16 People Who Have Greatly Influenced My Life

I always get on list kicks during the month of December. It's just too much fun making lists to culminate each year. Without apology, I offer you my final post of 2015, which happens to be another list. This year started off great and ended great. It began working with students from one of my favorite communities (Alaskan dancers) and has ended the same way. While I am spending my free time here in Anchorage attempting to see the Aurora Borealis, I am passing the time waiting for them to appear by writing this.

Please enjoy my way of welcoming 2016. In no particular order, here are 16 people who have greatly influenced my life! Enjoy!

My mom with her Husband Jerry
1. Robin Kerollis Napiecek - I mean, come on! What good, gay, jewish mama's boy wouldn't add their mother at the top of this list? OK, maybe I'm not really a mama's boy anymore, but my mom is surely at the top. While she is currently my biggest (and most promoting) fan, she has also been my greatest support since birth. When this little suburban boy of the 1980's wanted nothing other than to dance beside little girls in pink tights, my mom didn't blink an eye to put me in a dance class. Most parents where I am from would have probably deterred their son from taking part. If I showed passion, commitment, or excitement, my mom made sure that she did everything possible to make sure I was fulfilled, even if it meant that she couldn't afford the finer things in life. Now that we are both adults, I succeeded in becoming a professional dancer, and she has improved her quality of living, she is still my number one fan and makes sure that everybody knows it!

2. Larry Rappoldt - The first artist that I met who truly showed me what it is to love your art was this man. At the age of 5, my mom hired Mr. Rapp to teach me how to play the piano. We spent time together nearly every week for 12 years. From weekly piano lessons to joining his middle school concert band, this gentleman inspired me to be passionate about music. I remember the first time I noticed him swaying back and forth as he played a beautiful solo. I asked him if he swayed to match the beat and he responded, "I sway because I feel the music inside my body and it moves me." This moment changed the way I saw music and has probably influenced me more than I realize. I wouldn't be the same dancer, choreographer, or artist if I hadn't worked with this wonderful teacher.

Ms. Kim
3. Kimberly Martin - Ms. Kim (though she is now Mrs.) was my main ballet teacher from the ages of 13 to 17. While she was integral to my training during those years, she has remained an important part of my life. When I was offered the Interim position to direct Alaska Dance Theatre, she was the first person that I called for advice. Kim is a kind, generous person who taught me that you get to choose your family. When I was 16, my mom chose to keep me home after I was asked to attend the Houston Ballet Academy's year round program. I was devastated. Kim stepped up and made sure that my year didn't go to waste. She put a futon in her spare bedroom (over an hour away from my home) and offered me a second home to live on weekends. After her Friday ballet class, I would travel to Wilmington, DE, where Kim gave me private coaching during every available hour that the weekend held. Not only did Ms. Kim let me live with her, she drove me to dozens of summer intensive auditions and helped my family by providing ballet slippers and tights for my training. Still to this day, there are few people I look up to, respect, and appreciate more than Ms. Kim.

Bob Rizzo
4. Bob Rizzo - When I was 15 years old, I was taking a workshop at a suburban Philadelphia studio that featured some guy from New York City who had been on Broadway, produced educational dance videos, and taught on faculty at New York University. While I took his class thinking he was some guy, I quickly learned that he was much more. After taking Bob's workshop, he took special interest in me and showed me that he was not only a spectacular instructor, but a great person and mentor. Over the next few years of my teenage life, Bob flew me to multiple venues to assist him in his workshops, let me stay with him in his Upper West Side apartment, and taught me the ins-and-outs of the New York dance scene. While I didn't end up following the same path that he had been cultivating me to take, Bob played a huge part in inspiring me to become the dancer I am today.

Katrina Killian
5. Katrina Killian - Not every pre-professional student is lucky enough to find a mentor that is wholly invested in their future. Through the School of America Ballet lecture demo series, I found Katrina. After only working with her for a few weeks, this wonderfully energetic woman took me under her wing and made it her mission to make sure that I had a fruitful career. She selflessly poured her heart into my training, guiding me through the challenges and rewards of training at a world-class dance institution.

My Danya!
6. Daniel Loya - I didn't want to put him near the top because mom should always get first mention and he doesn't like the spotlight. But, obviously, my soon to be husband and partner of 10 years grabs a spot on this list. Not only has Dan been my partner in life, but he has been my best friend, my mentor, my guide, and my rock. I can't imagine too many husbands that would willingly support their partner traveling non-stop for over 4 years to let them fulfill their career and dreams. All of my decisions are filtered through him and he makes me a better person by allowing me to be me and do what I love. I look forward to legalizing the bond that we already share over Memorial day weekend in 2016.

Visiting Ray last year
7. Ray Hoekstra - Every gay man should befriend an older gay man that has thrived before them. The first week that I met Dan he met Ray while watching me perform with Pacific Northwest Ballet, where Ray was a donor for the company. A month later, Dan forced me to meet Ray between a matinee and evening show in the throes of Nutcracker season. While I was reluctant to skip my daily Nutcracker nap, boy was I glad that he connected us. Ray, nearly 40 years my senior, became one of my closest friends and the person I looked to when I needed a role model to follow. Whether learning about being gay in times when people like me were persecuted, how to order a meal at a fancy restaurant, what it was like to watch your loved one's get sick during the AIDS epidemic, how to order a classy drink, or how to give back to the organizations that you believe in, Ray has always been the epitome of a classy gentleman. I have been so honored to have this man as a friend and I look forward to passing his legacy on as I grow older (and younger, just like him).

Cathy Moran
8. Cathy Moran - Ms. Cathy didn't run the first dance school that I attended, but she directs the school I grew up at and where I became passionate about dance. Not only did Cathy give me the gift of dance through a scholarship that allowed me to take classes my family would have never been able to afford. She showed me what it was to be a generous woman who is purely invested in her students. When I needed a male teacher to guide me, Cathy found one. When I needed to see what the world had to offer, she told me to try out other dance schools without jealousy. When I needed to make a mistake and quit a class to attend my 8th grade school dance, she offered me caution and understanding towards a decision that eventually guided me even closer to dance. Ms. Cathy cultivated a place where I was able to grow, be myself, and fall in love with my art form.

Kelly & me (Left: 1987 & Right: 2015)
9. Kelly Wolfe - This lovely lady and I go all the way back to the womb. Our parents were pregnant with us at about the same time. After we were brought on to this Earth, we had pictures in the paper of our diapers being changed, ran around farms playing games, and spent many of our waking hours together. Around the age of 5, the women's group that brought our parents together dissolved and, for some reason or another, our parents stopped meeting up with one another. Aside from one time, Kelly and I didn't see each other for nearly a decade. Then, on the first day of high school, we found each other to be in the same first period history class and reunited. Even after nearly a decade without communication, we picked up where we left off. To this day, we are still in close contact even though we live across the country from each other. Kelly is somebody who has always understood, trusted, supported, and believed in me. She is always that person who drops anything to make sure that we get to spend time together. If I had one female soulmate in my life, it would very likely be this lady.

Jock Soto w/Wendy Whelan (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
10. Jock Soto -When I went to the School of American Ballet, I had given up a Corps de Ballet job position with Colorado Ballet to train at my dream school. Soon after I had shifted my move from Denver to New York, Peter Martins selected 7 advanced level male students to move up into the now defunct elite level of the school, Special Men. When the list for this group of men went up, I was devastated to find that I had given up a job and didn't make the cut. Immediately, Jock stepped up to the plate and guided me forward. He suggested I attend the lower level Intermediate classes he taught, stood by my side correcting me at barre, and offered me valuable advice to push forth. By Thanksgiving break, I had heard the great news that I was being moved up into that elite level class. I have this man to thank for that.

Leigh Witchel
11. Leigh Witchel - The first time that Leigh and I were introduced was shortly after my School of American Ballet workshop. He was sitting in the audience to review the show (link here) and I happened to briefly run into him in my post show bliss at the old Lincoln Center plaza. I didn't really get to know Leigh until I returned to the east coast in 2011 to perform at the Guggenheim's Works and Process series, where Leigh acted as moderator for the event. During rehearsals, Leigh pulled me aside and reminded me that we had met years ago and that he had warmly enjoyed my graduation performance. After this, we began to cultivate a relationship that has grown into a great friendship. Over the past few years as I have drifted, floated, and soared around the country, Leigh has acted as a friend, confidante, and mentor to help me through highs, lows, and in building this new stage of my career. While I have many people interested in what I have been doing in my career over the past 4 1/2 years, I have not had many people interested in helping cultivate me into a better person, dancer, choreographer, businessman, and artist. Leigh has been a careful, caring, and honest guide mentor as I find my way as a maturing artist.

Abby & me in Swan Lake at PNB
12. Abby Relic - Mine Cootah! Don't ask. Abby and I have known each other since she was a Professional Division student and I was a Corps member at PNB. While we didn't connect closely during her first period living in Seattle, we got close quickly after she moved back to Seattle to join PNB after dancing in Portland and Cincinnati. As an adult, Abby has been one of my closest friends. She is smart, she get's me, and she is one of the only people who can truly make me belly laugh. As our friendship has grown, Abby has taught me how to accept people for who they are through both example and love. Her outlook on life is beautiful and she exudes warmth and joy to those around her. Plus, she has the laughter of a child!

Claudio Munoz teaching at HBA (Photo: Bruce Bennett
13. Claudio Munoz - This teacher who made this clean mouthed teenage boy scream "FUCK" at the top of his lungs as he landed a double tour definitely showed me what it means to be passionate about teaching. While Claudio has unconventional approaches to teaching, my time with him during my first summers away from home at Houston Ballet Academy put me on the right track to have a professional career. Whether using my voice to show the force of movement or screaming at me until I got it right (then giving me a hug to let me know that he was always on my side), Claudio intensely supports his students through their final years of training. When I need to find a way to get through to a student, I often imagine how Claudio would go about the task.

14. Chris Thomae - As I've mentioned before, I didn't grow up in a family with great financial resources. And like I have said in previous posts, I was definitely raised by the village. Chris was a strong force in my village. While I first met him as a kid in the masculine discipline of Tae Kwon Do, Chris was interested in all things culture. He loved dance, food, theatre, and more. Coming from the suburbs and having limited access to culture, Chris made sure that I sampled things like Vietnamese food, saw plays at the local theatres, learned how to play pool, and knew to read books that shared opposing views to my upbringing. While we are no longer in contact, Chris helped develop my hunger for new culture and openness towards the unknown.

Lauren & me
15. Lauren Bentley -I first met Lauren when we were in pre-school together. After switching schools in second grade, we ended up crossing paths again when we were in the same sixth grade class. We had a childhood love affair and broke up a few months later, which kept me from talking to her for nearly a year. After that year had passed, I quickly came to my senses that we had to remain close friends because we were always on each other's side. In eighth grade, Lauren and her mom generously introduced me to New York City by letting me tag along for a bus trip to see a Broadway show and to explore the city. As we moved through high school, Lauren was one of the few people that I would hang out with outside of dance classes. When I graduated from SAB, Lauren's family came up to New York City to support me in the city that they introduced me to. While we don't see each other as often as I would like, I know that wherever I am, she is exuding that quiet, calm sense of support that she carries with her.

16. Bernice Beck - My grandmother passed away about a decade ago. She had a head of silver hair, a voice like Patti and Selma from the Simpsons, and a love for tradition. What she loved more than tradition was me. Along with my mother, my grandmother would support me even if it meant taking the shirt off of her back. She would do everything possible, including sending letters to friends and businesses to help support me on my way to become a professional dancer. She was at every performance and would sit in the audience shouting my name as the curtain dropped. This woman was the epitome of family and support.

Boyd hanging out w/Puck in the physical therapy room
(LAST MINUTE NEW YEARS EDIT!!!!!! In my AK-BK Intensive Winter Workshop exhaustion, I was racking my brain to come up with this list of lovely people. And I realized that I missed one person that really means a lot to me and has made a huge difference in my life. And in the spirit of the new year and starting on a positive note, why not turn this list into 17 for good measure. This important person that I left off my list is none other than the wonderful Boyd Bender. Boyd came into my life right after I moved to Seattle to join Pacific Northwest Ballet. He works with the company as their virtuoso physical therapist. While Mr. Bender's purpose with the company is to keep dancers onstage, he functions as an integral process to the dancer's mental health. During my time with the company, Boyd quickly became much more to me than Bender the Mender. Growing up with a handful of male figures in my life, I still never really felt like I had a true father figure. The kind of man that is my idea of a true man; thoughtful, calming, generous, caring, funny, and in control of his emotions though unafraid to be emotional. Boyd came into my life when I needed a father figure to show me how to be a man. I'm much the adult I am today thanks to this guy! Happy New Year! )

1 comment:

  1. What a generous, loving tribute to your family and friends-- a wonderful insight into the multiple experiences that form and inform an artist. Thanks for sharing, Barry. Happy New Year to you and your loved ones.