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By Brett Oppegaard
The Columbian
March 8, 2010


At 5 foot 8, 150 pounds in high school, Franco Nieto realized that he physically just didn’t have the build to be a football player. He did have an athletic body that moved well, though, and when he looked in the mirror, he could picture himself as a professional dancer.

His father, Frank, had coached his football teams for many years, considering his son his “little sports guy,” and the boy, at 16, had concerns that he might be getting a late start as a performer.

Yet Nieto, who only had dabbled in dance and gymnastics at that point, decided anyway to drop football and focus on his potential as a dancer at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.

“I have always had really high goals for myself,” Nieto said, “and my dad always has been the one to teach me, it really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you give it your all.”

Nieto’s ensuing hard work and dedication earned him a spot at one of the nation’s top private dance schools, Point Park University in downtown Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in jazz movement.

Now 23 years old, Nieto moved back to this area over the summer and has been helping the Northwest Dance Project, based in Portland, make the transition from a summer series to a year-round professional company with seven full-time dancers. He will be featured in a variety of pieces this weekend as part of the group’s “Spring Performances,” a show that includes new work from artistic director Sarah Slipper as well as a world premiere by Maurice Causey of Nederlands Dans Theater.


Training touted

Nederlands Dans Theater, one of the most innovative companies in the world, is where Nieto’s classmate Spenser Theberge was hired after graduating from The Juilliard School last year. Another local dancer, Chris Cannon, who also graduated from Point Park, has begun building his résumé in various musical theater productions on the East Coast.

In terms of developing professional male dancers, this has been an unprecedented crop for Clark County, reflecting well on the training opportunities in the area, including the growth of Vancouver’s Columbia Dance, where Nieto and Theberge both studied.

Jan Asai, executive director of Columbia Dance, acknowledged that the company didn’t have a single boy enrolled in classes during most of the 1990s, and attracting and retaining boys, especially those in the early teenage years, remains a challenge.

Yet by carefully nurturing and supporting male students — a focus by the local company that reflects broader efforts in the field — that culture gradually has been changing. Columbia Dance this year, for example, has more boys enrolled than ever before in its history, at least one in all eight of its class levels, and Asai attributes at least part of that growth to the ground broken by Theberge and Nieto.

She said, “It starts by younger boys coming to performances and seeing older boys, then seeing them again in the classes. We just try to make it very comfortable for boys here.”

Nieto says the training in this area, when compared with what he now has experienced nationally, is uncommonly good, particularly in the sense that it stresses versatility.

“In dance today, it’s really hard to be just a ballet dancer, or to do just jazz or modern. You have to be able to do all of those.”

He still comes back most to the advice given to him by dance instructor Fern Tresvan at the arts school: “You have to be a blank slate for any choreographer. Whatever the choreographer wants, you have to try to give that. There might be certain things you know you can do better. So you try to do what they want but try to interpret what you want, too.”

Since high school, Nieto has shaved his head, which, he says, gives him more of an “ethnic look, more of a clean look, and it gives more of a focus on my body, rather than what my hair is all about.”

Nieto has taught a couple of dance classes in Vancouver since his return to the area. That has given him a chance to reconnect with some of the boys who were little kids when he left for college but now are following in his footsteps at the arts school and Columbia Dance.

Nieto said, “They are growing up, becoming men. And they still are dancing. They are not giving up.”

He added, “I hope I was able to show them, as a role model, that you don’t have to start dancing at a young age. The fact is, most guy dancers don’t start until they are older. You also don’t have to be embarrassed about dancing. It doesn’t have to be delicate and pretty all of the time. A lot of dance is athletic, and contemporary choreography is gutsy. No matter what, though, I’m going to be me. I’m going to be a dancer. This is who I am.”


Copyright 2010

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