Dancer's 'Billy Elliot' story spins, lands on Point Park campus
Many performing artists find themselves surprised by the rewards of teaching.
Their students, naturally, appreciate teachers who bring the practical lessons of the arts to academic work.
Ruben Graciani, the new chair of dance and associate artistic director of Point Park University's Conservatory of Performing Arts, knows the struggle it takes to make a career as a performer. And he gave up a tenured college position to take his new job. He found he loves teaching and wants to help conservatory dancers meet the challenges they will face in a world that has changed a lot since he was starting out.
“We had a really great interview, and I sort of felt an instant connection with him,” says Fredrick Johnson, who was dean of the Conservatory of the Performing Arts when Graciani was hired and is now vice president for academic and student affairs.
“What I really appreciated about Ruben was his passion for the discussion, but also his interest and willingness to do the managerial stuff it takes to run the department. He brings a breadth of experience that will help him bring fresh eyes to what we're doing at Point Park,” Johnson says. “He's got a real passion for what he does, and that comes through. He brings a sense of vision and the energy to execute it.”
Graciani, 43, was born in Augsburg, Germany, or rather near Augsburg because he actually arrived in the front seat of a car traveling down the Autobahn.
“I've been ‘traveling at warp speed since the beginning' is a family joke,” he says.
His mother is American, of German descent; his father, Puerto Rican. They divorced when he was very young. The future dancer grew up mainly in Virginia and North Carolina's Outer Banks. He had a gift with numbers and seemed headed for a career in math or science.
But Graciani's life changed when he was 14 and saw the North Carolina Dance Theatre, now the Charlotte Ballet, when it came to his high school.
“I was completely bowled over, mesmerized. I just had to be part of that thing. I had never taken a dance class in my life before, but told my mother I was going to be a dancer,” he says.
Graciani persuaded his mother to take him to the North Carolina College of the Arts for a birthday present. He checked out a ballet book from the library and had his father take pictures of him in ballet poses for his audition packet.
“Those pictures are pretty humbling,” he admits. But he was accepted.
“I had the Billy Elliot story when I was 14. I came for the summer, taking classes with little kids just to learn vocabulary. Then I was accepted for the first year, and, at the end of it, invited to return. The good side of having had no training is that I didn't pick up any bad habits with a local teacher.”
Graciani progressed so rapidly as a dancer he was accepted into both the Juilliard School in New York City and the State University of New York in Purchase, N.Y.
“When I was 18, I took a plane to New York with my little suitcase and was there for 10 years before I moved,” he says. “The first two years I was in New York, I was amazed by everything.”
At Juilliard, Graciani met fellow dancer Arnie Apostal.
“We instantly connected, and somehow I knew we were going to be friends for life,” Apostal says. “During college, when one of my friends had to have two sets of open-heart surgery for a valve problem, Ruben was my rock. I could always count on him to be supportive, to do whatever was needed. ... He is the greatest kind of friend to have.”
Apostal is now office manager for the Martha Graham Company.
“Ruben was always a beautiful dancer and is a great artist,” he says. “He is smart and reads like a fiend. He is absolutely hungry for knowledge. He is interested in so many things aside from dance, which, of course, only enhances and informs his expertise.”
Attending Juilliard proved not a good choice for Graciani, because he was too easily distracted. He skipped basic classes in the freshman curriculum to sit in on other classes with stars of American Ballet Theatre.
Although Juilliard offered him more scholarship money and is a more prestigious school, after two years Graciani transferred to SUNY, Purchase.
“It was a much better environment for me. I got pushed in a way I didn't feel I was getting pushed at Juilliard,” he says. “One of the things I try to tell students a lot is that sometimes environment is just as important as faculty.”
Graciani auditioned for the Mark Morris Dance Group his senior year and was offered a position as an understudy. He danced with the company for five years as a supplementary member, used for the big ensemble pieces, such as “Hard Nut.”
Mark Morris dancer Joe Bowie remembers Graciani with admiration.
“He's a great guy, a little bit wild then when he was in his 20s, but fun, energetic and creative. He always did a back flip at rehearsals. The thing about Ruben is he was always interested and daring,” Bowie says.
“I always admired the way he was open to many genres of dance, certainly more than I am,” he says. “This enables him to blossom creatively, a great thing to watch as a friend. ... It's been nice to watch this process of Ruben becoming chairman of a department. I don't think he would have anticipated that years ago. He will definitely make his mark.”
Dancing with Mark Morris' group was exhilarating for Graciani, at first.
“I learned a tremendous amount about the craft of dance,” he says. “I was traveling all over the world and dancing with people I absolutely admired. It was an incredibly valuable experience for a 23-year-old, but in the same way Juilliard wasn't right for me, aspects of the Mark Morris Dance Group were not right for me, either.
“I'm a physical person, an expressive person. I like to push myself physically to the point when I don't know how I can do another jump. The classical elements about his work itself was less about the expressive world of the performer.”
Graciani took some time off to figure out what he wanted to do next. Among the jobs he held was as a private check-in person for special guests at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan.
“It was pretty exciting, on one hand, though I couldn't recognize a sports star to save my life,” he says. “I developed a strange habit of making a little dance, maybe a minute, while going down in the elevator. I found myself doing this all the time. There are cameras, but I didn't care. My body told me, you can't walk away from dancing and creating.”
While he resumed dancing, he decided to go back to academia and earn his master of fine arts at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“I never knew how much I would enjoy teaching, but then you never know,” Graciani says. “I got so much every day from being in the studio with young dancers. I felt of sense of joy and excitement and humor. I absolutely love teaching.”
Graciani's life then proceeded on a dual track as teacher and dancer, including with the Joe Goode Performance Group.
“My sense of him is that he can kind of do anything he sets his mind to,” says Liz Burritt, a former dancer and rehearsal director with Goode.
“He's one of those people who believes and makes things happen,” Burritt says. “Sometimes, people like that don't mesh well as company members, (but) Ruben knew when to make his voice heard and when to learn, when to be the student. He's an extremely organized individual who has the ability to hold a million details in his head and is really facile about going back and forth.”
At the same time, he was a tenure-track assistant professor at Ohio University's School of Dance in Athens, Ohio. In 2008, he joined the faculty of Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., and had just gotten tenure at Skidmore when he saw the advertisement for Point Park.
“I never had the experience of working with conservatory dancers. They're a little behind the times, in my experience, so steeped in tradition,” Graciani says. “So, the opportunity to take a conservatory and help move it forward — finding ways for students to be successful in the dance world, which is really different from five, 10 and especially 20 years ago — is what I wanted to work for.”
Graciani feels there were many more opportunities for young dancers in the past, increasing the importance of versatility today.
“As dancers, we were always hustling, but there's less stability now,” he says. “You have to be creative about how you create opportunities for yourself.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.