Ann Arborite Gregory George
Carpenter and ballet dancer
Gregory George was doing carpentry work at a friend's house when the friend's college-age son walked in. "He knew that I danced, but he didn't know I knew how to build a house, and he [had never seen] me with a tool belt on," recalls George. "He drew a character of me with a tutu on and a tool belt over it." And that's how George became known as the "dancer with the tool belt."
When George was six, his father took him to see Rudolf Nureyev in Sleeping Beauty at the Detroit Opera House. Afterward, George announced that he wanted to be a dancer. His father, an engineer at General Motors who briefly played violin for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and his mother, a homemaker, were supportive. Though his peers in elementary school in the Detroit suburb of Wayne taunted him as a "mama's boy" and called him a "fairy," George stuck to his dancing.
As a teenager, things got easier. "I went to a teen dance, and I could move really well, and the girls really appreciated that. And the guys thought, maybe that's not so bad," he recalls. It also helped that he was a good athlete who could throw a football as well as land a mean pirouette.
Now fifty-three, divorced, and the father of a sixteen-year-old Huron High student, Gabby, George says matter-of-factly: "The ballet world is full of gay men. I'm just not one of them." Handsome, with a small muscular frame and longish hair, George directs the Children's Ballet Theatre of Michigan in Lansing and is a freelance choreographer. A former principal with the Ohio Ballet in Akron and the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, he's optimistically planning a bold new project: starting an adult professional ballet company in Ann Arbor. All this in addition to his construction work with Washtenaw Woodwrights.
George learned carpentry as a young man while attending the former Chicago Ballet School on a scholarship. Learning that ballet companies typically pay
their dancers just thirty-five weeks a year, he recalls asking himself, "How am I going to get a job to supplement my income without taking too much from dancing?" He started as a carpenter's assistant, learning the trade from watching others.
Attention to aesthetics is an asset in both his careers, he says. And teaching dance to children taught him the patience he needed to work with adults on remodeling jobs. "You have to control the way you say things so it doesn't come across negatively--and take their negative thoughts and turn them around to a positive."
Both jobs demand constant awareness of his body movements. "I might have to lift a lot of heavy materials or be on a roof, so I really have to pay attention," he says. "With dancing, I might get a back injury from lifting girls. As I'm getting older and I get closer to shows, [the risk of injury] gets a little nerve-racking."
George sees his Great Lakes Contemporary Ballet Company as the culmination of his dance career. He figures he'll need about half a million dollars to launch the group--huge, in today's economy. But he exudes confidence. "I'm a pretty gifted choreographer, and I can do any ballet--and because of that I'm not afraid to take on bigger projects." He's counting on corporate benefactors, patrons, and a teaching academy to bring in funds.
When it is pointed out that the city's best-known dancer, U-M professor Peter Sparling, had to close his company in 2008, George emphasizes that his group will have a much lower overhead. "I want to weave my way into the community with respect and collaboration," he says, noting the competitive nature of local fund-raising. "I'm starting with about six dancers. I don't want to grow too fast too big and step on too many toes." He plans to draw dancers from the University of Michigan and other dance companies for larger productions and hopes to mount his first show by this summer.
"Greg's work speaks for itself," says Michael Chan, one of the company's four board members. "Funding is scarce, but there are performing arts aficionados out there that are willing to support him."
At a recent class for his adult dancers in a rented studio space on Plaza Drive, George cues up music by Fiona Apple--not your typical ballet score. He takes the all-female group through a graceful, traditional barre warm-up, then switches the music to a rollicking upbeat tempo played at nightclub volume. Demonstrating quick, contemporary ballet footwork, he conveys both playfulness and seriousness as he leads the students through several vignettes of advanced moves. "Isn't that fun?" he says with a big smile.
[Originally published in March, 2010.]