Joseph Gordon has been dancing his entire life. Dance was at once a sanctuary of discipline and a home away from home in his early childhood. Now, at 28, he is the youngest principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, defying many who long feared he was too small to succeed in the extremely competitive field. Then came the year 2020.
With COVID-19 on the doorstep of New York City, the company was forced to cancel a year’s worth of live performances. Like many in the performing arts, this was likely the first time dancers’ physically jam-packed schedules were thrown amuck. Suddenly, daily rehearsals, which often last upwards of seven hours, plus an evening performance, were canceled.
What few performances remained in their traveling schedule were also canceled as the year progressed. Now with a vaccine in sight, things are looking a bit brighter. We spoke with Joseph Gordon on his incredible unfolding career, life as a ballet dancer in a pandemic, and, yes, even his thoughts on the wildly popular dancing app, TikTok.
Mark Benjamin: I don’t know anything about dance, but I did read your New York Times profile. You’re from Arizona. That’s where you grew up. You pursued dance at a young age and then moved to New York. What was your motivation to get out of Arizona?
Joseph Gordon: Because dancing can be such a short career, if you have the talent, you have to jump on it when you’re young. I realized this around 12 years old, and it was my ticket out of a turbulent home.
MB: What was going on in Arizona?
JG: My father had passed away when I was about nine, and a year or two later, my mom just couldn’t keep it together. She struggled. We would go through periods of stability and then a lot of instability. I just wanted to run away.
“As a dancer, this sense of constantly auditioning for something or proving yourself never ends.”
MB: Was dance always on your radar? Was there a moment when you first became intrigued?
JG: I first experienced dance going to The Nutcracker as a kid. I was sort of entranced by it. Apparently, I don’t remember this, but I stood up during the performance and mimicked the dancers, and so my mom put me in this little dance school around the corner from my house. I was totally obsessed with it. I felt it was the most beautiful representation of the human form.
Quickly, my parents observed that I had a passion for dance, so they would bring me tapes of Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and these Russian luminary dancers. I was totally obsessed with it.
It took over my life in a great way. It gave me a lot of structure when I needed it, which I didn’t love at first. When you’re a kid, you just want to run around in the studio and have fun and do tricks and jumps and turns. But ballet is a lot of standing at the bar and doing the position and going through the regiments everyday. So, I definitely struggled with that but it eventually gave me a lot of discipline in my life.
MB: You’re an underdog of sorts. I read people thought you were too scrawny to make it big time. When you’re young and growing up, especially as a teenager with self doubt, and you’re not sure where you’re going to go, or if you’re actually going to be able to accomplish what you want, it’s scary, right. Did you have a lot of those fears growing up?
JG: Part of dancing, too, is that you’re constantly picking yourself apart. It’s hard to grow confidence when you’re always looking for imperfections. Additionally, I had anxiety about my bone size which was two years behind my age group. I was really worried about growing tall enough to make a career in ballet but eventually I hit my growth spurt. However, there were a lot of moments filled with self doubt such as whether or not I was going to make it into the New York City Ballet. As a dancer, this sense of constantly auditioning for something or proving yourself never ends.
MB: So, you’re sitting there wondering about your physical body being able to qualify but then you’re also wondering am I going to be able to perform well enough, too, right?
JG: Ballet is equally strenuous, mentally and physically. You have to have discipline and spirit. I struggled when I came to New York because I was a teenager and wanted to hang out with my friends sometimes, instead of going to class. The tension of wanting to be a kid and having dedicated my life so early to ballet…those sacrifices were necessary to achieve the things that I wanted to achieve. But there has definitely been a push-pull relationship.
MB: Did your friends understand it?
JG: Once I got into New York City Ballet they were very cognizant and extremely supportive.
MB: I know what you do is very competitive. When does it become less about other people and more about pushing yourself to be more competitive with yourself, or does it?
JG: My sense of competition is always there because I’m a competitive person. Now, as a principal, I feel much more competitive with myself – to push myself to my limits and to always engage in the process of refining.
When you’re in the school, you’re competing to be the best in your class. Then you’re competing to get noticed by the director of the company. Once you enter a company, because its hierarchical, you’re competing to get out of the corps. It’s hard to not let competition take over and damage relationships but it’s also what makes us, everybody in the company so driven.
I think that passing that threshold, the principal dancer, made me feel like I could let go of what other people were doing. I think I’ve always had a handicap of comparing myself to others. And I always remember people telling me, ‘just focus on yourself, you’re on your own journey.’ And that was a hard lesson for me. And it still is, but I think I have a better sense of myself now, and as you get older you learn how to let things go.
MB: When you’re onstage, what is your relationship to the audience and how has it changed over time?
JG: I always have been electrified by it. I’ve always been a natural performer. I’m not a nervous performer. I definitely got nerves when I joined the company. There was the pressure of being in the New York City Ballet and performing in Lincoln Center. As time progresses, that starts to go away.
I want to live every moment onstage to the fullest. My relationship with it has always been like a drug. You know, I crave it. And it’s why I love to dance. It’s honestly the time when you get the most freedom because it’s live. You’re the one driving the chariot, so to speak. You’re in total control and nobody can say stop or nobody can press pause. It’s your moment. That draws me into any kind of live performance: that relationship between audience and performer.
“I think about a great ballet or a great concerto that you would go to see in the moment, I don’t think you get that appreciation from superficial gratification on TikTok.”
MB: There’s no substitute for something live. It must feel strange doing virtual recordings versus with a real audience in the room, right?
JG: It’s just not comparable. It’s not the same. It’s funny because the company has been providing us with Zoom classes in the morning to keep ourselves going and in shape. And I do feel a difference knowing that there’s somebody on a screen looking at me. There is something that makes me stand a little straighter, that makes me work harder. There’s nothing that can substitute a live exchange, whether it’s watching a rock concert or watching the Superbowl halftime show on TV, it’s never going to compare to being there watching The Red Hot Chili Peppers or somebody shred live.
MB: I want to talk to you about young people and dance. TikTok started out as a lip-syncing app and then became a dance app. People like Charli D’amelio start dance trends…Celine even had a collection called “The Dancing Kid.” I wonder what your thoughts are on how technology is changing the way people think of dance? And maybe what that means for such a traditional discipline like ballet.
JG: I think its a good question because tech and other social media platforms are, in some ways, good at exposing people to dance. It’s cool to watch Gen Z make creative videos that are based in a dance vernacular. The issue that I have is this sense that a lot of people are just jumping on it. I find the way it has intersected with ballet to have sort of cheapened an art form that is very mysterious.
When you see somebody who is famous for drinking cranberry juice singing along to Fleetwood Mac it becomes meaningless because the algorithm is constantly pushing you to make the next video…to constantly feed the beast, even though it’s just going to be washed away the next day. When I think about a great ballet or concerto or painting, it is much more enduring. I don’t think you get that appreciation from TikTok but you do get superficial gratification.
It’s really complicated because on TikTok there is a lot of creativity coupled with a lot of banality. Maybe my resistance to it comes from the fact that I don’t want another reason to be on my phone more often. But, I also think content and art are two very different things.
MB: So, what has been canceled in the ballet?
JG: The spring season was canceled immediately last year and then the summer in Saratoga was canceled. Then our fall season got canceled and The Nutcracker got canceled. Then they canceled this full winter and spring. We have five main seasons a year: a fall, winter, the Nutcracker season, spring, and a Saratoga season.
MB: You have a season called The Nutcracker?
JG: We do sixty-five shows in about a month and half. It’s a holiday tradition and a big moneymaker for the company. It was a huge loss for all of us because as performers and dancers that’s our livelihood. Then also there’s this sense of loss time, because when your career is so short, every second counts.
MB: It’s also something that you, and I’m sure everyone else at the company, has put their entire lives into since they were a kid.
JG: It’s been a journey. It’s your identity in so many ways, so to all of a sudden be stripped of that, I think it’s been hard for everybody. It’s been easy to feel aimless, to feel depressed. There’s also something to be said that this is a universal feeling for a lot of people right now, not just for people who are in any type of a performing industry. I think for a lot of people not being able to move through life with a sense of peace is incredibly stifling and for a dancer, we literally move for a living. So, to be crammed up in your apartment, trying to maintain some sense of shape is a nightmare.
Right now, the company is doing a residency in Kaatsbaan with seven dancers and the choreographer, Kyle Abraham. That’s going to be incorporated into our repertory and it’s going to be a part of the virtual winter season that they’re going to be releasing in the coming weeks.
There are things happening. In the summer, we have some performances lined up that I’m dancing in. The company’s doing a small tour that we call Moves tours, which are little chamber groups that we take nationally. We’re going to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Vail, Colorado.
My partner is putting together a ballet extravaganza with the Spoleto festival. We’re doing five shows down in South Carolina that they’re willing to stage outside.
New York City is doing a pop-up arts initiative. Basically, people can be walking around New York City and see a piano performance, or a play happening, or performance art, or some kind of dance piece. Hopefully, with vaccines and new testing by fall, the virus will be under control enough that we could return to the theater.
Interview by Mark Benjamin. Photography by PETER LueDERS.