Steven Iannacone: Master of Dance, Maker of Flight
From Brooklyn, New York, by way of Belgium and other conservatories and performance halls throughout Europe, Steven Iannacone came to Hope College in the fall of 1990 as a visiting dance professor. It was to be a one-semester-per-year arrangement, so his plan was to work at the college for three autumns and then move on to another dancing-and-teaching gig.
But lo and behold, 28 years later, Iannacone is retiring from Hope this spring and departing as a professor emeritus. His was a moving tenure marked by creativity, innovation and “getting students to fly.”
“Steven is a smart, mature, devoted artist who bravely taught beauty and life,” said longtime colleague Linda Graham, the Dorothy Wiley DeLong Professor of Dance, at Iannacone’s recent retirement celebration. “How strange, how wonderful that this peculiar little town became the working home for an unexpected hero who did his best to teach the next generation what is most important.”
Before coming to Hope, Iannacone’s teaching and dancing home base was Vlaamse Dansacademie in Brugge, Belgium. Before that, he performed and toured internationally with the Nikolais Dance Theater of New York City. But even before that, Iannacone was a Brooklyn-born boy mesmerized by dance and theater at an early age. A high school teacher with ties to an off-Broadway children's theater, called the East 74 Street Playhouse, introduced Iannacone to the world of professional theater. On the weekends, he would perform in two shows on both Saturday and Sunday. “And we got paid $10 a show,” he remembers. “So I was performing for New York City audiences and making $40 a week as a high school student in the ’60s, which was tons of money then.”
And, Iannacone was getting noticed. A choreographer spotted “this tall, skinny high school kid who could move” and invited him to take classes for free with her regional ballet company. “So I was cutting my teeth on that and I kept it up in college, and that’s why I had this interest in going to see that dance concert. “
That “dance concert” was a performance given by Nikolais Dance Theater in Manhattan. A college friend invited him to see a show in 1970, his junior year, and as Ianncone sat spellbound by the kinetic and imaginative world unfolding before him, he had an epiphanic moment. The transformative magic of the stage was where he wanted to be, to create and inhabit a world of visionary abstraction was what he wanted to do.
So, Iannacone enrolled in an intensive dance workshop with Nikolais Dance Theater not long after that concert. Impressing again, he was asked back to dance some more, but he was asked to clean, too. For five months, he took on behind-the-scenes work in an apprenticeship of sorts, sweeping and mopping studios as he learned to dance on those same floors. When the theater saw his level of commitment and talent, Iannacone was hired into the company full-time and his studio-cleaning days were over.
And what of college and the degree in secondary social studies education he had earned at Newark State College in 1972? “I liked teaching a lot. But the call to dance was a little bit bigger,” Iannacone explains. “I took my degree and threw it in a drawer and it’s been there ever since. “
Actually, not quite. The lessons learned in that teaching degree would come in quite handy later on as Iannacone was eventually offered faculty appointments at the Ballet Akademien in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Catholic University L.N. in Brussels, Belgium, Vlaamse Dansacademie in Brugge, Belgium, and escuela de la Ballet Folklorico in Mexico City, Mexico. And of course, at Hope College.
His appointment at Hope was the first time Iannacone ever taught in a non-conservatory, non-professional dance world. The liberal arts philosophy was new to him and, at first, he was not so sure about its combination with the discipline of dance.
“It took me awhile to buy into the liberal arts,” admits Iannacone. “But I thank Maxine (DeBruyn, founder and then chair of the department) for teaching me and being patient with me. All the things I used to roll my eyes at when she spoke about a liberal arts education, I say now.” And he rolls his eyes again, but this time there is not a skeptic’s glint but a convert’s light.
Iannacone also credits DeBruyn with instilling in him another appreciation — the philosophy that dance is for all, that anyone can be a dancer with an authentic desire to dance.
“The great thing I love about the dance program at Hope is that it’s always been universal and open,” he says. “You wanted to dance? It didn’t matter if you never took a step in your life, we’ll help you. You want to be a dance major? Sure. Take these classes, and we’ll tap your potential. I’ve seen dancers leave this program and go on to do great things.”
Of course, thanks have been extended back to Iannacone as well, for his teaching of modern dance and composition and his ability to push students beyond what they’d expect of themselves. His work with Hope dance students, who toured to other college campuses from Connecticut to Illinois, Minnesota to Arkansas when Iannacone was artistic director of the college’s resident company called dANCEpROjECT, garnered him equal numbers of accolades and expressions of gratitude.
Now, after hundreds of students and performances for 28 years, what was to be a temporary stop on Iannacone’s life and world tour became home. He stayed at Hope, he says, because he was always given the academic and artistic freedom to express himself while giving students the opportunity to do the same. He stayed because of deep sense of loyalty and reciprocal support that comes from working on a small campus in a smaller department. “Those are things you can’t buy or negotiate for, things that you long for in other places,” he reasons.
Ever quick, perceptive, collaborative and candid, Iannacone truth-tells some more when he declares that injuries hastened his retirement. Dancers are athletes whose bodies are the tools of their physical profession. Wear and tear from the constant leaping, landing, spinning and sometimes falling cause terrible sprains of wrists and ankles as well as broken toes, fingers ribs and discs, all of which Iannacone has danced through. Now, after more than 50 years of twirling through joy and pain, Iannacone is retiring while his surgically modified spine can still support him. This summer, he’ll move to a permanent residence in Chicago with his sweet bulldog, Colonel, but they’ll both return to Hope once a week come September. Iannacone is teaching one class —composition — this fall.
And he’ll no doubt continue to inspire and be moved by those times when he gets dancers to fly. Just like this one:
“We were doing a summer performance series at a small festival in Belgium,” Iannacone remembers. “William Crowley (a 1992 alumnus who is now a Hope visiting guest lecturer for Hope dance) had just graduated, but I invited him to come dance with dANCEpROjECt in Europe. We were performing a pastiche piece of mine called “The Garden of Earthly Delights” based on the painting by (Dutch artist Hieronymus) Bosch.
“I’ll never forget this: William came offstage and he said to me, ‘I never felt my feet touch the ground.’ And he was up and down, up and down. That’s the magic moment that you want for any performer, when you become so transcendent beyond the flesh that something spiritual happens and you go to this other place. And when you do that, the audience goes to another place, also. I’ve had those moments on stage, and it is awesome. But to be able to give that to young dancers, that has been even more amazing.”