Photo by Jody Rogac | Courtesy of The Collective Shift
Making art and being an artist can stand as two separate actions. Sure, you can create things for utility or consumption but the ability to embody art’s essence, executing it in real-time, that takes things another step further. Famed creative movement director Stephen Galloway transcends fashion and belongs firmly to the category of the latter. His is the art of a gifted and highly skilled translator, making static moodboard pages come to life with a quick-step or twirl. Through the lens of his creative collaborators, his added voice and body brings to the equation an interpretation imbued with nuance and greater meaning. Writer Mac Folkes spoke with Galloway for Models.com to discuss how his humble beginnings lead to his start in ballet, collaborating with the top fashion clients and creatives in the world, and why the term “choreographer” just isn’t enough.
For context, let’s start at the beginning. What would you consider the beginning of your artistic career?
I was born a poor black child in the fields of Columbia, Tennessee, otherwise known as Murray County. (Laughing) There have been several beginnings. It’s been a multilayered career path. I do, in some way often give credit for my creative beginnings of course to William (Billy) Forsyth. With Billy, I grew up curiously and creatively. I also had an amazing family; musicians on one side, academics on the other. Both coexisting in a calm way, no pressure to achieve, no pressure to become anything other than who you are. Through that upbringing, I felt curious enough to pursue all of my “Piscean” interests. Initially, I only got into dance because I was taking art classes. I loved to paint because my grandmother and my Aunt Melba painted and I fancied myself a bit of an illustrator. At 13, I was tricked into joining the ballet. Someone came to my art class and bellowed, “We need boys for the upcoming ballet.”
I guess I had a choice, but the next thing I knew, I was in a performance. The girls would do some dance and come to us, we’d lift them, hold them and then walk off. We didn’t do much, the boys were just there to lift the girls. I loved it and had always loved dancing, so when they suggested, “Oh, you should maybe try this?” I switched from art/illustration to the ballet department. That’s how it all started.
Were there any additional influences at the start of your dance career?
There was an after-school program called The Culture House which was being sponsored by the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. They would send out all art teachers who taught photography, dance, painting, sculpture, all these things to underserved communities all over the US.
Would you mind telling me how old you were at this time?
13. That must’ve been 1981 because I joined the Frankfurt Ballet in 1985 at 17.
Can you explain how you went from an after-school program at 13 to being at the ballet in Frankfurt at 17?
Sometimes whenever I say that, and I put those numbers together, I can hardly believe it myself. Luckily, I have photographs as proof. My first performance was in the ballet Peter and the Wolf where I played Peter. I often wonder, how did that happen?
How do you suppose that came to pass?
I had incredible teachers. Last year I received an award, the Pennsylvania Trailblazers Award and my former teachers all came back to celebrate me. It was one of those teachings where you were not told what you couldn’t do. I had no beginning, intermediate, or advanced. We were just advanced. The teacher would say, “Okay, Stephen. You get into this position and you go around 10 times. It’s called a pirouette.” I certainly did not know that 10 pirouettes were hard to do. Miss Green would say: “Ok, you have to jump over this and as high as you can and when you get into the air, you want to hang in the air. So, I just did it. She’d say, “That’s called grand jete with ballon.” It sounds stupid, but that’s literally how it was. In a weird way, that’s kind of how my whole career has been. I’ve never thought about it like that, but I think in those formative years I was never really aware of what was not possible.
That’s a beautiful thing. You just make everything the level of achievable. Give it no extra weight other than the thing that it is.
I’ve really never taken it that far back. But it’s an attitude that has accompanied me my entire career. I think that everything is achievable given a modicum of talent and a lot of hard work. So, I guess you could actually say that was the beginning.
Ballet, even for a family of musicians and academics can still be a stretch because it’s such a rarefied, I’ll say it, white world. Did they share your aspirations?
My mom and the entire family was very happy for me, but I don’t think they thought about it as anything except what Stephen was doing after school. They came to the performances and it was all fun, but I never really openly, or at least I don’t remember any big fuss created. I don’t remember if I spoke about a career as a dancer while I was actually preparing for it in my head. I just remember that I got really good. I realized there was something special. I was auditioning and getting scholarships. I always looked at it with a little bit of a side-eye because at that point, you have to realize, tokenism was extreme.
Any other systemic challenges?
I remember, although no one ever said it to me, because fortunately, my butt’s not that big. They used to say black people can’t do ballet because their butt’s too big and the tutus don’t sit right.
Isn’t that crazy?
I used to hear things but never said to me directly, that a Black girl couldn’t be a ballet dancer because if they’re doing Swan Lake, there could not be one black swan because there’s already a black swan in the third act. Is that not crazy?
You realize that people have constructed all of these notions and they take them as factual.
Exactly. I remember, because of my physique and my legs and just the way I looked, it was obvious that I was being prepared for a prince which basically means a king and not necessarily a slave. When I say a slave, I mean a slave-like in Bayadere or Nutcracker because the classical repertoire is filled with many of those types of subservient roles.
I think there is something to be said about where you mentally place yourself within a system or hierarchy. If you don’t dream it, you can’t be it. People can’t rise to low expectations.
I think there is that thing of if you think you are a star, you will then start to comport yourself as a star.
Very true. I think the one thing that I do continue to have and continue to find as a source of strength, is the incredibly strong inner dialog that I maintain with myself. That is where I develop my voice as an artist.
I say to people all the time, that talent will get you X amount of places, but you have to develop other sensibilities to succeed. What other sensibilities helped you move along?
I think it’s funny because I don’t necessarily think of my career moving along although it does. It’s basically just about me doing what I want to do and enjoying doing it. When I started to branch out in the company of the Frankfurt Ballet, I didn’t necessarily know at the time that it was causing a lot of drama in the company. I would hear about it because, at one point, I was not only the principal dancer, I was the style and costume director, I was also working with The Rolling Stones, and working with Inez and Vinoodh and still jumping into my roles as a principal dancer. Members of the company always asked, “Why does he get to do all of this stuff?” The director of the company wouldn’t let anyone else leave. He made an announcement one day and said, “Stephen is allowed to do this and Stephen is the only one.”
Did you have a special relationship or were there other mitigating factors?
I think he did it because he knew that everything I learned in the outside world, I brought right back to him. Billy’s super smart like that. Of course, I was going to bring what I saw, who I met. I often jokingly say that my name will always in a strange way be, Stephen William Forsyth McRolling Stones Van Lamsweerde Matadin Galloway. (Laughter) I’m totally happy with that. I personally feel that’s also been one of the reasons why our friendship and also our collaboration has lasted so long because I brought it all back to him. It allowed me to expand, my network and do the other things that interested me. All the seeds that I sowed while still in the company…working with the Stones and with Inez and Vinoodh were now about to come to bloom.
Let’s talk about this transition. You said that Pennsylvania gave you a Trailblazer Award. You single-handedly invented the category of Movement Director which makes you a trailblazer indeed.
Which is hilarious!
How did that come to pass?
It came about through my love of fashion imagery. Even before I was involved in it, I was obsessed with it. A very classic story where both grandmothers and great grandmother were seamstresses; so clothes were all around. My mom read Viva and Vogue and we went to see Ebony Fashion Fair every Sunday after church whenever they came to Pennsylvania. I had an understanding and a love of fashion from an early age. It goes back to this idea of putting things out either verbally or spiritually or however you want to think about it and the universe conspires to make it happen.
What was your first artistic foray into fashion?
Issey Miyake started collaborating with the ballet company. Simultaneously the ballet company started to have a residency in Paris that coincided with fashion week. On opening night, Joan Juliet Buck and French Vogue gave a dinner for us. That started my real engagement with the fashion world. Valentino, Gaultier, Margiela, Jean Colona, Vivienne Westwood…everyone was there.
Is that where your relationship with Inez and Vinoodh began?
I started to see Inez and Vinoodh because, at the time, I had an aunt living in Amsterdam. Somehow, our paths crossed. I think they had an exhibition of some photographs. Viktor & Rolf was also part of that whole crew. That was also at the very beginning of their careers. Jim Cook, an old friend, took me to the exhibition in the north of Holland. I think that’s the first time that we actually met. I found out later that they had been coming to Frankfurt to see the company perform, and they’d also seen us in Amsterdam. So they were very familiar with me and my work.
So this was already happening when they were still fully based in Amsterdam?
Yeah, this is 1990 I think? They were cool and we’d also see each other when we were in Paris at the same time. We just kept in contact over the years.
What was the first professional collaboration?
The first thing I did with them professionally was the Calvin Klein relaunch with M&M Paris, Joe McKenna, Diane Kendall, and Jessica Miller. I didn’t know why they wanted me. (Laughing) They flew me in and I thought: “Oh, New York. Yeah! I can go see my mama after.” (Laughter) I didn’t really understand any of it or what was going on. I just knew that they wanted Jessica to be different. They wanted her and she was beautiful. She was still at the beginning of her career. They tell a story of how Calvin wanted a new girl and they found her in a weird way. Then it was, “Okay, let’s get Stephen in here.” In the beginning, I remember we did stretches or something with her. It was very bizarre. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was like, “Why am I stretching this non-dancer?” (Laughter) But over time, it was such a pleasure being in the middle of I and V. They were so gracious to everything that I was. They really allowed me to speak.
Do you remember the moment that you gave your role on set an official title?
It was nighttime, I was in Frankfurt and I remember looking out of the window while I was speaking with Allie my lead agent, and saying, “Choreographer sounds heavy, and I’m not giving these kids choreography. I wonder if it is freaking people out?” Inez and Vinoodh were so incredible because they were fighting for me all the time as there was often resistance. Such as: “It’s a hair commercial. Why do we need a choreographer on set?” I and V would counter: “Either you hire him or we’re not doing the shoot.” They were very, very responsible and helpful in that sense. I remember saying, “Perhaps Creative Movement?” I loved the idea. When I hear creative movement, for me, that could mean anything from rolling down a hill to picking up glass, broken glass. I really kind of liked that awkwardness of the phrase. I thought, okay, Creative Movement. I thought that sounded like it was waiting for another word. That’s when I said, “Okay, let’s run Creative Movement Director behind my name now for the next season.” Choreographers are considered miscellaneous crew on set but when you say CMD, it garners a completely different response. At least that’s how we’ve established it.