He played football, volleyball and he wrestled. He studied business at Cal Poly Pomona and was expected to go into the family import-export firm. But as he neared graduation, Johnny Tu, on a dare from a girlfriend, jumped into a modern dance class.
"It was humiliating," Tu remembers. "None of my experiences in terms of the physical abilities I'd accumulated in sports did me any good in class."
But from those beginnings in 1994, Tu, now 31, has become one of the most in-demand concert dancers in Los Angeles. If you've been at any of the city's usual dance venues -- Highways, the Skirball Center or California Plaza -- you'll likely recognize his shaved head and his beautiful line. He seems to dance from an "inner imperative," wrote The Times' Lewis Segal in one review.
Just last fall, Tu danced for Rosanna Gamson/World Wide at Highways, and within weeks was back again, with Cid Pearlman's Nesting Dolls. Returning to the same venue last month, Tu danced in a number choreographed by Maria Gillespie, a member of Helios who also teaches dance in Santa Monica and at UCLA.
This week he's not only dancing in a new World Wide piece, "Two Views (An Urban Ocean Has 29 Eyes)," he's credited as the associate choreographer on the project.
Skirball Cultural Center's program director, Jordan Peimer, recalls sitting on a grants panel last summer looking at videotapes. "There were half a dozen people applying for choreographic grants. They all included Johnny in their pieces.... He brings out the different 'bests' in each choreographer."
"I believe in L.A. and I believe that modern dance work here is at a critical mass point, where you'll see a lot of things happening," says Tu, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Fullerton from age 7. "My heritage is Los Angeles, and this thin slice of the L.A. modern dance community is where I've gotten everything."
Bumps in the road
Tu cites curiosity and fascination -- and encouragement from a teacher who saw potential despite his klutziness -- as the reasons he stayed with dance after that first class. In 1995, business B.A. in hand, he landed a marketing job, but he also joined the now-defunct Los Angeles Mexican Dance Theatre, soaking up a variety of moves from ballet to folklorico.
During that time Tu had to have sports-related reconstructive knee surgery, but in 1997 he was fit enough to dance with Bridge Dance Theatre. Phyllis Douglass, Bridge's artistic director, had been one of Tu's dance professors at Cal Poly. His first performance was at Highways in Santa Monica, and, in short order, Tu accumulated some savings, traded his full-time job for part-time work and stayed put at his parents' home, all so he could dance.
"I feared regret much more than I feared failure," explains Tu. "I laid out a three-year plan. I didn't have as much technique as I should, but if I didn't try dancing, I would regret it for the rest of my life."
In L.A., few companies can keep dancers employed beyond a few performances a year, so Tu has always had to move from one ensemble to the next. He honed his craft with Tongue, under the direction of Stephanie Gilliland; Winifred Harris' Between Lines; and Rosanna Gamson/World Wide.
During the 1999-2000 season, he did a stint with Loretta Livingston and Dancers for which he was paid a salary, but his three-year plan had to include plenty of odd jobs as well as dancing. At one point, Tu says he was clocking about 100 hours a week, between working the counter at Kinko's, pouring java in a coffeehouse and rehearsing.
But the financial pressures finally got to him. Tu needed the stability of a weekly paycheck, and in 2000 he began working in the marketing department at Grand Performances, which presents a summer schedule of music and dance at downtown's California Plaza. Tu is probably the only employee who ever worked for the series by day and danced at the Watercourt by night. He's certainly the only one to have been nominated for a Lester Horton Award for outstanding individual performance (Loretta Livingston's "Dances for White Rooms"), in 2001.
Last August, however, after Tu hooked up with choreographer David Rousseve for a project that took him to New York for three weeks, he decided to try to dance full time. "Grand Performances was encouraging and flexible," says Tu, "but my dance work was conflicting with their needs. I also needed to get out of the office, because my body was starting to go."
The rush of performances in the fall helped cement his decision, but it's the Gamson/World Wide project that is his biggest since going full time. "Two Views" is a 45-minute, 13-part dance theater piece that was designed in part to be a piece that "Johnny could really shine in," says Gamson.
"It's the first time I've had an associate choreographer," she says. "The three solos that he does are his choreography and, if anything, my coaching. In his dancing, he has a very particular sense of timing -- he seems to hang in the air."
The work was inspired by Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," and "The Pillow Book," written by Sei Shonagun, a lady of the 11th century Japanese court. Its themes are the struggle for power, and, says Gamson, it also reflects the creator-muse relationship.
Tu's future projects include a three-month gig in Taiwan and a possible project in England with L.A. choreographer Bode Lawal. Pearlman wanted him to dance with her company when it goes to San Francisco in July, but his schedule won't allow it.
She considers him a major asset for her company and others in L.A., in part because of the way he eats and breathes dance.
"I think Johnny lives for rehearsal and for dancing," Pearlman says. "The times in between, he's waiting to dance and waiting to rehearse."
"I'm very invigorated creatively when I'm working with other artists," Tu says, explaining his focus. "But the real heart of this genre is done when you're alone -- in your mind, with yourself. - After the rehearsal, after the hustle and bustle, you're driving around, your mind clears, you see images.
"My only wish," he adds in a quiet, measured voice, "is for Los Angeles to really take off and have a good strong voice in dance -- nationally and internationally. It'll happen."
'Two Views (An Urban Ocean Has 29 Eyes)'
Who: Rosanna Gamson/World Wide
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., L.A.
Contact: (213) 680-3700