In the world of ballet, no one knows how to handle a woman better than principal dancer Jock Soto, New York City Ballet's man of steel with the magic touch, who, at age 40 and in his 25th year with the Company, is calling it quits.
When it comes to partnering, Mr. Soto has no equal. Ballerinas fearlessly fling themselves into his arms, fly over his head, and spin with abandon at his touch; they confidently respond to his capable hands as he twists and folds their limbs like pretzels, and shapes their bodies into origami-like sculptures.
Mr. Soto is strikingly handsome and solidly built with broad shoulders, speed-skater thighs, and beautiful hands as sensitive and elegant as a concert pianist's. His unequalled gift for partnering, enhanced by his impeccable musicality, athleticism, and a willingness to try anything, inspires and enables choreographers to stretch and refine what is possible. He is the catalyst that has elevated the art of the pas de deux to new heights. Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief of NYCB, who has choreographed more ballets on Mr. Soto than on any other dancer, says, "Jock opened up a whole new world of possibilities for choreographers‹myself included‹to go where no one had gone before. This guy can do anything. He has no limits."
Principal dancer Wendy Whelan, his most frequent partner in recent years, sums it up: "Jock is the stone that choreographers chip at‹the raw material. They give the idea to Jock, and he shapes and sculpts and makes it happen. He always delivers."
Mr. Soto was born in Gallup, New Mexico, to a Navajo mother and Puerto Rican father. His natural agility surfaced at age five, when he was performing intricate Navajo hoop dances taught to him by his mother, and he caught the ballet bug after seeing Edward Villella perform the Rubies section of Jewels on television. When the Soto family moved to Phoenix, Jock, at six years of age, started dance training at Ballet Arizona. At age 11, he spent the summer at the School of American Ballet‹official training ground of NYCB. By 13 he had a full scholarship at the prestigious institution, where he honed his talent under the watchful eyes of the distinguished faculty, especially Stanley Williams. Two years later, Mr. Martins, then principal dancer and fledgling choreographer, struck by Mr. Soto's handsome, exotic looks and prodigious talent, cast him as the lead in The Magic Flute, a ballet he choreographed for the SAB annual spring Workshop Performances. George Balanchine, though quite ill at the time, noted Mr. Soto's enormous talent and invited him to join the Company in 1981. He had just turned 16.
Plucked from the corps de ballet, Mr. Soto made his NYCB debut in the same ballet, The Magic Flute, as a last-minute replacement, dancing with the dazzling principal dancer Darci Kistler. The New York Times praised Mr. Soto's "dream of a performance" and his "technical gifts," and expressed amazement that "he never seems to push or strain."
Mr. Soto was a natural from the start. Though he never had the ideal ballet body‹the long-legged, wasp-waisted physique‹he made up for it with focused intelligence, musicality, speed, and a lofty jump. He could whip off 10 pirouettes when he was a kid; of double assemblé, a particularly challenging jump, Mr. Martins says, "I showed him once, and he did it on the first try." Mr. Soto, a quick study, absorbed new ballets like the proverbial sponge and advanced quickly through the ranks, becoming a soloist in 1984 and, a year later, principal dancer. He was only 20.
Mr. Martins also quickly discovered the dancer's uncanny knack for partnering and cast him with Heather Watts, who, eleven years Mr. Soto's senior, was at the peak of her career and a bit reluctant to dance with a neophyte. But, she says, her doubts quickly vanished: "It wasn't an instant connection, but close. I felt so safe, so free with Jock." The two forged a legendary partnership. Mr. Martins created 12 ballets for the pair and initiated the edgy, body-conscious duet; a prime example is the 1987 ballet Ecstatic Orange. Mr. Soto says, "It was such a new type of pas de deux. We kept working and working so that Heather and I became like one body. That was the beginning of a new era that was happening in dance.… Peter was taking partnering into the future. He was following Balanchine's tradition, but to the next level."
But when Ms. Watts retired, in 1995, Mr. Soto hit a low point in his career. Though he danced with other partners and performed an immense Balanchine repertory, he missed the unique dynamic he had with Ms. Watts. "I was sort of lost after Heather retired," he says. "I felt like half of my body had left me." At the same time, Mr. Soto, one of the most durable dancers at City Ballet, sustained a series of injuries that sidelined him for a year. He seriously considered retiring. With help from Wendy Whelan, who became his regular partner, he reinvented himself and recaptured his joy of dancing. Together, they developed a comfort level in high-intensity ballets, such as Jerome Robbins' The Cage, that sparked new excitement in audiences.
Over the years Mr. Soto's partnering skills tended to overshadow his all-around brilliance as a dancer, so it was gratifying when Lynne Taylor-Corbett came to choreograph Chiaroscuro in 1994. After several rehearsals, it dawned on Mr. Soto that she was making the ballet for him. He says, "She thought of me as a dancer who could do everything."
Jerome Robbins too saw the dancer in a different light when he cast him in the bravado role of Bernardo in West Side Story Suite. Ms. Watts remembers Robbins telling her, "You are going to be proud of your boy."
In recent years, Christopher Wheeldon, NYCB's Resident Choreographer, has further energized Mr. Soto's career, creating roles for him in seven ballets, including four in partnership with Ms. Whelan. The relationship has proved remarkably productive for all parties. It was at Mr. Soto's suggestion that Mr. Wheeldon, whose forte had been romantic theme ballets, first began to explore a contemporary dance aesthetic. He confesses, "It was a scary experience for me." But working with Ms. Whelan and Mr. Soto in this stripped-down manner produced the groundbreaking Polyphonia in 2001. To Mr. Wheeldon, Mr. Soto is the collaborator and facilitator: "With Jock, you walk into a room and know that here is a man who is going to not only do whatever you ask, but most likely do it much better."
The secret of Mr. Soto's partnering, apart from pure instinct, lies in his inherent strength and his ability to maneuver and leverage his partners with his whole body‹his legs, his thighs, hips, and back‹a technique he learned from Mr. Martins and expanded and refined himself. Mr. Soto says, "Dancing with Heather for many years, I learned how to get her into her positions, and I did the same with Wendy. I wasn't worried about my positions."
Ms. Whelan says, "Jock is one of the most generous souls I've ever met. You can give him any girl on any level, and he does not think about himself, he thinks about his connection… about whoever he is partnering."
Over 30 ballets have been created on Mr. Soto‹possibly more than on any other dancer in NYCB's history. Mr. Soto says, "One of my favorite things is to go into a room and be choreographed on because it becomes a collaboration. You are working together and making up new shapes and ideas."
Mr. Soto is looking forward to retirement, when he can pursue other interests, particularly cooking; he's hoping to open a restaurant. He will also increase his schedule at SAB, where he teaches advanced adagio and men's classes. He says it will be hard to leave the New York State Theater, which has been his second home, but he does admit, "My body is not going to miss it." In order to get ready for performances these days, Mr. Soto works out with two trainers, goes to a chiropractor, takes barre, and rehearses.
For his final performance on Sunday, June 19, Mr. Soto will dance in five ballets, each by a different choreographer, including the tour-de-force solo from Balanchine's Union Jack. The special program showcases his versatility and serves as an appropriate finale to his illustrious career. Though he jokes about a wheelchair waiting in the wings to cart him away, Mr. Soto clearly takes great pride in exiting at the top of his game.
He leaves quite a legacy. When it comes to partnering, Mr. Soto has bridged the gap between the Balanchine era and the 21st century. How good a partner is he? Mr. Wheeldon puts it best: "If 12 women jumped from the tenth floor of a burning building, Jock would catch them all."
Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine and the dance editor of Show Business Weekly.