Kurt Froman: From Ballet to Broadway
An interview with the former New York City Ballet dancer and current 'Movin' Out' star
by Kate Snedeker
December 19, 2004 -- New York, NY
In December of 2002, Kurt Froman made one of the biggest decisions in his life. After seven incredible years as a dancer in the corps of the New York City Ballet, he left the company to dance a leading role in a Broadway musical. In just a few weeks he went from dancing the toy soldier in "The Nutcracker" to dancing an ill-fated Vietnam War soldier in the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel musical, "Movin' Out".
It was a sudden transition, and not only did it mean leaving a successful ballet career, but also for the first time in his life, performing on a different stage from his identical twin brother, Kyle. Two years later, though currently sidelined with a neck injury, Kurt has no regrets about "Movin’ Out". He reflects back on his ballet career and the move to Broadway.
Kurt, and his brother Kyle were born into a show-biz family, though not one with ballet roots. He recounts, “My mother was a dancer when she was younger and my father was a singer. They met at the St. Louis Municipal Opera, got married, and started having children. My sister Debbie Jo is the oldest; she was always kind of a performer and started a dance school. Kyle and I are the youngest, so we grew up around the dance school, and always begged our parents to let us take tap and jazz. Ballet, we couldn’t care less about, really! It didn’t appeal to us at all.
"But we just loved [dancing] and danced everywhere when we were kids. [We got interested in] ballet a few years later, [after] we saw the movie ‘Six Weeks’, with Dudley Moore, Mary Tyler Moore and Katherine Healey as the little girl dying of leukemia [who gets to dance the lead role in a production of ‘The Nutcracker’]. That was really our first exposure [to ballet] because we grew up in Texas."
Inspired by the movie, Kurt and his brother begged their mother to take them to see the "Nutcracker". But instead of buying tickets to the ballet, she suggested that the twins audition for a local production at Bill Martin-Viscount’s Southwest Ballet Center. So, at the age of eleven, Kurt got his first glimpse into the world of ballet:
“I just remember we were sitting there, and [Bill] asked if we were dancers and we said yes. We’d never seen men in tights and I think we were wearing jazz shoes and parachute pants or something like that! Then he started partnering one of his advanced students, and I was just blown away…it was such a different world and it was so beautiful.
"So we just got more and more into ballet… we kind of gravitated to the structure of it, and striving for the ideal. And the discipline of line was something we threw ourselves into. I think our bodies were really not suited for ballet. Feet, we really had to work on, and turnout, but we were always limber – we could kick our legs up- and could turn.
"We went to the Ft. Worth Ballet [School] right before our 14th birthday, and it was a really Balanchine company, really steeped in it. It was [run by] Paul Mejia and Suzanne [Farrell, who was married to Mejia at the time] was down there a lot. I had no conception of Balanchine at all, but just remember that it was like another world [being] opened up.
"The first ballets that I saw them rehearse were "Allegro Brilliante" and "Divertimento No. 15"; pretty soon after that we saw "Rubies". I couldn’t believe that people danced that way; that long look was so different from what I had seen before because my first ballet teacher was very Russian-based and all I really knew was Don Q and "Giselle" and things like that.
"So, I really allowed them to shape me and teach me. It was a very exaggerated version of Balanchine; Paul was at NYCB in the 60s with Suzanne, so everything was really bendy. Like port de bras were so emphasized, you did a hundred tendu each direction every day and things like tendus in five count meter with your arms in a third count meter. It was so much brainwork and I loved it. It was so tricky, so creative. And I just really fell in love with the Balanchine Style, but never dreamed I could make it to the New York City Ballet."
Transitions: SAB and Ft. Worth Ballet...
At the age of fifteen, after two years of intensive work at the Ft. Worth Ballet, Kurt took his first step towards this ‘impossible’ dream by auditioning for the summer program at the School of American Ballet: ‘We got a scholarship for the summer of ’91. When we were 16, we didn’t go because we had just started working in a grocery store and wanted to save money. Also I think we just wanted to make Paul Mejia happy - he didn’t want to lose us and we didn’t want to threaten him in that way.
The twins returned to New York the following summer, and that fall, at the age of seventeen, were given the option of graduating from high school a year early. As Kurt recalls, “We’d been going to a magnet school, so were getting high school credits in middle school. I had always thought I would be doctor, and my father was adamant that we go to college. Also, I just never really knew what kind of life I could have being a dancer; could I really make a good living? But when the time came to graduate, I knew that I couldn’t even consider [college] because dancing, I knew you had to do when you were young.
"So when we were 17, we joined Ft. Worth Ballet full time. We got to work with Paul a lot and danced with the company – a lot. The company was so good then - such a jewel - Ben Bowman [for whom Kurt understudies in ‘Movin’ Out’!] was there and Paul had brought a lot of his dancers from Chicago City Ballet who had trained there with Maria Tallchief.
"It was great, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Texas and I didn’t know how long the company was going to last. During our last summer at SAB, Stanley Williams asked if we could stay [for the year-round program], but we had signed contracts with Ft. Worth Ballet. Stanley was like, ‘you really shouldn’t wait too long, you’re eighteen now’. We said, ‘Well we just can’t afford it, I think we’re just going to go back and save our money’.
However, within a week of arriving back in Texas, Kurt and Kyle were notified that Stanley had recommended them for the first Nureyev Scholarship. The scholarship, funded by a bequest of the late Rudolph Nureyev, is awarded yearly to two or three extremely talented young men at SAB, and covers all expenses, including tuition, room & board, and travel. Chances like that are ‘a flash in the pan’, as Kurt puts it, and he knew that this was an opportunity that he could not ignore.
Kurt’s excitement however, was tinged with apprehension and a little regret. Leaving Texas meant having to break his contract with the Fort Worth Ballet and Paul Mejia. Even today, talented male dancers are not a plentiful commodity, so Mejia was understandably unhappy at losing two at once, especially with signed contracts in hand. Kurt remembers the unhappy emotions of the split, “ [Paul] was very angry at us and we felt like we were just horrible people. It’s unfortunate because he’s the one who really got me interested in Balanchine and really taught me everything I know as far as the Balanchine style and the roles”
Despite the bumpy departure from Texas, New York was an eye opener for Kurt: “We came to SAB about a month and a half late because [Paul] needed us to do ‘Slaughter on 10th Ave’, but it was wonderful to move to NY. It was also weird because [after] being professionals for a year, we then had to go back into a school where you had to wear black tights, white shirt, white shoes, things like that. But I realized how much I had to learn still.”
As the official school for the New York City Ballet, SAB has attracted some legendary teachers. It was one of those exceptional teachers, Stanley Williams, a former principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, who became Kurt’s teacher and mentor.
Kurt remembers his years with Stanley vividly, “I was in [what was] really his last class, with Benjamin Millepied, Stuart Capps, Henry Seth, and Jason Fowler. He had always liked me and Kyle… I think he saw how serious we were, and that we were intelligent and could grasp what he was going after. Because Stanley really changed a lot, you know. I look at old films of his classes, and [over time] he really became more specific about what he wanted and emphasized different things with each generation. And [with our class] he was going after something so specific that you could almost not even understand it coming in. I remember even company members being like,’ what does he want?’
"In special men’s [the highest level for male students at SAB], we had two classes a day, and it was so much more specific. It always kind of reminded me when people talked about Balanchine’s class [where] you’d work on a step for an hour and half. And that’s kind of the way Stanley’s class was; his barre was very slow and we would normally just get up to pirouettes because he was really spending time teaching.
"He had such an understanding of how bodies worked and kind of the logic behind steps and the musicality. And so he shaped your body and worked your technique in such a different way than I’ve ever been exposed to. I can remember in that year, my body changed SO much.
"There was such sensitivity with the music, but it was different. Balanchine was very, or what I was exposed to of Balanchine, is very exact and musical, but very mechanical in a way. Stanley was almost resistant, kind of like threading something through the music. For instance, he got in the kick of not having us start moving until we heard the ‘One’ count, so you would go ONE, two three four, ONE two three four. It was a way of not rushing, and a very different kind of musicality. You also were very aware of the floor. He used to tell us to wear socks at barre to get that sensitivity in your feet and in your legs.
"It gives me chills to even think about some of his things – because it was so beautiful and it made you dance and work your body in such a different way. For instance, when you lifted you legs, it wasn’t like doing a developpe forwards, it was like a breath. And when you did a ronde de jambe, the way you worked your legs was [so that] they weren’t heavy and they got lighter and more turned out.
"It was just so unbelievable and he would have me think of something so the opposite of what your normally think of. Like going for a turn, or even doing tendus at the barre, you normally think of your working leg and really working on that, but he would say, everything is front, even when you’re doing something in the back, you have to think of it as being to the front. Because when things are in front of you, they’re within your control, but sometimes when you get to the back, you start twisting your legs in a very funny way. But this had you so pulled up; there was a clarity, and you didn’t compensate in a funny way.
"[Or when] you would do these difficult steps. If someone told you to do an ‘inside a la seconde [turn], flip it around to attitude, then come down, and do three of them’, you would say, there’s no way I can do that. But he would make you think of your upper body, which wasn’t normally what you would think about; you think of turning. [And then] you could do five pirouettes because you were thinking about something completely different. And he had such an understanding of how bodies worked and kind of the logic behind steps and the musicality and it was so unbelievable.
"So it was devastating to me when Stanley died. He died after my first year in the company; I think it was ’97 because I was in Australia. That’s when the company split in half on tour: one group went to Brazil and the other to Australia and the Pacific Rim. I was on the Pacific Rim tour, and when I came back, Kyle, who had come home a few days earlier, said ‘Stanley died’.
"And it was just like my whole… because he believed in me so much. I think he really saw the best in my dancing, and made me believe in myself more than anyone ever had. Normally you see your shortcomings, and kind of beat your self up for those, so you stifle… what you can ever imagine for yourself. But he always trusted me and would have me demonstrate things for the class because he knew that I knew what he was talking about.
"And it was so sad when he wasn’t there, because I felt he was the one person I had going for me or was always so nice to me. He never yelled at anyone; everything was done with kindness and gentleness, not by intimidation or scaring you or any of the bad things. It made people work in such a better way...and grow and trust themselves. I think that’s so important when you’re young, for your whole life really… artistically…, for you to feel that someone sees the best in you and trusts you…and you want to impress them.
"And [now] it’s almost kind of frustrating when I go take another class – I don’t want to knock anybody’s interpretation of Stanley, because everyone had their own beautiful relationship with him – and I think it was very specific generationally. But even when I take Jock [Soto]’s class or Peter Boal’s class, and they give a Stanley combination, the emphasis is on a different thing and I almost get frustrated.
"I guess everybody wants to preserve their image [of Stanley]. My idea of Stanley is no more valid than anyone else’s, but I can say that I understood what he wanted in the last years. I remember after he died, Benjamin and I talked about making a video diary and preserving some of his combinations because they were so good. Never did it."
New York City Ballet...
Kurt went on to spend nearly seven years in the corps of the New York City Ballet. An easy life it was not… “At City Ballet class is at 10:15 or 10:30 in the morning. You don’t see light of day sometimes because you’re out of there at 11 at night. And it’s wonderful because it’s kind of a marathon when you’re in season; you’re on the breaking point of being injured and incredibly in shape at the same time. Your body is never going to look better and it’s never going to hurt more.”
When asked about his favorite memories with the company, he muses, “you know, I’ve got great memories. [Like] when we first got in, Nicole Hlinka choreographed a ballet on us - Kyle, me and Cara Copeland – for the Guild Luncheon. We hadn’t even become company member - I think we were still apprentices- but I just remember how wonderful it was… just the idea of the possibilities, where my career was going to go, and getting to dance big and be featured at State Theatre.
"There’s one moment, when we were on the Pacific Rim Tour. I was probably 20, which is relatively young, and [did] “Fearful Symmetries”, which I never got to do in New York. I just remember the electricity that was on stage and knowing that people in Taiwan had probably never been exposed to this specific type of American, jazzy ballet.
"There’s that finale where everybody just starts dancing, it gets really loud and then everybody freezes – it’s that famous pose where everybody is kind of like in a lunge. And I just remember [the audience] standing up and just starting clapping.
"You felt so proud to be on that stage and hearing the applause. In Asia the audiences are not necessarily the most responsive. I think they save it for the end [because] they don’t want to interrupt your art. [So] to know that they were so riled from what we had just done that they stood up and started clapping before it was the end even… was a really neat moment.
"And doing “Who Cares”. I always loved [‘Who Cares’] because it was one of my favorite ballets to watch. But it’s tough to dance. I was so glad that I was brought up doing tap and jazz, because it can’t help but season your dancing to be exposed to different [styles], to learn how to be jazzy and to not just worry about being clean, but being a performer…that kind of Broadway glitz. That’s why “Who Cares” is so much fun.
"I just remember towards the end of my time at City Ballet really feeling like I was dancing well. I was busy and that’s why it was so gratifying to be there, because even though you’re in the corps, god you’re dancing so much. I danced more in seven years that most people would ever dance in their life; from ten in the morning to eleven at night, sometimes three ballets a night. And such masterpieces between the Jerry [Robbins] stuff and the Balanchine stuff and getting to do ‘Who Cares’.
"You know it’s hard to say how my career would have been if I wasn’t a twin. Being a twin is a wonderful thing, and I’m so thankful [for it]. Kyle and I have danced together since we were four, [so] there’s such an understanding and intuition. And we’re so used to seeing each other in the midst of performance that there’s a safety [in it] and it’s comfortable in a way.
"I think some of the featured things that we got to do were very twinny. And sometimes I wish that they had utilized it even a bit more, like in Agon - being able to see two identical bodies, counterpoint. But it was also kind of hindrance because I never felt that people knew the difference [between us]. I think it’s really easy for people to get lazy and say ‘oh the twins’ and not distinguish one from the other. [And so] not remember each one’s strengths and really give clear attention to each one’s identity - it’s so important as an artist to feel like YOU are being seen.
"For instance, even if I worked my ass off and had a string of great performances, I felt a responsibility if Kyle screwed something up because I felt like [people] weren’t going to know the difference, and it’s going to [affect] their opinion of both of us. So it’s like a shared weight…but on the other hand if Kyle did something good, it was something good for me.
"But sometimes I wish it had just been me, or just me doing my own thing. And I wonder how my career would have been under different circumstances. But I don’t regret anything, because I had a great time.
"When I left to do "Movin’ Out", I didn’t know my last performance was going to be my last performance. I think it’s almost better that way because then I was left with the whole experience, rather than remembering my last show.
"And my last performance was ‘soldier’ in "Nutcracker", which is probably my least favorite role because it’s so stressful, so mechanical and I always felt too tall. It’s just a hard thing to do when you’re tall, and I’m not a very bouncy boy. I think I’m more of a mover than a jumper.
"I was happy to leave, knowing that I’d given everything I had, worked as hard as I possibly could and never phoned anything in. So I didn’t have any regrets. And the experience of the whole seven years was really wonderful.
But I was really happy that "Movin' Out" presented itself."
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