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Fort Wayne Ballet brings gifted dancer’s legacy to life

Eddie found meaning in everything, according to Dawkins, "and he wanted to translate it into movement."
Courtesy/Fort Wayne Ballet
Eddie found meaning in everything, according to Dawkins, "and he wanted to translate it into movement."

Fort Wayne Ballet’s season finale honors the legendary Edward Stierle this weekend at the Arts United Center with an evening of special performance and display in celebration of his life and work.

Before his death to AIDS at the age of 23, Edward Steirle shone as a bright star of the Joffrey Ballet.

His unparalleled achievements in both dance and choreography form a tribute to grace and beauty through personal tragedy and fate.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek looks at the scope of Stierle’s monumental output with the ballet’s marketing manager John Dawkins and the remarkable spirit of the man that drives this tribute.

Event Information:

An Evening of Stierle
@ the Arts United Center, Fort Wayne
Friday, May 19 - Saturday, May 20
7:30 p.m.

For more information, tickets and a listen to the Kinetic Conversations Stierle mini-series, visit the Fort Wayne Ballet website.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Daniel Church / Artist

Julia Meek: John Dawkins, welcome.

John Dawkins: Hi, thanks for having me.

Julia Meek: The Fort Wayne ballet is closing its 66th season with a very powerful homage to the late great Eddie Stierle. Now before his death at the terribly young age of 23, to AIDS, Stierle had an amazing talent for dance and choreography. Very briefly, why is his spirit and his story so important right here right now?

John Dawkins: Well, to say he was amazing, he was almost super human. As a dancer he was so far above his contemporaries, and as a choreographer, before he died he penned three ballets that are complex and still making an impact on the world of dance today.

And two of those ballets he choreographed as a teenager.

Julia Meek: So much to the point, he was working with and for the Joffrey when most kids his age were praying they could get into the school, as I understand.

John Dawkins: Yeah, it really started for Eddie in the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, when he won the gold medal, and he was handed that gold medal by Robert Joffrey of the Joffrey Ballet.

And along with that metal, Mr. Joffrey decided to hand him a contract. That was very unusual for him to sign him directly into the company, because that's not how it was done, you would either be brought up through the Joffrey school or the Joffrey 2, and within six weeks with the Joffrey Ballet, he was handed a major role and continued to dance lead roles for the rest of his time there.

Julia Meek: Not only amazing, he was a golden child, that was a golden ticket. Everything about his short, amazing life is simply golden, then?

John Dawkins: Very much so.

Julia Meek: And it sounds like you have a fitting celebration to that end. You have several major components to this celebration. Let's start with the show itself, John. What's in store with this glorious performance coming up?

John Dawkins: Well, this is special because this is actually the first time that all three of his established ballets are being performed at the same time--in the same performance.

Lacrymosa is his most famous by far, but this is actually only the second time that his last ballet, Empyrean Dances, has been done outside of the Joffrey. And we were the ones who were the first to do it a few years ago.

Julia Meek: Oh, how amazing. It's fitting that such a troupe as the Fort Wayne Ballet would want to take part in such a celebration. Isn't this quite ambitious of a presentation even by Fort Wayne Ballet standards?

John Dawkins: It is. His ballets are very complex and very soulful, very heartfelt pieces. I would say our dancers are putting as much heart into this as they've ever put into anything.

This is not Swan Lake. It's not a classical ballet. It's not the Nutcracker. It's a contemporary piece. But it's amazing.

Julia Meek: AND it's a contemporary piece. Yeah, that's really that's really quite something to bring to Fort Wayne.

John Dawkins: It is.

Julia Meek: How does this offering speak directly to Stierle's philosophies, then would you say--as a dancer, as a soul, a spirit?

John Dawkins: He was soulful in everything he did. He found meaning in everything, in little things, and he wanted to translate it into movement.

That was Eddie in a nutshell, everything he saw he wanted to create it as a movement.

Julia Meek: He thought in terms and transcribed it if you will, or translated, into a language. Dance was a language to him?

John Dawkins: It was. Dance was everything to him. From the time he was four he was winning competitions. He won Star Search as a kid.

Julia Meek: Amazing, amazing! And then in honoring him at this presentation, you have an impressive display of Eddie's costumes and ephemera that went with all of this. What picture of the young man, artist are you painting with this?

John Dawkins: We have a ton of memorabilia, photographs and archives and even some of Eddie's costumes, and his gold medals for his competitions will all be on display courtesy of the Stierle family.

Julia Meek: And so what will we see?

John Dawkins: There's going to be about a 50 foot long wall of photographs, (chuckles) some of his costumes. There'll be his Jackson competition metal and his Prix de Lausanne medal, framed reviews.

Eddie had constant reviews in the New York Times, glowing reviews, dozens throughout his career.

Julia Meek: That will all be not only on display, but there for people to absorb and to really get to know the guy. That's something very, very special.

Tell me John, was it difficult to hunt and gather and sort this wealth of remembrances?

John Dawkins: That was all from the family. That was...Eddie's Sister Rose has been a huge part of this. And she has been THE driving force behind how all this looks and how it's displayed and how close to accurate we are with the shows.

Julia Meek: That's doubly wonderful actually, to have her involved, of course, but also being the direct connection. You do you have a real direct channel, then to Eddie in that way.

John Dawkins: Very much so because Rose is not just a sister, she was his collaborator. She was also his costume designer. She's a master seamstress, dancer, and they work closely together. Eddie ran all of his ideas off of her and she helped him create them.

Julia Meek: There will be Eddie's friends and loved ones gathering there. Will that include Rose?

John Dawkins: Yes, Rose will be there. I'm not sure who else in the family but I do know that dancers and colleagues of Eddie's who danced with him and the Joffrey are flying in from around the world.

Julia Meek: Quite a joyful celebration. That is just amazing!

John Dawkins: We hope so.

Julia Meek: Okay, some special artwork has been generated for this event, as well. Sounds like a good idea with what you've just told us. Tell us about the artwork.

John Dawkins: We commissioned a piece from local artist, I believe you know him, Daniel Church. He made this brilliant image for us that is a stylization of the iconic position from Lacrymosa.

It depicts the dancer in a shoulder stand with his feet pointing to heaven. It's a wonderful piece of art. And we will actually be selling posters of that art at the show.

Julia Meek: What a wonderful homage. And so folks will really be able to take home, a piece of the soul and spirit of...of Eddie and the concert and everything this represents.

What a wonderful idea. Also for this special occasion you have created three podcasts on his life. Would you tell us about that?

John Dawkins: We have a podcast series it's called Kinetic Conversations with the Fort Wayne Ballet. It can be found on all the major services.

And we have a three part mini-series on Stierle with our guests being Rose his sister for two of them and Kim Sagami, the repetiteur who was working with us to stage Lacrymosa and Empyrean dances.

And Kim danced with him in the Joffrey and was good friends, even spoke at his funeral. Between her and Rose it's a very tearful, joyful look at a wonderful life. I'm very proud of producing those podcasts, they are some of the best I've done.

Julia Meek: All conversations fit for the soul and spirit that he was. What kind of a response are you getting so far on those podcasts?

John Dawkins: We've heard good things about it. Eddie is such a good human interest story and he has such an effect on people. I mean, people talk about him all this time later.

They speak about him with reverence. He was just an amazing person. I wish I had met him.

Julia Meek: He's noted for being a small and Energizer Bunny little kind of a guy and at the same time, he's larger than life. How do you find that can all happen in one 23 year span of genius living?

John Dawkins: Eddie defied convention everywhere. Some of the companies he wanted to get into rejected him because he was so short. They said he couldn't be a prince...he couldn't dance in a duet.

And Eddie said, "Watch me." And as soon as the Joffrey gave him a chance he showed his true worth and critics loved it! Every performance,

Julia Meek: Golden Boy, Golden Ticket. That is all incredible. Now, John, a word on the Fort Wayne Ballet's multimedia approach.

This is really blossoming under your watch there. What does this add to any production, in your mind, especially this one?

John Dawkins: Well, it's been my goal with this performance, I just wanted to do everything I could to make people aware of the story, to get it out there. And that means social media.

We've created an extensive biography page on our website and posting video footage that we have of Stierle in the 80s and 90s. Just trying to get the story out there so that people will go, "Hey, wait a minute, this looks good."

Julia Meek: Where might you go next with this sort of retrospective composite production?

John Dawkins: Well, you know, we do repertoire shows, as well as the big stage shows. And we're trying to spotlight this one more than we do sometimes. But the really great thing about the little repertoire shows is that it has something for everybody in them.

Not everybody likes classical ballet. Most people like the Nutcracker, at least as a tradition. (chuckles) We have no problem selling tickets to the Nutcracker. The thing about these little repertory shows is that, it's like music.

There's different types of music. There's also different types of ballet. There's hip-hop ballets. There's rock ballets, and these little repertoire shows spotlight that. You can go to a performance and you see three or four completely different pieces.

And I think people are less inclined to go to them, but I think if they went to them, they'd like ballet more. And Fort Wayne Valley is trying very hard to spotlight some of those shows a little bit more.

It's something that we do rather well. And we're starting to get more requests to have those performances traveling around, which is a nice thing after the pandemic.

Julia Meek: So it's easier than we might imagine? I'm not saying it's an easy job, John, but it is doable to make it sweet and tasty and have something for everyone in this fashion?

John Dawkins: Well, I'm certainly going to try to make it that way.

Julia Meek: (laughs) All righty then! And don't forget that you've put the bug in our ears about hip hop in ballet and that's going to be something that we really look forward to seeing.

In the meantime, what is coming up that we could enjoy, well, even in the summer,

John Dawkins: just next week, our Firefly Tour kicks off. It's a series of outdoor performances we'll be in Bluffton, Fort Wayne, Angola and Auburn.

Julia Meek:  Oh, that's a nice little circle of activity there. I'm sure the communities are going to love that.

And last question, we've come to expect amazing things from the Fort Wayne Ballet and we were never disappointed. What would you like the whole community to know about this amazing troupe as they end their 66th season in such a meaningful and stellar fashion?

John Dawkins: You know, we have such great dancers and they do what they do so well. They're constantly pushing themselves and we're trying to push ourselves to represent them better.

And we have a lot of initiatives going on next year, we're going to get ourselves maybe a little bit better known out in the dance community. We're just really happy to be able to bring this kind of thing to the community and elevate arts in Fort Wayne.

Julia Meek: John Dawkins is marketing manager for the Fort Wayne ballet. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story with us, John, best of luck and do carry the gift.

John Dawkins: Thank you so much.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.