SAN DIEGO — Ask Tony Caligagan how he got started in professional dance and he'll smile and say: "I just dove in--head first."
Nine months ago, with no job, no place to live, and only $900 to his name, Caligagan left San Diego for the Big Apple to compete in the fast lane of big-league dance. Now he's on his way to a European tour with the New York-based Contemporary Motions Dance Company and confident of his future in the international dance world.
"As soon as I got to New York, right away everything just started clicking," he said in a recent interview. "It was like it was fated to be. I found an apartment the day after I arrived, and I got an Alvin Ailey scholarship."
While studying at the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, Caligagan was chosen to be one of Ailey's instruments in the creation of a new work for the Royal Danish Ballet.
"I'll never forget the first time Ailey talked to me. I was just finishing taking class and he said, 'Hi, Tony, very good work.' Well, it nearly floored me, because I didn't even know he paid any attention to me, let alone that he knew my name."
With the dean of black dance as his mentor, Caligagan made enormous strides in the Ailey idiom although, as the 24-year-old dancer observed, the personalized coaching was aimed at strengthening Caligagan's dramatic thrust, not the kinetic side of his performing style.
"Ailey doesn't correct--not your technique. He really emphasized the emotional aspects," Caligagan says. "His dances are very theatrical and he brings out the dramatic qualities in a dancer. He complimented me and talked about what I needed to work on and he helped me a lot. Ailey has a real knack for making you want to dance."
Caligagan's success in the Ailey technique--a rich amalgam of modern, jazz and ballet--is all the more amazing given the fact that his formal dance training didn't even begin until four years ago.
"I started in college (Southwestern), but I got off to a quick start. I took two classes a day and then went to six a day," he said. "In the first couple of months, I was already performing, but I had quite a bit of coordination because I was a wrestler and I played football and tennis. What I didn't have was feet and technique. And I still have trouble with my feet."
Despite his perceived shortcomings, Caligagan appeared with almost every troupe in San Diego before leaving for New York. Among his local credits are Three's Company, Jazz Unlimited (where he performed as a principal), California Ballet, San Diego Opera, Starlight and Stage Seven Dance Theater.
Caligagan also chalked up some television credits, with Jazz Unlimited and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In December, he performed with Alvin Ailey III in "Memoria," Ailey's annual Christmas offering at City Center in New York.
Caligagan's Cinderella story is unusual, but it's not so surprising in light of his darkly alluring good looks and tall, commanding stage presence. He stands 6 feet tall in a world where most of the men are diminutive.
"I think that's my biggest asset," he said. "I auditioned for the Ailey company in January, and he really liked me, but there were no openings for men at the time. A lot of the Ailey men are getting up there (in years) now, so he asked me to try again in August. I think I have a good chance of making the company then."
In the meantime, Caligagan will be traveling with Contemporary Motions Dance Company, a six-member multi-ethnic ensemble led by Julio Enrique Rivera (an Alvin Ailey faculty member with an impressive performance background). The company is dedicated to "an integration of styles, techniques, varied backgrounds and work experiences that the members bring with them," Rivera said.
"Over the years, Julio has acted as ambassador for Alvin Ailey in Europe and in the United States," Caligagan said. "And now that he's made all these contacts, he has put together a company. The troupe has been in existence for about two years now, but Julio is still trying to pick up two more dancers. He's an excellent dancer himself--a Puerto Rican Baryshnikov."
As Caligagan describes the composition of the company: "We have one Filipino, one Puerto Rican, they don't know what I am--they haven't figured it out yet--and one Caucasian who's a dynamite dancer, one black girl, and another mixed. The women are excellent--they're all very versatile.
"The choreography is Julio's, and he's very good. He loves the Alvin Ailey (style), and he's worked with Bill T. Jones as assistant choreographer."
Caligagan is ecstatic about working with Rivera and full of enthusiasm for the tour.
"They're going to work us to death," he predicted, "but it's a wonderful experience. I never even traveled by plane until I went to New York, and I'm very excited about it. I'm assistant to the choreographer, so I have to know all the steps. Fortunately, Julio is very dancer-oriented. He cares about his dancers."
Will San Diego ever get Caligagan back again?
"Oh, sure," he said. "I wanted to dance in the (recent Dance Alliance) concert, but I had to get back to New York to get ready for the tour. I would like to eventually come back and choreograph here."