QUEENS TO BRUSSELS --A DANCER’S ODYSSEY
When Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century returns to UCLA tonight after a nine-year absence, local balletomanes will notice one highly familiar face: Ronald Perry, Bejart’s black prince from Queens.
As a teen-ager, Perry danced major roles here with Dance Theatre of Harlem from the early ‘70s, growing with that company into a compelling, versatile artist. But after briefly languishing in American Ballet Theatre--arguably wasted in such assignments as the non-dancing High Brahmin in “La Bayadere"--he left to join the Brussels-based Bejart company. That was a year and a half ago, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“My home is in Brussels,” he declares in a break between rehearsals. “I’m very happy there. I like being in an environment that’s a lot less tense than New York. Brussels is so slow, you can work there and still have time to go out, be with people, laugh and play.”
When asked about Ballet Theatre, Perry acknowledges the pressures of being the only black in the company and admits that “it was difficult for them to accept me because there was a new director (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and he didn’t want to make any mistakes.”
He is reluctant, however, to blame racism for his disappointing experience with that company: “I really don’t like to think that way,” he insists. “It may be a biased attitude toward the problems blacks have in ballet, but since I was raised in Dance Theatre of Harlem on a very positive note, I try to keep that, no matter what.”
Instead, he partly blames his own inexperience and attitude at the time: “I was with Dance Theatre of Harlem for almost 11 years and there were certain kinds of career adjustments that I never really made. It was a shock to be on my own, having to do for myself. And it was those kinds of things that developed problems in my head that developed problems in my body--problems everywhere.”
During the five-performance UCLA engagement, Perry dances everything from the neoclassical “Concerto in Re” (opposite Shonach Mirk) to the steamy “Love and Death” pas de deux (opposite Gil Roman), and says he finds the range of roles offered him extremely satisfying.
“In Dance Theatre of Harlem I got to do everything,” he explains. “I was pushed not only as a dancer but as an actor too. I felt I made a step backward with Ballet Theatre, but with Bejart I believe I’m again using everything I was taught.”
At 29, he is a seasoned, articulate professional, extremely soft-spoken and unusually self-deprecating, especially on the subject of his stage presence. “In Harlem, I was a dancer with no face,” he recalls ironically. “All I wanted to do was the steps. Teachers and coaches said to me, ‘You have more. People want to see it. They like you. What’s your problem?’
“They knew I could be playful or dramatic, but as soon as I got on stage, I would close off--and I never understood why. Finally, they had to pull it out of me.”
Soon, Perry was devouring the most flamboyant roles of the Harlem repertory--including the outrageous Snake in Arthur Mitchell’s “Manifestations” and a version of the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” in which he combined technical brilliance with irresistible mock-heroic swagger.
Still, he found he had to prove himself again in Brussels. “When I joined the Bejart company, I learned everything very quickly--in a month,” he explains, “and I cut off everything and just tried to take in what was being given. So they felt zero emotion from me.”
When Bejart choreographed “Messe pour le temps futur,” he created a pas de deux for Mirk and Perry--a duet Perry describes as “totally devoid of emotion because that’s what he felt from me at the time. And I thought, ‘I really have to change this.’
“So when he did the ballet ‘Notre Faust,’ which is a lot of fire, he had a dancer work with me, because they had never seen me do ‘Le Corsaire’ and thought I was faceless.” They soon learned that he wasn’t.
“Notre Faust” brought Perry another breakthrough: He had to speak onstage for the first time, and in French, a task he found traumatic but liberating. “I’ve always been afraid to use my voice,” he reveals, “and I chose dance (as a career) because I wouldn’t have to do anything verbal. But I did it and that was a fantastic feeling for me. ‘This is sensational,’ I thought afterward--'sensational!’ ”