News Column

Weslaco native ascends to Italian superstar

September 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 08--As Garrison Rochelle gave Mckenzie Brunnemann a tour of the island of Capri, he had to apologize for his fame.

"People freak out and they scream his name," the Weslaco High School student said. "People run after him and always want a picture with him."

She pulled out her cellphone to capture almost a minute of excited fans, lining up for photos along the shop-lined streets of Capri.

It's just how things go in Garrison's world. As an Italian superstar, he must endure constant adoration from fans.

But he rejects the title "superstar" altogether, saying that title belongs to other people -- not him.

"As far as being a celebrity, I really keep that in check, as well, because one day all of this kind of celebrity thing, it's not going to be the way it is now," the 59-year-old dancer said. "When you don't do television for a while, the people will forget and they go on to other things. So I really try to keep that as unimportant as possible."

Garrison works as a choreographer and teacher on the extremely popular reality television show Amici di Maria de Filippi. It's sort of a cross between Fame and Dancing with the Stars. On the show, 26 students learn from teachers and choreographers new techniques and dances, and then perform and they either gets kicked out or keep their spot.

"At the end of the year, one wins, and they win quite a bit of money and we also have contracts (for them)," Garrison said. "I have a student that's with Parsons Dance Company in New York; I have another student that's with the Boston Ballet. So this program has done a lot of good things for careers."

Friends have referred to Garrison's status as a star similar to that of American Idol's Simon Cowell.

"I think he's very well-loved by the community," said Melody Brunnemann, Mckenzie's mom.

'HOOKED' ON DANCING

Garrison grew up in Weslaco (and graduated from Weslaco High with the class of '74), and he was good friends with the Eoff sisters Cindy, Linda and Melody.

He was a very popular kid in high school, he said, so it was no surprise when a friend asked him to escort her to a cotillion ball.

She introduced him to Dotti Burton, a dance teacher in Weslaco, so he could learn how to waltz.

"The minute I walked into that dance studio, I was hooked," he said.

Being a 15-year-old dancer in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1970s wasn't easy, he said.

"I grew up in the country and I don't come from a family of artists," Garrison explained. "It's a redneck country and boys don't dance. It kind of threw everybody back a bit -- especially me."

Although it was not a popular choice, Garrison held tight to his decision to make dance his life.

"When I found dancing, it gave me such a direction that God knows what I could've ended up doing," he said.

Any chance of Garrison taking a harder path to life, paved with drugs and worse, ended as soon as he started dancing, he said.

Garrison earned a partial scholarship to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas that he knew his family wouldn't be able to afford, and when he told his father his plan to major in dance, he realized he was going to have to do it alone.

"I packed up my car with my clothes and I was off to Dallas," he said. "It was hard, but it was also good for me because I had to take care of myself, too. I held a graveyard shift at the IHOP and I went to school during the day."

Following his graduation, the talented dancer started landing gig after gig in Texas and beyond.

He danced in Dallas Ballet, Houston Ballet and Hartford Ballet.

After dancing for the Hartford Ballet Company in Connecticut, he realized that classical ballet wasn't enough for him -- he needed to sing and act, too.

So he quit in the middle of a contract.

"The director of the company said, 'You can't.' And I said, 'Well, I can.' And he said, 'Well, you can't because I'll blackball you ...'" Garrison said.

Finally, they worked out a deal that would have the dancer maintain his job in the ballet company and finish out his year-long contract, and audition in New York City.

"Every time I went for an audition, I got a call back and I ended up getting four musicals in two months," Garrison said.

He performed in Cabaret, Gigi, and Peter Pan with Debbie Reynolds, along with a lot of summer shows.

"The most I ever made as a classical dancer was $175 a week," he said. "Even in 1979, that wasn't that much."

Garrison said he doesn't regret his time working as a starving artist and living with three roommates in order to pay rent, but he does remember quite well one of the perks to being a Broadway performer.

"I got my first check and it was for $3,999," he said. "So I went to the office and I said, 'I think you made a mistake, I thought it was $399.'"

He went to the bank and gushed to the teller about how he made so much money doing what he loves to do.

"That was pretty amazing," he said.

Ballet led to Broadway, which led to touring shows with Bob Fosse as choreographer, which then led to Europe, and ultimately, Italy.

While there performing in Dancin', Garrison was courted by Heather Parisi, who had the No. 1 TV show in Italy, to dance, he said. At first he declined, thinking it was a cheesy program, and he felt like his career was going well enough back in the United States.

"I was just starting to get noticed in New York, and people were starting to call me instead of me having to go to the cattle calls," he said.

He changed his mind, though.

"I thought, 'What the hell? It's six months and I'll learn the language,'" he said.

He was offered a contract with the television show called Fantastico 4, where he would dance as part of a duo called "Brian & Garrison," with another American dancer named Brian Bullard.

He accepted, and the two became very famous in the country with their act.

Many other TV shows and specials followed for about 10 years, but when they refused to include a woman in their act, their popularity faded and the two dancers went their separate ways.

Choreography was always an interest for Garrison, and when he shifted his focus from execution to creation, he found his new calling.

"When I hear music, I see movement," he said. "It's a gift. Not a lot of dancers have that gift ... it gave me a second wind. So here I am at 59 years old, still doing it."

In 2001, he got his second chance at fame, too, when he was asked to join the cast of Amici.

ITALIAN STAR

Garrison will be starting the 13th season of Amici, and the show is still going strong -- it remains the No. 1 show, even when competing with Italian soccer, he said.

He has attended parties with Madonna, visited Giorgio Armani at his house in Italy and met countless other celebrities. But he still doesn't quite see himself as a star.

Citro n, a French car company that sells autos in Italy, asked Garrison to sign the dash of a handful of cars, which were then sold to the public.

"I think it's kind of bizarre because I would never go and buy a car with someone's name in it," he said. "There are very few people I would freak out to meet."

That list includes Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and the pope -- whom he will meet this month.

"I did a benefit for the pope," he said. "I went to this place that's ... one of the poorest parts of Rome that I'd never been. It was really a reality check."

He served as a judge of a contest a priest had set up for children who were born into poverty. When asked what he wanted in return, Garrison only asked for two rosaries blessed by the pope -- one for himself and one for his mother, Molly.

Two days later, the priest called to let Garrison know that not only did the pope bless the rosaries, but he also invited the dancer to have lunch with him.

"Isn't that amazing? And I really like this pope! I like what he's doing," Garrison said. "... I feel closer to my religion and I feel more comfortable with my religion now than I ever have with any of the other popes because they didn't make me feel like I needed them."

In addition to his work on Amici, Garrison is also filming an online cooking show called Ricette a Stelle e Strisce, in which he teaches his Italian viewers how to make popular American dishes, like cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies.

asmith@themonitor.com

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