Homeward Bound: How a skilled dancer decided to bring his talents back to Akron

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by Hillary Martter

After spending several years in Manhattan, it can be a little disconcerting to transfer elsewhere. Matthew Roberts, a professional dancer who was born and raised in Akron, discloses his thoughts on having to re-familiarize himself with his hometown.

New York is more accessible. The subway there makes it very easy to get around and things are closer together, as well,” admits Roberts. “I don’t have a car yet, so getting around can be a bit difficult and tedious right now. I’ll also have to relearn the lay of the land — I’ve forgotten where things are after seven years.”

Despite the commute-related difficulties, Roberts is excited to be back in Akron.

Roberts fell into dancing at the age of 10 — considerably much later than the average professional begins his or her training, as many have their first class around age three and are seriously committed by the age of seven or eight — when he accompanied his older sisters to an audition. Bored with waiting in the back of the auditorium, he began to mimic the moves of the dancers onstage. Having never taken a dance class, he caught the eye of some of the instructors, and the rest is history.

“I really enjoyed tap growing up, it was fun to perform and watch. The intricate rhythms that were possible always amazed me,” he remembers of his start at Ed Davis Dance Troupe. Still, “My strength was in ballet… [and] I liked the formula of the technique. It reminded me of math. As long as you did everything correctly, things tended to work out. But,” Roberts adds, “…practice is still an integral component.”

Though smaller in scale compared to larger cities, Akron has a rather impressive dance scene and deep-rooted history in performance art. As a pre-professional student at The University of Akron’s Dance Institute, Roberts was exposed to area companies such as Ohio Ballet and GroundWorks DanceTheater from a young age.

Even with the great opportunities available to young dancers in Akron, most still grow up and train tirelessly knowing they stand the greatest chance of realizing their professional-career dreams in larger cities — namely, New York City. After talks of Juilliard and other conservatory programs in his senior year at Akron’s Ellet High School, Roberts had narrowed down his choice of colleges to SUNY Purchase and Marymount Manhattan College. In the end, he chose Marymount.

I chose [the school] because I wanted to be in the city, and I enjoyed the smaller size of the college and dance department,” Roberts says. It ended up being a good choice. “I was exposed to a lot a variety there. We had an impressive array of guest artist work with us.”

As his technique blossomed and his knowledge of dance grew even further, Roberts suddenly faced a blind-siding setback.  His oldest sister, Danielle, passed away just before the start of his junior fall semester.

“I didn’t want to take a semester off and get stuck in a rut, but I also hated being in school and acting like everything was OK. After a strenuous fall season, I decided to pick myself up, and I choreographed a dance for her,” Roberts recalls. “Of the seven works I’ve created, it is still my favorite. I was able to recover from such a low point in my life with the help of dance.”

After enduring heartbreak, Roberts forged on with an established résumé and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in Choreography. Post-graduation, he set out on the audition circuit.  A gig with Blue Muse Dance Company introduced him to site-specific performance art (the dancers performed on the Pulaski Bridge, which links the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens), and from there he accepted a job with Lustig Dance Theatre in New Jersey, where he remained for three seasons.

After a sprained ankle acquired during a “Nutcracker” performance threatened his future as a dancer, Roberts took some time to consider his options.

Again, he was resilient.

“The road to [recovery] was a long one, filled with months of physical therapy, depression, modified ballet classes… ice baths and a couple [instances] of re-rolling the ankle,” he explains. But, recover he did.

After healing, regaining strength and setting up residence in the Bronx, Roberts fully intended to again audition for NYC-based companies. However, after a few brief discussions with friends and loved ones back in Akron, he started to chart a new course.

“Opportunities kept falling into place like a movie, and I eventually realized that the Lord was definitely helping me make this a reality,” he says of his decision to relocate back to Akron.

Roberts is now a company member with Neos Dance Theatre. They perform ballet and contemporary work in Akron, Mansfield, Oberlin and Findlay. In Akron, you can see their performances at the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival at Firestone, Hardesty or Goodyear Parks, or Glendale Cemetery this year. Dates and locations to be announced.

 

Hillary Martter wears many hats, one of which leads her to write on occasion. She currently resides in Akron with her newborn pup, Lena.

 

(FEATURED PHOTO: Diego Guallpa, courtesy of Matthew Roberts)

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