Randall Newsom demonstrates a dance technique to an NIU student.
Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 22, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — When Randall Newsom once heard from a professor of voice that he could sing well – but not yet “great” – it really didn’t matter.
Newsom possessed a much stronger instrument.
His body’s incredible mastery of dancing, both ballet and modern, would elevate him from a modest start in the Appalachia town of Elkhorn City, Ky., to premiere stages across the United States and the United Kingdom.
By the mid-1970s, Newsom became a top performer, choreographer and teacher in the UK. In 1975 and 1976, he was co-artistic director of England’s Cycles Ballet Company. In 1977 and 1978, he served as soloist and principal character dancer with the National Ballet of Ireland.
One year later, realizing that his best days as a professional dancer were coming to an end, Newsom found his true home at Northern Illinois University. Soon he will take his final bow after three decades as coordinator of the dance program in the School of Theatre and Dance.
“Thirty years is a long time,” Newsom says, “but I’m not going to give up teaching. When you’re teaching at a university, you can’t take the guest teaching jobs. The Virginia School of the Arts – a residential high school program – I’m going to teach two weeks there. And the Ballet Nouveau in Colorado. This gives me a little more flexibility.”
He also will continue to dance. Companies routinely call him with offers for “old dancers,” and he recently performed as Drosselmeyer in a Chicago production of “The Nutcracker” and as Evil Fairy in a Rockford production of “Sleeping Beauty.”
“Randy is just a fabulous, fabulous teacher and the institutional memory and conscience personified,” says Alex Gelman, director of the school. “We’ll miss him in the way we miss everybody who’s a master teacher and who’s unique. People like him are not replaced. Someone else will be teaching his classes – and someone who we hope is amazing – but Randy’s Randy.”
A gala event is planned at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 26, in the O’Connell Theatre of the Stevens Building. As part of the annual Spring Dance Concert, it will include alumni performances and a video presentation about Newsom after the intermission.
Dance performances without the Newsom tribute also are scheduled for Thursday, April 23, through Saturday, April 25. Call (815) 753-1600 for more information.
Newsom’s life of rhythmic movement began when he was young as his mother drove him miles and miles for lessons in dance, piano and trumpet.
“It became part of my life,” he says. “It was just a thing like brushing your teeth.”
At Dan McCarty High School in Fort Pierce, Fla., he made plans to join a dance company after graduation. His mother, of course, had different ideas. “She said, ‘You must get a degree,’ ” he says. “The only thing I felt comfortable with was music.”
So he earned degrees in music education, a bachelor’s at Pikeville College in Pikeville, Ky., and a master’s at Eastern Kentucky University. And he taught, first as the K-12 vocal teacher at the Elkhorn City schools, later at Pikeville and then in the public schools of Georgetown, Ky.
But dance tugged at him.
“It’s harder here in America. I’m so tall compared to the other guys. I looked like the Clydesdale compared to the Shetland ponies,” says Newsom, who is prone to jokes, quick to laugh and the owner of a deep and robust voice tailored for radio. “I’m 6 feet 4 inches; they’re 5 feet 7 inches. That’s a major difference.”
Newsom moved to Britain, where he would make his mark as a professional dancer. His resume from those years – the 1970s – is long. Reviewers sang his praises.
From the Nov. 3, 1975, Daily Telegraph: “ ‘Terminus,’ a solo danced by the remarkable American performer Randy Newsom, showed a beautiful flowing line with the excellent control of held positions and ended well with the dancer retreating into the security of a fetal position.”
From the June 26, 1976, Litchfield Mercury: “Most striking in the first half of the programme was Mr. Newsom’s performance of Hilary Matthews’ ‘Sunwheels.’ His gymnastic flow and firm control of held positions resulted in a virtuoso display.”
From the December 1978 issue of Dance and Dancers magazine: “Randall Newsom’s elderly Flaherty was imaginatively portrayed, not least in his controlled tipsiness in the last scene, which was hilarious to watch without being at all overdone.”
Those UK years also brought the Southern boy from the States to create and choreograph “down so long it looks like up,” a character piece of “winos, bag ladies and displaced elderly.”
He pinpoints its origins to feeling lonely and homesick in London and the day he purchased an LP record that reduced him to tears as it played on the turntable in his small apartment. It has become such a hallmark of Newsom’s repertoire that he now jokingly calls it “done so much.”
In 1978, an old friend from back home named Toni Beck called him with an offer. She had started a new professional company in Texas – the Repertory Dance Company of the Southwest – and could use him.
Newsom took the job, and used the occasion of his return to apply for university teaching jobs. NIU and Kansas State University gave him interviews.
“I liked NIU a bit better. It was a new program. It was close to Chicago, a large city with more opportunities,” he says. “I felt very lucky getting a job here. I like to watch the improvement, helping someone develop the skills to become an artist. Sometimes you just see this glimmer, and it just blooms.”
And so, with only four students, he began to build a program. It started with a requirement for all students to take modern and ballet dance classes five days a week to develop their physical strength and their skills.
Soon they presented “Bluebird,” the first classical pas de deux (dance for two) ever performed at NIU. By 1985, his students were able to tackle the complicated piece “Paquita.” By 1989, Newsom’s students staged “Sleeping Beauty,” their first full-length classical ballet.
Another milestone: In 1998, Newsom’s students were chosen to perform “Paquita” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of the 25th anniversary of the American College Dance Festival Association.
Now NIU prides itself on being the only university in Illinois that performs the classical ballets, such as “The Nutcracker,” “Giselle” and “Le Corsaire.”
Meanwhile, Newsom says, only current students are put on stage. No alums return to dance. “It’s very good training,” he says, “and harder work for everybody.”
Graduates of NIU’s dance program began to earn recognition for their training as well as plum spots in the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York and major companies across the United States and Canada, including Dayton Ballet, BalletMet Columbus, Louisville Ballet, Memphis Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Southern Ballet Theatre.
Some join Dance Loop, the professional company of Newsom’s NIU colleague Paula Frasz. One performs in Cirque du Soleil. Another dances on a Disney cruise ship.
“Randy has really made sure our students are the most trained professional dancers they can be. When they get into the business, they are fully ready to go and to handle what’s going to be asked of them, technically, artistically and discipline-wise,” colleague Judith Chitwood says. “He has always put the students first. It’s never about what he ultimately gets out of it. It’s ultimately what the students get out of it.”
Through the years, Newsom earned advanced certification in Benesh Movement Notation, a highly complex system of recording movement that allows choreographers to retain their work, pass it on to other companies and even secure copyrights.
He also has nurtured a passion for the romantic ballet of the early 1800s, a period being lost to history, and has resurrected some of those pieces for modern audiences. One, “La Vivandiere,” is on the program for this week’s Spring Dance Concert.
In 1988, he won NIU’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award.
Newsom is confident he is leaving the house he built in good hands with faculty who believe in the program’s philosophy and construction that stress equal training in modern dance and ballet.
“I’ll miss the camaraderie with the other professors and the students. I’ll miss the people in tech who help us with the productions – the sets, the lights, the costumes,” he says. “This is a small school with big ambitions that turns out ambitious dancers. It’s very rewarding, and it’s nice to be a part of this community.”
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