There are people in this world who say they can’t dance, and there are people in this world who both say they can’t dance and, truly, cannot dance.
I am such a person.
My feet are both left. My elbows jet out at odd angles. I am completely tone deaf, whether the radio is playing Sinatra, Tupac or Dan Zanes. If I’m not the worst dancer in the history of the United States, it’s only because my father exists, too.
Hence, when people can dance, I am insanely jealous. And when they can dance like Craig Salstein, well, words can’t describe my level of envy.
Along with being a good guy and an excellent interview, Craig Salstein is one of the world’s elite ballet dancers. He is a soloist with the New York City-based American Ballet Theatre, which—for those of you not in the know (a group that includes, ahem, me)—is akin to starting for the New York Yankees or Green Bay Packers. Here, Craig discusses his mid-90s Star Search victory, the tug of Taco Bell, why the Nutcracker still matters and why it’s only natural to think of your grocery list while soaring through midair.
Craig Salstein, strut your stuff, Quaz style …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Craig, I’m gonna start this with 100-percent honesty: Ballet has never interested me. I go, I sit there, I inevitably get sorta bored. That said, I have an open mind. What am I missing? What should I be paying closest attention to? What’s the best way for someone like me to develop a love and appreciation for what is, clearly, such a magical medium?
CRAIG SALSTEIN: Look, ballet is not for everybody—just like opera, symphony, Shakespeare, musicals and museums are not for everybody. However, they share qualities that have been known to motivate and inspire. Expressing any thought or emotion through voice, instrument, language and body is a unique experience for both doer and observer. I am sorry ballet bores you. The next time you watch ballet just keep in mind there is great sacrifice, suffering, dedication and discipline from the artist that is holding, or trying to hold your attention.
Also, it doesn’t insult me that you’re bored. Believe me, I understand. You’re sitting there in a seat, watching something you’re not overly familiar with. But it can be incredibly exciting, and if you know somebody who’s in the ballet and who has a good role, and you can point to the stage and say, “I know that person!”—it’s terrific. There are times when I find ballet to be boring. But I go because you learn, and you experience, and why would anyone turn that down?
J.P.: You’re a native Floridian who began his training at the Ballet Academy of Miami … at age 8. Age 8!? Crazy. Then you won Star Search in 1995 at age 12. What’s your path to the here and now?
C.S.: I’m from Miami—Born, raised. In a way, winning Star Search was the start of my career. But in a way it wasn’t—it was everything that led up to Star Search. I started dancing when i was young, but it wasn’t all ballet. I took ballet, but that wasn’t all. My first teacher was actually Mia Michaels, who’s now one of the judges on So You Think You Can Dance. I was focussed on jazz. Then, after Star Search I auditioned for Broadway shows—tons and tons of Broadway shows. But I never got one. Not a single one. I’ve still never been on Broadway. So after that … I thought, “Well, I can’t sing. Let me try focussing on ballet. Let’s see what I can do with it.” It’s not like I had this amazingly noteworthy background—in Miami I attended a place called the Gulliver Preparatory School with all the gentiles and Wasps. I say that because I’m Jewish, and it felt very weird inviting these kids to my Bar Mitzvah. I left school at a very young age and got a job at 16 with the Miami City Ballet. That was my first job—I went from the school of the Miami City Ballet to the company of the Miami City Ballet. Then, when I was 17, I left, by myself, for New York to come to the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. I came by myself because i had no choice—I wanted to dance, and it was the place to be. If you’re ready you’re ready, and i felt ready. I was there for two years in the studio company, then in 2007 I was promoted to the main company—it’s like going from college football to the NFL. I loved every second of it, because there’s such a comradery among American Ballet Theatre people. Now I teach for the main company, and I’ve been with the company for 12 years.
J.P.: I’ve always imagined Ed McMahon smelled like graham crackers. True? And what do you recall of Star Search? Did you snag some sort of actual prize? A trophy? A goblet?
C.S.: I remember at Star Search really wanting to see and meet Ed McMahon. Most of my parents’ generation watched he and Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and spoke highly of him. I knew he was special and he was the host. His presence was grand but his grip was really tight when he shook hands. He was also an ex-Marine, a tough guy. I won money and doubled it since I was in the Screen Actors Guild at the time.
What do I remember? Well, for the title I was against five little boys who also danced. I certainly didn’t know I’d win. The videotape my mother prides on having and shows her friends … if you watch it, I look pretty surprised. Something funny—for that job, Ed had to say a lot of names on TV. A lot of names. And he had trouble saying my last name. He messed it up a lot. So at the moment they announced that I’d won, they flipped a cue card and it said the winner is “Craig—” and they spelled my last name out for Ed, phonetically. S-O-U-L-S-T-E-E-N. I was joyful and elated, but the first thing that entered my mind was that card.
J.P.: Did that victory change your life?
C.S.: Mmm … maybe. It’s a conversation. I guess it has something to do with me being here. In some way.
J.P.: Do you still love ballet? Like, after all these years, does the passion remain?
C.S.: I continue to have an underlying love for it, and I’m sure I always will. But it can be a love-hate relationship. It can overwhelm you at times—the reality part of it, and the part in your head. The ambitions and the desires and your goals for the future. But there’s stuff you can’t really have a grasp on … can’t begin to imagine until you dive in. It can be really hard—physically, emotionally, mentally. I mean, ballet is my life. It’s like joining the priesthood and making that commitment. Again, it can be hard. There are so many misunderstandings in the ballet world—10 times more than the real world.
And the worst part—the hardest part—might be the physical. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so it’s my cheat day and hopefully I’ll have a slice of pumpkin pie. But that never happens. You either stay in shape, or you don’t do this. It’s sacrifice central on the eating front. I’ve craved Taco Bell and Wendy’s for the last 10 years … well, not really. But i do crave foods. And if you’re wearing tights for a living, you have to look good. So whatever I eat, I have to burn off. Literally, whatever a dancer puts in his mouth has to be accounted for. In this area I am obsessive, because I know of no other way. My brain says to my mouth, “Man, those cookies look good.” Then my mouth says, “Don’t touch them, asshole.” The guilt kills me.
J.P.: My son is 5, and the idea of taking ballet … well, he would never consider it. Too pink … too many tutus …
C.S.: That’s very common, and I understand the perception. However, I am a member of American Ballet Theatre, which can be considered the greatest classical ballet company in America. We performed to a jam-packed New York City Center from Tuesday through Sunday, and received standing ovations. We did not wear pink nor were we in tutus. I would tell your son or any boy—there is a lot more to ballet.
J.P.: What are you thinking as you dance on stage? I’m being very serious—what crosses through your mind? Do you need 100-percent focus and concentration, or can you, mid-leap, think to yourself, “I wonder who’s singing on American Idol right now?”
C.S.: My focus is what drives me. When I am on stage I think of steps and executing them. I think of being in the right space at the right time. I think of where I am in the music. I occasionally dance with other people around me so I am conscious of them. Focus plays a big part as does multitasking and rapid thinking and finally a goal. Do the job and do it well.
That said, does the mind wander—shit, of course it does. Things creep in your mind. Dancers use their eyes, and you can’t help but look out into the crowd and think about things. I try to catch myself, but I’m only human. I mean, sometimes it does get boring, and you space a bit. And there are certain ballets that a dancer will do 30 … 40 … 50 times. To always stay in the moment under that sort of repetitiveness is very hard. But it’s the test of professionalism, too.
J.P.: I love the Nutcracker. My daughter loves the Nutcracker. My wife loves the Nutcracker. Do you love the Nutcracker, or is it something you’re tired of?
C.S.: I love it. There is magic in the Nutcracker, no question. Why? Because the music is so enchanting and rich. Tchaikovsky really hit a grand slam with it. Nothing else can belong to that music than the Nutcracker. The snow scene—the music sounds like snow. The Russian Dance is the Russian Dance. Tchaikovsky has a way of capturing you. I mean, look how popular it is—companies do it, high schools do it. We do 29 shows at ABC. It’s a money maker, and while the 15th or 16th time gets old, it really has magic. You see the kids in the audience, and they love it. And kids bring parents, and parents bring family members, and on and on. We’re a non-profit—this gets us money to do other things.
J.P.: You had a leading role in Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison. I don’t really know what that means, but it sounds sorta cool and funky … 800 degrees away from Swan Lake. What can you tell us?
C.S.: The George Harrison Tribute was a dance choreographed by Stanton Welch, Ann Reinking, Natalie Wier and David Parsons. There were six songs. I was in the second and then the sixth, which Welch and Parsons choreographed. During the rehearsal time I remember all of us learning the dances were either miserable or laughing our heads off.
J.P.: The three ballet-related movies I’m most familiar with are “Black Swan,” “White Nights” and “Center Stage.” First, rank the three from a ballet perspective. Second, do films accurately portray ballet? Are they providing a service to your medium, or is it all bullshit? Lastly, if you saw Center Stage—one of the final scenes is a ballet to a Michael Jackson song, “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Whenever that scene comes on, I feel like vomiting. Please help …
C.S.: I’ve seen two of the three—”White Nights” and “Center Stage.” Let me put it to you this way—there’s a scene in “White Nights” where the characters played by Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines are together, and Baryshnikov does 11 pirouettes for 11 rubles. That’s become a line in ballet dressing rooms everywhere—”11 pirouettes, 11 rubles.” That was definitely very difficult and rare, especially at the time. Nowadays it’s a lot more common, and I’ve seen people go beyond 11. But at the time … amazing.
“Center Stage”—I’ve only seen it once or twice. It gave me that uncomfortable feeling. The final scene, with the dance you mentioned … yeah. I don’t recommend mixing two genres like that. It’s been done, but do I think it’s a great idea? No.
J.P.: Back in the 1980s, myriad professional athletes studied ballet in the offseason to help with fitness and flexibility. Willie Gault, Herschel Walker, etc. Is this wise? And would it be accurate to categorize ballet performers as “athletes”?
C.S.: It’s certainly athletic, no doubt about it. Being considered a coordinated individual is a plus in the world. Great hand-eye coordination for hockey, baseball, ping pong and tennis only enhances the game and the people who play it. I think dancers could be considered coordinated so I am pretty sure Herschel Walker knew it would be good to study ballet. Plus it helps with balance. If that is not why he did it, then it was a publicity stunt.
J.P.: What was your greatest moment in ballet? Your absolute worst?
C.S.: You should never ask someone about his greatest moment—especially a performer. Because I’m superstitious, and to talk about the high points means they won’t happen again. Or something. The worst moments? Oh, boy. You don’t know how many things can go wrong, and do. I went to Washington to dance and did the wrong arm once, and I was very, very upset. It was last year, and we were doing a hideous, old-school ballet that hadn’t been done since 1989. I did the wrong arm, and while it’s possible the audience didn’t notice, I noticed—and it upset me. It’s a reflection of my work. All the dancers did one arm, I did the other. I was really mad at myself.
• What would it take for a 6-foot-6, 350-pound man to excel in ballet?: A good, strong core. Patrick Bissell, a dancer who ODed on drugs in the 1980s, was huge—probably 6-foot-6. He was just a gigantic guy. They had him take all the tall roles and dance with the heavy chicks and he always had a bad back. Dancers are compact—I’m 5-foot-9 on a good day.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash. If so, please tell …: Well, yeah. Coming back from Japan once it was really bumpy. But someone said to me that plane crashes aren’t caused by turbulence. I hope that’s true.
• Any interest in the Celine Dion Ballet Experience?: No. It would a bit self-indulgent. She always seems to hit herself a lot when she sings, almost like a disorder. Plus, that music a little too camp for me.
• Do you ever go out and dance for fun?: Oh, yeah. If you have the coordination to dance well, it’s awesome. It’s leads to attention and conversation.
• Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in 1948. Can a 63-year-old man still dance capably on a high level? Or is it, physically, impossible?: Baryshnikov has got to be one of the greatest dancers of all time. Like Astaire, Kelly, Jackson. I don’t know how he takes care of himself, but I am sure and know he can still deliver the goods as a performer.
• My big idea that can make millions: BalletGolf! You in?: Well, no. I don’t think it will work.
• Rank in order: Usher, Celine Dion, Sarah Palin, Emmanuel Lewis, Josh Hamilton, Maxim Beloserkovsky, your cell phone, Gerald Ford: Funny you should mention Gerald Ford, the man who was able to restore class and decency to the Oval Office. I find Richard NIxon more fascinating, though.
• Favorite curse: Ah, shit.
• Three things you refuse to eat: Here’s four—eel, key lime pie, olives, cottage cheese. Dancers should eat cottage cheese, because there’s so much protein. But I have my limits.
• I’m taking my wife to Miami for her birthday. Where should we eat?: If you like Stone Crabs, you should got to a place in North Miami called Joe’s Stone Crabs.