News Column

Bodiography founder Maria Caruso reaches beyond ballet classics

June 22, 2014

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

June 22--The path to a career in many professions can seem clear cut. In the performing arts, there are conservatories, as well as colleges and universities. Yet, the actual life experienced on the way to one's career is far more complicated and circuitous.

Maria Caruso was drawn to dance before she was 3. In 2000, she founded Bodiography Contemporary Ballet in New York City, which she continued when she returned to Pittsburgh in 2001. Now a thriving company at the site of Gene Kelly's dance studio in Squirrel Hill, it provides her with the opportunity to create new ballets, teach dance and exercise and create a positive self image for people who don't fit the stereotype of a ballet dancer's body.

Caruso lived most of her early life in Rural Valley, near Kittanning.

Her mother, Janie Caruso, says her daughter is "just a driven person in whatever she does. She talked at an early age and was in kindergarten when she was 4 1/2 . She was definitely the entertainer, the star of the stage at 2 1/2 . Usually, little kids want to dance for the fun of it. Maria was more serious. She paid attention and wanted to do it right."

Caruso says her parents had a turbulent relationship and that it was about the time they split for the third and final time that she encountered her first really important teacher.

"In sixth grade, I met Luba Takamoto, with whom I have lost touch. She told me after my audition, 'You're pretty much terrible, but you have a lot of passion. I can take you under my wing and make you a dancer,' " Caruso says.

"I danced 12 hours a week. It was like therapy for me," she says. "I loved the academic perspective, too. She gave me a work book from which I learned all the French ballet words. That's when I gained great respect for the art form and its history. I modeled my dance school after that experience because I felt it was incredibly valuable."

Caruso's second important teacher before college has remained a friend.

"Maria did everything a little bit faster than most kids," says Sue Hewett, who opened Sue Hewett Dance Studio in Indiana after her years with Caruso. "She graduated high school early (16) and college early (19). She was in junior high school when she began studying with me. I introduced her to modern dance.

"From what I can see, she's always been a very passionate person. She wanted to learn it all, do it all, be the best. We've kept in touch. We've danced together a few times. We've always had a special bond."

In high school, Caruso took part in an experimental program which allowed her to take college courses. She had a strong interest in medicine, and wanted for a while to be a doctor. But, when it was time to enroll in college, dance was her objective. She checked out various schools and picked Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Caruso got off to a fast start at Florida State, performing in both classical and contemporary works on the same show as a freshman.

"I was known for my extensions and could take my leg to my ear, but my body was changing," she says. "As I grew as a woman and became more voluptuous, I no longer fit the stereotype of a ballet dancer, even though I weighed 115."

Caruso was helped through this period by another of her teachers, Anjali Austin.

"She's a very strict, hardcore professor, but also very nurturing," Caruso says. "She knew my body was changing. She suggested I work more in contemporary ballet; but, in my heart, I could never take off my pointe shoes."

"Maria came to college pretty early, at 17," says Austin, who is associate professor at the school of dance at Florida State and specializes in ballet. "I would say she was absolutely engaged and focused -- curious, as we want all students to be. She also had a love of life, as she does now. She came in with a very strong ballet background and took strongly to contemporary. She had a wonderful hunger for the field."

Austin says Caruso was hard-working. "You never know who is going to make it once they have their degree. Maria had a temperament, a stick-to-it-iveness that made it seem like she would really make it work for herself."

Caruso was a sponge for dance in college, even traveling to New York City one summer for an intensive program at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

While in college, Caruso was clear with herself that she never wanted to be director of a dance company, never wanted to own a dance school and never wanted to be a choreographer. She just wanted to be a dancer.

But, after college, when she was up in New York City to further her career, she got some free studio space and decided maybe it would be a good idea to get some friends together, start a company and start workshopping material.

She admits she had no idea what she was doing when she got her company off the ground. Paying the 13 dancers well and providing good hotel accommodations while on tour, Caruso burned through money she assembled mainly by selling the car she had spent most of college paying for. She was $50,000 in debt when the company had to fold. It was mom to the rescue to pay off those credit cards, a loan since repaid.

Caruso returned to Pittsburgh in 2001 and taught dance at a number of studios along with other jobs, including hosting a national shopping-network show from midnight to 2 a.m.

After a year, she decided it was time to start a school and knew she wanted it to serve the needs of dancers who didn't fit the ballerina stereotype.

When she saw a newspaper ad for rental space on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill and realized it had been the site of Gene Kelly's dance studio, she leapt at the opportunity.

Caruso's academic orientation has been well-served since returning to Pittsburgh. She earned a masters in professional leadership with an emphasis on management for nonprofit organizations from Carlow College. And she joined the faculty at LaRoche College, where she had taken courses in high school, to direct the dance program.

Bodiography is a multitiered organization which includes a contemporary dance company, along with dance classes and exercise programs. And it has offered her the opportunity to resurrect her old interest in medicine with a series of ballet inspired by medical research and patient care in Pittsburgh's large medical community.

She worked with five researchers for her ballet "108 Minutes" about regenerative medicine, including Eric Lagasse, who is a scientist at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. After observing the researchers at work, she invited them to be part of her ballet. Lagasse was one of two who said yes.

"It was quite an experience, because she started (saying), 'Don't worry, you'll be just standing on the corner of the stage.' In three weeks it was, 'I want you to do a few turns as a dancer,' " Lagasse says.

After three training sessions, his role turned out to be a couple of minutes of dancing.

"It's not really my thing. I dance occasionally at parties but am not someone who goes out dancing," he says. "It was very exciting the night we did the show. It's quite amazing when the curtain comes up and a thousand pair of eyes are looking at you and you have to perform. I am a scientist."

Caruso likes the way, even at age 33, that life comes full circle. She now teaches at LaRoche where once she was a student. She likes seeing it, too, in the lives of people she she's nurtured.

"Maria is like a second mother to me in some ways. If it weren't for her, I know I wouldn't be the dancer or person I am today," says Chelsea Zimmer. Now 21, Zimmer began studying at Bodiography Center for Movement when she was 15 and a freshman in high school. She continued studying with Caruso at LaRoche College. After graduation she became a member of Bodiography Contemporary Ballet.

"She was able to see my passion for dance. I don't have the best facility, the best legs or the best feet. I had challenges to overcome," Zimmer says. "When Maria sees passion, she takes you in and does everything she can to bring you to where you want to be. She believes in people. She has a great heart."

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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(c)2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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