Gay choreographer Kenneth von Heidecke gives movement to the classical canon’s most balletic opera
GREGORY SULLIVAN ISAACS | Contributing Writer
The first impression Kenneth von Heidecke makes is that he looks and moves like a dancer. He is tall and slender and — while a few months shy of his 60th birthday — is obviously very fit under his jeans and T-shirt. As an openly gay man in the world of dance, on Heidecke has always been very comfortable in his own skin. It is not surprising that he gets many admiring glances from both sexes. He is handsome and lithe with a naturalness that is disarming. And while his career as an internationally renowned dancer ended after a tragic mid-air collision with another dancer in 1981, leaving him with a slight but noticeable limp, von Heidecke has maintained his conditioning.
Not one to let anything stand in his way, von Heidecke quickly picked himself up and moved on without any noticeable bitterness about the accident that changed his life. After difficult years of rehab, he turned to choreography and teaching, quickly returning to the top echelon of the world of dance.
That second career has brought him to Dallas to choreograph the dance segments in the Dallas Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s blockbuster opera Aida, which opens Friday.
Back when he was a dancer, he was a soloist for the likes of the legendary George Balanchine and a protégé of Native American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. As a choreographer, he has made a name for himself mostly in the world of opera ballet although he also works in the world of Nutcrackers and Cinderellas, working with some of the best names in classical music.
But his most unexpected student has nothing to do with opera or ballet. Not even the arts per se: He has coached Olympic gold medalist and world champion figure skater Evan Lysacek.
“There are 10 world-class skaters in my ballet studio right now,” von Heidecke says, a hint of bemusement sneaking into his voice. “Ballet training has always been popular for athletes — more so recently. However, they get the same standard ballet training as those wanting to be dancers. How they apply it is up to them.”
Ice skaters and highly placed students aside, von Heidecke is looking forward to creating dances for stage director Garnett Bruce for the current production of Aida — and for his long overdue return to Dallas.
“In the early days, I was here quite a lot, but I think it has been about five years since I have been back,” he says. “I am also eager to work in the beautiful new Winspear Opera House and to work with [music director] Graeme Jenkins again.”
Working on the dance side of an art form known for its vocal and orchestra primacy may seem like a less-than-fulfilling function for a choreographer or von Heidecke’s repute, but nothing could be further from his mind. He loves the interplay.
“The conductor is critical to ballet since the dancers have to obey the rules of gravity,” he say with a laugh. “Ballet conductors understand this on a gut level, but opera conductors are different. Some do and some don’t. Graeme is one who does. He has a great feel for the tempo of dance. We had a conversation about tempo some time ago and he is really consistent about it now that we are here. On top of that, unlike some other conductors, Graeme will be at the dance piano rehearsals so we can work out the final details together.”
Among the great operas, Aida is one of the most dance-filled, which always presents a challenge for von Heidecke.
“This is an opera that I have choreographed many times before. It is the only opera for which Verdi wrote actual ballet music as an integral part of the score — his other ballet sequences were always add-ons and written later to please the ballet-loving Paris audiences,” he says. “There are about 15 or more minutes of dance in this opera, which is a lot for an opera. Best of all, the dance sequences are really integral to creating the atmosphere of ancient Egypt. I also create movement for the ‘Triumphal March,’ which is probably the best known music in the score.”
In addition to long-term relationship with the Dallas Opera, von Heidecke creates dances for major opera companies, such as the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. That has kept him on the road for much of his career. While he loves the work, he is a little wistful about the string of hotel rooms his itinerant career requires. “It is hard always to be somewhere else all of the time other than home. This last year, I literally traveled around the world.”
This past year, that lifestyle struck home in a profound way. Tragically, his longtime partner passed away last December.
“It is still pretty raw and hard for me to talk about,” he says. “But I stay busy and that helps. I was on the road for a lot of our time together, but I always could call him and I knew he was there for me. It is very hard.”
Work has been his solace and Dallas is pleased to welcome him back. “Aida is a spectacular opera, maybe one of the most spectacular in the repertoire,” he says. “I love to work on it, and I love to watch it … even if it is not my choreography. Here in Dallas, this is a great cast, a fine conductor and stage director, and a beautiful production. I am very proud of what you will see on the stage when it opens, not just my 15 minutes of fame.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 26, 2012.