This weekend at the Eisemann Center, the Tuzer Ballet Company will put on its 30th anniversary production of The Nutcracker. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the festivities have been clouded by the fact that Tanju Tuzer, the founder of the Richardson company, has been diagnosed with colon cancer.
When asked if this will be his last Nutcracker to choreograph or perform, Tanju Tuzer says, he certainly hopes not. But the diagnosis on December 8th shocked him and his wife Patricia. Not only does he have colon cancer, it’s advanced.
“It surprised me,” he says,”because I truly treasure my health because my profession, dancing, is very physical. So to get most out of my body I have to be top shape all the time.”
Tuzer is facing his illness with a defiant spirit. “One way or another, cancer will die. If I survive, cancer is done. Or we go together,” he says with a laugh.
In his mid-sixties, Tuzer isn’t simply the founder of a suburban dance company. Born in Turkey, he received classical training at the Royal Ballet in London. He’s danced in Germany, France and in New York City with the Harkness Ballet. It was there he met Patricia, a fellow dancer. But amid all their touring, the couple wanted a family.
“We got tired of the stage life,” he says, “that demanded performances every night. You don’t really have a balanced life.”
So they moved to North Texas, where Patricia is from. (They now have two grown daughters.) In 1977, the Tuzers opened what may be their greatest influence on the area — the Tuzer Dance School. They established it in the first purpose-built dance center in the Southwest, a 6,000-square-foot studio with a true, old-fashioned dance floor, built on five layers of wood to give it the right response.
Over the years, the Tuzers have trained many of North Texas’ professional dancers. Kimi Nikaido is the acting artistic director of the Bruce Wood Dance Company. She took classes from Tuzer on and off for ten years – starting when she was only eight.
“Oh, we were all really scared of him,” she recalls with a laugh. “I think I felt all at once terrified and exhilarated by his presence in the room. And that was motivating for me.”
Tuzer brought Old World traditions and discipline to the dance studio. “I was firm believer of that: strict discipline and work, work, repeat. But that’s what I did to myself. I’m milder now and more accepting. But I don’t regret anything.”
This year, Nikaido took over the Bruce Wood Dance Company when Wood died suddenly at the age of 53. His death was a major blow to the dance community. Now her old dance master faces cancer.
“I hope very much that we don’t lose Tanju,” she says. “But I imagine that something like what has happened with Bruce Wood’s legacy might happen with Tanju’s. The people who appreciate and value what he has to offer as an instructor and an artist will try to – in whatever way they can – continue that legacy.”
Tuzer says the past five years he’s already been turning over more work to Patricia and their fellow teachers. He’ll start targeted chemotherapy soon and may be out of commission for three to six months.
“It all depends how I go through this treatment,” he says. “But the company will be there, long after we’re gone.”
Tuzer’s former students say what they learned from him is precision, poise and elegance. Tuzer laughs at this, says they finally learned something from him.
But, he adds, “They may have neglected the most important one. Perseverance. The heart matters in the dancer. When you go onstage, you’re in the arena, you’re on your own. The fear is natural, but how you use that fear, that is the importance there. Hold your head up – and dare.”
This Saturday and Sunday, for the 15th year, Tanju Tuzer will perform the role of Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker.