When I found out that Joe Celej of the Houston Met was from my hometown, Buffalo NY, I knew we had to talk. Buffalo binds people through its rich history, stories of decline, and a ton of snow. I danced in Buffalo before heading for the first train out, so I was curious about Celej’s Buffalo dancing life and how he, too, ended up in Houston.
Celej has studied a variety of forms of dance from master teachers throughout the country and studied on scholarship at Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and The Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles while in high school. Upon receiving his BFA in dance performance from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was a performing and creative arts honors scholar, Celej joined the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and has performed at various venues including the Jazz Dance World Congress, the Pink Ribbons Project, and the Illuminations Project for World AIDS Day. Currently the resident choreographer for the HMDC, Celej has also set works on the Zodiaque Dance Company, Episcopal High School, the Met Too youth company, and at various dance schools in the Houston area where he is also a faculty member.
DH: First off, let’s talk weather (A way of life for Buffalo people). What do you think of these Houston weather wimps that go nuts when it rains? Don’t you think they all need a good dose of a Buffalo winter?
JC: It never ceases to amaze me that, given just a touch of precipitation, traffic is at a near stand still on the highways. Drop the temperature to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, add some hardcore wind, and in Buffalo you have a normal winter day; in Houston that day would be remembered as “the day we decided to leave Houston.”
DH: Buffalo is a town with a rich cultural tradition. Its dance days come and go. Merce Cunningham premiered Rain Forest there right at University of Buffalo (UB). What was the dance scene like when you were there?
JC: Considering its blue collar sensitivity, the arts in general are fairly strong and supported in Buffalo. Western New York is steeped in vaudeville history and many of the dancers and dance instructors in WNY have very strong tap and acrobatic skills–and plenty of showmanship to go with it. There are a few good ballet schools/companies in Buffalo, the newest being the Neglia Ballet Artists, who have upped the ante on ballet in Buffalo. But I think the Center for the Arts on UB’s north campus by far brings the most exposure of concert dance to Buffalo. While I was enrolled, we had a multitude of professional companies in residence (Limon Dance Co, David Parsons Dance Co, Taylor and Taylor2, Martha Graham Dance Ensemble, ABT2, Cello Movement Theatre, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Ballet Folklorico, and Pandit Ganghani of India to name a few). There’s also the University’s own Zodiaque Dance Co and three other performance companies.
DH: Where there any modern dance companies surviving during your days?
JC: I left out Buffalo Contemporary Dance in the previous question because they are (in addition to Zodiaque), Buffalo’s only modern dance company. Buffalo Contemporary is directed by Leslie Wexler and performs on a regular basis. There are also traditional African Dance performances through Buffalo’s African Cultural Center.
DH: I took a dance class my first summer after high school in 1974 on the old UB campus. The studios were in poor shape. Tell me about your time at UB.Were you in that lovely new arts center?
JC: I had the luxury of spending my time at UB in the Center for the Arts, a building that houses not only performing artists, but all of the fine and graphic arts as well. The facility is quite amazing and I am yet to come across any theatres that even come close to the technical capabilities at UB. In a way, it’s spoiling to train and grow in such a limitless environment–but it was always very exciting. The classes at UB are generally strong, with jazz and musical theater as the anchors. However, my acting, technical theater, and design classes were some of the most inspiring and incredibly useful experiences at school.
DH: Tell me about your experience at UB under Tom Relabate. I hear he is quite a mover and shaker.
JC: “Mr. Tom,” as most call him, is an incredible teacher and I am so fortunate to have been able to have him as my mentor throughout college. He draws his vast knowledge of dance through so many different first-hand experiences that he truly is a jazz and vernacular dance historian. Tom (and his sister) were former North American Latin and Ballroom champions, which I think is where he developed his innate sense of style at a young age. He has studied or danced with jazz pioneers such as Phil Black, Matt Mattox, Jack Cole, Luigi, and Ron Lewis, which has afforded him the experience of watching jazz dance evolve as an idiom and as an art form. He is, at the core, a stylist; always stressing movement as a form of expression or the capturing of a moment or feeling–a lesson he shares in every class and rehearsal he is a part of.
DH: When you were born and looked around at Buffalo was your first question, when can I leave?
JC: I have always taken a silly pride in Buffalo and Western New York–call it what you like, but the region is steeped in so much history (from the Erie Canal to its Native American Culture) that it holds a special place in my heart. Still–I think there comes a time when every Buffalonian dreams of going to the city and that comparison will always be there–especially under the current economic and political instability Buffalo is facing.
DH: Hey, there is no such thing as “silly pride” when it comes to Buffalo. Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Frank Lloyd Wright all did time there. Plus, don’t forget, we are the birthplace of electricity and the first place to have alternating current. That’s not so shabby! Houston is such a different kind of city. What works for you dancewise in Houston?
JC: I call the Met my Houston dance home because of its mission of diversity and versatility. I cannot dance in just one form or discipline–the more the merrier for me. I also enjoy teaching throughout the Houston area–my students are all very important to me and I feel fulfilled watching them grow and improve.
DH: You have a very fluid way of dancing that seems unencumbered by any particular style. To what do you attribute that to?
JC: I feel it is one thing to be able to get on stage and perform well–but it is entirely another thing to be able to walk into any type or form of class and excel. This has and probably will always be my goal. I like to learn new ways of approaching movement and I think this allows me to place less of my own movement habits on other’s choreography.
DH: Do you want to say a word or two about your new piece?
JC: It’s a fun tap extravaganza with movement and rhythms that counter and join in a mixture of music and text. The idea focuses on a Hot Spot, each dancer being put in a Hot Spot and still dancing.
DH: One of the great things about being from Buffalo is that so many Buffalonians have left Buffalo you are bound to meet them wherever you live. Let’s get together for some wings and beef on wick soon. (For those of you lacking in Buffalo culinary history, chicken wings and beef on kummelwick rolls originated there). Best of luck on your next performance.
The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company performs at the Cullen on Saturday, April 16th at 8pm. Call 713-522-6375 or visit http://www.houstonmetdance.com/.