Nutcracker Ballet. Of course, I contemporized it. It’s a coming of age story about Marie (in the Reif Dance production the character is called Clara). Marie, like every little girl, has thirty Barbie dolls, and then on Christmas her uncle gives her a Ken doll. Ken takes the place of the nutcracker, hence the coming of age – it’s her first boy.
Katie: You weren’t here before our big remodel, so maybe this is a hard question, but how do you think the renovations have impacted the dance program?
Myron: These kids are so fortunate to have the kind of facility they do to study in. And that it’s attached to a performing space is remarkable! Part of my idea of learning is in the doing too, so learning how to dance and how to perform at the same time is so important. So many schools don’t have that. They offer a recital at the end of the term, but they can’t offer the performing opportunity that exists here at the Reif Center. The potential for what could happen here is also unbelievable. Walking down the hall a week ago, Gundy (GRHS Band Director) said to me “The band is working on something this year and it would be great to have the dancers involved.” We started talking and e-mailed back and forth a few times, and I thought, “This could really turn into something, where the school and the dance program could get more integrated.”
Katie: What about your Co-Director, Katie Smith?
Myron: When I first got here I didn’t know anyone, so I got to work doing my job and didn’t have a lot of interaction with the other dance staff. That seemed totally okay because I didn’t think I was going to be here for long. But when Katie Smith came back to Reif Dance in March we had instant communication. We built a relationship that started right away with what’s best for the kids. It made a huge difference, I think, both in the way the students felt and the way I felt. The shift affected me so much that I was willing to start teaching classes that I normally wouldn’t want to teach.
Katie: For example?
Myron: My experience is much more in teaching advanced dancers. Going back to teaching basics and building technique from a young age – it had been a long time. And it’s a much harder job! Working with kids that already know how to dance is simpler because you are just adding to what they already know. It’s more of a coaching job as opposed to a training responsibility. But, after Katie and my discussion about what’s best for the kids, it became something I was interested in doing and passionate about. And, it turns out, I enjoy it.
Katie: Do you want to comment on any of the programmatic changes you and Smith made?
Myron: We’re now offering a mime class. It’s kind of a test to see where else can the program go, or what other kinds of things we can get the kids involved in. Not all of these kids want to be dancers when they go out in the world. So, what is it about dance and theatre that will give them skills they can apply whether they’re a doctor, a lawyer, a business owner, etc. – think risk-taking, adventure, and willingness to work as a group.
We even challenged families by changing the levels to not be so focused on age, (i.e. keeping all 10 year olds together, all 14 year olds together). At a certain point, we want to be able to focus in on each individual student and what are their individual strengths and needs. This also eliminates a bit of the possibility for cliques, and encourages kids to focus on learning. That in itself is a skill. If you learn how to dance that’s great, but learning how to learn can apply to everything.
Katie: Do you have a favorite ballet? Who is your greatest dance inspiration?
Myron: One of my idols is Marcel Marceau. Also chorographers Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart. I was in Europe from age 17-20, which are, artistically, really formative years. Being in Paris, seeing their work, and being close to that world – they really had an effect on me. They were doing Giselles and Swan Lakes but they were doing their own take on it. It was so inspiring and encouraging to me that we don’t have to fit into old molds. I wanted to go out and do the same. And, not only did it make me a better artist but it made me a better teacher. I can share that message with others. There is no mold for what makes a good dancer anymore.
My favorite ballet is Swan Lake.
Katie: Have you ever performed in it?
Myron: Mm-hmm. And I’ve done a few of my own.
Katie: Going all the way back to your youth, what’s your most favorite role?
Myron: A lot of the work that I did when I was young was original work, but in stories that people know, maybe Jack from Jack & The Beanstalk. I think I was 8, and it was probably one of the first lead roles I’d ever played.