Whenever I plan to write on an issue of culture – be it a film, a book, or a concept – I typically read as much ancillary material as possible. Profiles of the artists involved, reviews of their work; all of these things give valuable information as to their perspective and insights into the nature of what it is they do. In this case, I viewed Water Flowing Together, Gwendolen Cates’ biography of former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Jock Soto, with no prior knowledge of either.
When the film was over, I thought that Ms. Cates was one of those rare people who completely and totally loves ballet; her obviously flawed documentary showed a genuine admiration for her subject-the complimentary manner in which she presented it bordered on obsequious. Upon viewing some of her other work (specifically Indian Country, with an introduction by Sherman Alexie) and reading of her background, I realize that she is not so much a fan of the ballet as she is of Indians. Regardless of Ms. Cates’ reasons for making the film, I found it problematic that she fails to delve very deeply into Soto’s life, and neglects to address what I saw as the most compelling issues of identity inherent to the life of her subject.
Jock Soto was born in Gallup New Mexico to a Navajo mother and a Puerto Rican father. After a short, seemingly transient childhood, his parents drop him off in New York City to attend the School of American Ballet. He had begun dancing at the age of five, and showed such a natural aptitude for the art that all of his early teachers and later dance partners have remarked on it. So it is no wonder that he went straight from the school into the troupe as a principal member performing the works of George Balachine to much acclaim. He is gay, Puerto Rican, Navajo, and one of the greatest American ballet dancers ever. The problem with the film is that it claims to make a statement on the nature of Soto’s hyphenated ethnic identity, yet Cates does not spend enough time or energy exploring his relationship to his family. When we do see Soto interacting with them, it becomes clear that he knows very little of either culture; indeed, one scene has him being introduced to various members of his mother’s clan asking, “Now who are you again?”
This – and the even less involved scene of Soto visiting his father’s family in Puerto Rico – makes it clear that Soto is not a person with extensive or particularly strong ties to his cultural heritage. The most telling moment in the film is his aunt’s remark that he is a man of two cultures who has not chosen to be part of either. However, this is not altogether true. While it is true that Soto’s parents are from two ethnic cultures that he has seemingly chosen not to be a part of (and the film eludes through interviews that this is a major source of heartache for him,) Soto himself, seems to be saying something altogether different. A scene on the Navajo Reservation in which he reveals his angst about his visit with his mother’s family is illustrative of this seemingly fabricated conflict as he quickly finishes his angst-drenched monologue by saying that he can’t wait to go home. He means New York City. And herein lies the problematic in this film-the director can’t make up her mind as to how she will portray Soto’s life story. It alternately paints him as having an identity crisis due to some missed connection with his culture but also positions him as someone who knows exactly who he is-a tried and true New Yorker.
The film also portrays the burden of a multicultural identity as inconsequential to an illustrious career in the New York performance art world. It is obvious that Soto defines himself through his art while it is others – including the director of this film – who attaches various identity markers to him to suit their whims. Again, the interview of Soto’s aunt illustrates this point. When convenient he is the Navajo/Puerto Rican dancer, at others he’s the gay New York City ballet dancer. But in the context of the New York art world, his ethnicity is really just the salsa on an otherwise Eurocentric lifestyle of which he seems to have benefited from immensely and why not? He is the best at what he does identity crisis or not.
Given all of this, Cates’ film could have made an interesting statement as to the nature and the extent to which we choose our identities from an array of options, as well as what it is that makes someone of a certain ethnic identity or not. Is it solely blood that makes someone of a certain culture, or as the US government dictates to Native Americans, the amount of blood? Or is it something more layered than that? Do you have to engage in various cultural practices, and do you have to know them from the inside out to be a part of it? Soto clearly has chosen his identity as a New York City dancer. The portions of the film of him onstage are quite beautiful. These scenes are the best as they are the most honest: Soto is communicating with the audience in the language he knows very well. Turning the narration (via her editing choices) over to Cates, however, and we are handed only vague pretensions of the life Soto has made for himself in New York. He partied at Studio 54 and was friendly with Andy Warhol, but these superficial asides are the only glimpses we have into his burgeoning life in the big city. His life – the ins and outs, the daily grind – are barely explored though it is these scenes that would have made his story all the more compelling.
Indeed, Soto is an interesting subject but the film does not flesh out that which makes him interesting: leaving his family behind to dance non-stop for twenty-five years. Again the film makes allusions to the psychology behind his story, which is not angst about his multi-cultural identity, but rather the fact that his own dogged determination and talent allowed him to make a fantastic life for himself in New York City against some fairly high odds that he wouldn’t. This makes his the quintessential American Dream success story, and that is a story worth telling.
[image courtesy of filmmaker]