Dennis Nahat was raised in a suburban Detroit home filled with music and dance. He took off from there, and he hasn't stopped since.
His resume includes New York's Juilliard School, the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. He's also danced in and choreographed Broadway shows and acted in movies. Clearly a major player on the American ballet scene, Nahat, now 44, heads the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet, the nation's fourth largest ballet company. As artistic director, he is in charge of 45 dancers and a $9.5-million budget.
When he was a youngster, Nahat's Syrian-born mother took him and his older sister to Saturday ballet lessons in downtown Detroit. Though his sister later dropped out, Dennis was hooked. All through his youth he performed traditional dances for Detroit's Arab community - at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. Two cousins were members of a professional dance team - ballroom and Arab dancing - and they inspired him. But it was in his musical home, he says, that it all began.
"Music was a big part of my family's life. We all played instruments and sang. In the Syrian culture, it seems everyone plays the 'ud or the drum. There was always the Arab beat around my house," Nahat chuckles.
Though ostracized as a youngster because of his love of dance, Nahat persevered, and it wasn't long before he was a member of the Detroit City Ballet - and studying piano, oboe, viola and violin as well. Eventually, Nahat left Detroit to study music at Juilliard, but when he saw the dance classes led by ballet legends like Martha Graham and Jose Limon, he switched his major to dance.
A few years later, Nahat was lured away to the Joffrey Ballet, where a broken toe led him to switch to a choreographic career. He garnered Broadway choreography credits for Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers" and "Two Gentlemen of Verona," which earned him a Tony nomination.
When his toe was fully healed, Nahat danced on Broadway himself, most notably with Gwen Verdon in "Sweet Charity." In 1968, he joined the American Ballet Theater, where he would spend the next decade as a principal dancer and choreographer.
After four years with the ABT, Nahat and a colleague opened a small ballet studio in Cleveland. In 1976 the studio became a professional company, which expanded in 1985 to San Jose, California for 12 weeks of performance a year. The dancers perform 28 weeks in Cleveland.
Nahat, tall and athletic, often works 15 hours a day on ballet company affairs, and still dances character roles in some performances. This fall his company is producing a new ballet for Rudolf Nureyev, and Nahat is serving as Nureyev's understudy.
Few ballets deal with the Middle East - Nahat could only think of a 19th-century Danish ballet called Abdullah - but he noted there are Middle Eastern motifs in ballets such as Sheherazade and Prince Igor. "And of course in The Nutcracker, there is the Arabic dance that Tchaikovsky wrote and which I've embellished to create a more substantial statement. I've used my ethnic background there," he says.
"It hasn't always been easy being an Arab in ballet, but I'm proud of my heritage. It's a big part of me, and when it's appropriate to use it in my work, why, that's all for the better."
Brian Clark, a regular contributor to Aramco World, free-lances from Olympia, Washington.