Dance Visionary Charles Santos Heads to NYC Life Cycles

by Marene Gustin

One o'clock on a November afternoon. Workers are hanging Christmas decorations on the downtown streets. The air is warm, even for a Texas fall -- the temperature is pushing 80 degrees -- and the cappuccino in front of Charles Santos is warmer still. But the man himself is cool. He sits calm and poised as he talks about spending half his life in Austin, founding the Austin Festival of Dance, his impending move to New York City, his new job, his new life, and the cycles within life. "I am now where I never thought I would be at this age. I never thought the Festival would be so successful. Everything has been a big surprise until now. I'm just along for the ride," he says with an unassuming laugh. And it has been an incredible ride for this 35-year-old man who came to Austin in 1978 to study sociology at the University of Texas. He wound up becoming a singer, professional modern dancer, system administrator for the state, director on some of the most influential nonprofit boards in the city, and creator of the largest dance-related AIDS care benefit in the country. His list of accomplishments includes proclamations from the city and county, awards from Texas Human Rights Fund and the Texas Triangle, and board positions with AIDS Services of Austin (ASA), Christopher House, Sharir Dance Company, and Leadership Austin. Now, he's leaving much of that behind for the next exciting stop: Executive Director of Eos Music, Inc., one of the hottest new arts organizations in New York City.

The ride began in the late Seventies when Santos was selected to join the inspirational young people's performing group Up With People. "I always have to preamble that with: It's not a religious thing! But it was singularly the greatest personal growth experience I ever gave myself. We went through nine countries in 13 months. Up at 5am, doing your own striking and set up." It gave him the training to learn theatrical production and the ability to jump in head first with the confidence that anything could be accomplished with the right attitude.

Up With People hired him as a singer, but Santos wound up as the lead male dancer in most of their productions, doing 10 numbers a night. When he returned to Austin, he started taking technical dance classes at UT. "Back then, if you weren't a dance major, you couldn't perform in the musicals or DRT [Dance Repertory Theatre, the student performing company], so they really had no use for me. But after a couple of years, Yacov [Sharir] offered me a position in his company and I jumped at it. When I took my job with the Texas Land Office, it was with the understanding that I had to be out of there at four o'clock for rehearsal." For the next decade, he toured and performed with Sharir Dance Company, and in the process met some of the city's best choreographers and dancers, many of whom would later do Santos the favor of performing for free in the Austin Festival of Dance. He also met Heywood "Woody" McGriff, one of the most beloved dancers, choreographers, and teachers at UT. Santos and McGriff were best friends, roommates, and co-workers until McGriff's death from AIDS in 1994.

"This is where the festival came from, from conversations with him. There was a part when we were watching TV, and I said I have this idea about making a dance festival. It took me about a year and a half before I actually, really did something. The first year it was all Austin dance. I went to the companies and they said yes, and I went to the Paramount and they gave me a date, and I just booked it. Then I went to ASA and said `Hi, I'm Joe Schmoe -- ha, ha -- Charles Santos, and I want to produce this festival,' and they said `Great.' They just gave me all this support and guided me along the way. I understood production, but I had to learn fundraising." And learn it he did. The first year, the Festival raised $40,000 for ASA. By the second year, ASA had asked him to join its board as Development Chair. Last year, the event raised $125,000, making it the second most successful fundraiser for AIDS care in Austin and the largest one involving dance in the United States.

The initial success, however, was bittersweet. "I remember the first year we did the festival, I was still performing in it with Sharir. Woody was performing Triptych, and I was sitting in the wings watching him and I was crying. It wasn't that I was just happy because of his performance and the festival was a big success. I was also crying because I knew that one day the festival would be dedicated to Woody." McGriff's final performance was at the Festival in 1994. He had been out of the hospital just three days and was to live only another month. In 1995, the Festival was indeed dedicated to his memory. Santos looks down at his coffee. "I can't believe I got through talking about that without tearing up."

In describing what makes the Festival a money maker, Santos is clear: the art. "I think one of the reasons it's been so successful -- and it's the philosophy behind so much of what I do -- is that I wasn't interested in making the Festival a forum, lecturing the audience that they should be doing more for AIDS. The focus is incredible art, the best dancers you can get. Everyone knows it's a benefit for AIDS, but we're not going to lecture them; the quilts weren't up, it wasn't targeted for the gay community. And my reason behind it was this: The gay community is already out there. People asked me why wasn't I showing the HIV performance artists here who are so wonderful. [The concerts featuring such artists] are very difficult to go to and those people who go are already out there supporting the issues. I'm after everyone else. I'm after the West Austin people or South Austin or whatever, who because of their personal beliefs or the stigma attached to AIDS aren't going. [With the Festival of Dance], they go because their daughter is in Ballet Folklorico or their friend is in Sharir. There is an extraordinary informal education that happens in the audience when you look down the row and you see a person living with AIDS, a Hispanic, an African American, the governor, and the mayor, and everyone realizes, I guess it's really okay to support this. I think part of the success of the Festival is that it's not a political event."

The success of the event has not gone unnoticed across the nation. "Never has it been an issue of begging people to come in. Everyone always says yes. David Parsons is coming in this year, San Francisco Ballet, and Doug Varone from New York. It's a great opportunity for this community. It's a great fundraiser and it's a diamond for Austin. It's so rare to see this level of artists on one stage. As a dance event, it's unmatched in this country. I kept thinking it's no big deal, but then I went to New York. I was shocked at the scale of what wasn't going on. Dancers do a lot of stuff but apparently there is no other AIDS benefit for dance this size in the country. What they raise in their fiscal year, we raise with one event."

New York sat up and took notice. First, there were inquiries from Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, which performed at the Festival last year. Then, a short while ago, a whirlwind courtship of Santos by the newly created Eos, which won critical acclaim for its first production, a Paul Bowles Festival, and is now planning a similar event based on John Cage's work.

"I never really thought I was marketable in New York," Santos says with honest modesty. "This has great potential for me. I just need to see what I can do there. But I would definitely like to come back here, to Austin. It's such a diamond, particularly artistically. It's so progressive. My moving to New York has nothing to do with wanting to leave here. That's the difficult part of the decision. But I need to test my wings there."

Luckily for Austin and the Festival of Dance, Santos will remain as artistic director while Christopher Boyd takes over as producer and co-artistic director. Santos will continue to work on the Festival in New York City and will come back to Austin every month. It's a tribute to Santos and a sign of how badly Eos wants him that they are willing to share him with Austin.

Santos sees being in New York all the time as a definite benefit for his growing festival. "This event is getting to the level of a Spoleto Festival, and we have to start booking two years in advance. That's much more feasible now with one of us here and one of us there. I would really like to see the Festival grow into a week-long event, with symposiums and performances. I think we have the facilities here to do a summer festival like Jacob's Pillow or the American Dance Festival. With the University, we certainly have the facilities here and we could work in a week of the Festival with something like that."

There are big plans and exciting adventures ahead, but for now, Santos has to run. His pager has gone off twice while we've been talking, there are resignations to write, items to pack. He is a man on the go, a rising star in the national arts and AIDS fundraising worlds. Austin will miss his constant presence, but partings are not endings, as Santos reminds me in his final comments on his great friend Woody McGriff.

"When [the UT Theatre and Dance Department] dedicated the studio to Woody, he said in his speech, `Don't be sad. Believe in the cycle and remember me. Rejoice. Don't be sad.'" Austin may be losing a major force but Charles Santos' legacy of the Austin Dance Festival will go on, and it will continue to grow. The cycle will go on. n

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