Stage Fright: Stuart Shugg of the Trisha Brown Dance Company

January 25th, 2013

Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Stuart Shugg, a new member of the Trisha Brown company, outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I ADMIT it. I don’t know much about modern dance, or postmodern dance, for that matter. I like it when I see it though I don’t see it often. When I try to read about it, I can barely decipher all that windy talk of space and weight and freedom. Say what?

But when I saw that the Trisha Brown Dance Company would be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week with a program that includes the New York premieres of Ms. Brown’s two final works, I found myself curious. Not so much about Ms. Brown, 76, and her storied career. I mean yes, brava, job well done. But who, I wondered, is the newest person in the company? The one with the least experience, performing the last dances of a pioneer, for whom the stakes are highest?

Among the male dancers, that turned out to be Stuart Shugg, a 25-year-old Australian whose life story bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Billy Elliot. The Billy of stage and screen, son of a British coal miner, has a passion and aptitude for ballet that propel him out of his small town and into the Royal Ballet; for Mr. Shugg, who joined the company in late 2011, the passion was and is modern dance. To watch him is riveting, but to hear him tell his story was, for me at least, even better. We dispensed with his stage fright first.

“It’s tough being the newest dancer because you’re the one being consistently taught,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of material to remember, and I’ve spent countless hours in studios by myself, practicing and recording. I’m learning the final version of the new dances since I don’t know how they got there. I’ve gone back through the building tapes to see, ‘Look, this is how they fell out of that lift, and that’s how this next movement came about.’ Those bodies spent a long time with Trisha Brown, developing that particular vocabulary. I’m trying to live up to what I consider their legends.

“Also, I am nervous to be in New York, having those eyes on you. The company’s history is here.”

We were talking in an empty room at the academy, where Mr. Shugg had just finished seven hours rehearsing. Even in that last hour, his control and concentration were pure and complete. As he held a pose, still as a statue, the only thing that betrayed his monumental effort was the bottom of his wildly shaking T-shirt.

His blue eyes, beneath his Brooke Shields eyebrows, were rimmed red with fatigue, and his face reddened too when he spoke about his background and the inevitable Billy Elliot comparison.

“I feel so silly,” he said of his childhood in Red Cliffs, a country town outside of Mildura, a small city in the southeastern state of Victoria, 6 hours’ drive from Melbourne, 11 from Sydney. His father, a carpenter, was raised there; his mother is a nurse.

“It is so often the clich? story, but I remember holding my mom’s hand in the supermarket aisles, prancing around, not being able to stop moving,” he said, smiling. “We found a jazz-dance class run by one of the local moms, just basic jazz moves. Something to do in a bored town.”

He also choreographed his own dances, set to the Back Street Boys, which his class performed for the state premier. With the rest of his kinetic energy, he played cricket. (Billy boxed.) “My dad was the coach,” he said. “I was the worst player on the team, and when we moved into Mildura, when I was 12, we joked that we really had to leave. But my parents were always incredibly supportive of me. In Mildura I was the only boy in ballet class.”

After attending a Roman Catholic high school, Mr. Shugg earned a scholarship to the Victoria College of the Arts in contemporary dance. At graduation he was named best dancer.

“A lot of the teachers there had been in New York for many years,” he said, “including Stephen Petronio, who danced with Trisha Brown. But it was always this one step removed. Australia is so far away and isolated, even to find a video of the movement was impossible. When I came to New York for the first time, I spent days at Lincoln Center library watching tapes of Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor — my own history of modern dance.”

Alex Witchel writes about opening-day jitters. Suggestions can be e-mailed to

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.