Culture Club: Flying High

Franco Nieto’s life sounds a bit like the premise for a novel or movie. Start with a high school football jock (whose dad is the coach). Add a required dance class in his school. Then, at sixteen years old, the jock decides to become a professional dancer. Parents disappointed? No. In fact Dad signed off, “I don’t care what you do. But you have to give it 110 percent. If you don’t give it your all, it’s not worth doing.”

A novice dancer at sixteen has, by most practical standards, discovered his passion too late. Fortunately, Nieto was blessed with an athletic family (his parents met playing professional racquetball). He began gymnastics at age five. The discipline he learned in sports and at home paid off. There was one particularly good male dancer in the classes he enrolled in whom Nieto used as his guide, “I wasn’t doing well enough unless it was as good as him.”

Nine years later: Nieto has danced professionally around the country, returning only this past year to Northwest Dance Project. It’s home in many ways. Vancouver, WA is his hometown. And he considers the company a family of sorts, “Since I was young and playing sports, I’ve always enjoyed a team atmosphere. I think about that here, it’s a team, a family.”

The tight knit NWDP family consists of eight full time dancers, artistic director Sarah Slipper, executive director Scott Lewis, plus a few others who man the office. Ms. Slipper chooses each dancer based on the quality of their individual movement and the energy they bring to the ensemble. Athleticism is part of Nieto’s appeal. “He’s so manly,” notes Slipper, “he’s like a panther onstage and, for such a muscular dancer, he is so supple.”

Exposure to the wider world has expanded Nieto’s general attitude toward others. He’s less conservative than the household he grew up in and now considers himself an ally of the LGBT community. “I live in the basement of my earliest mentor, Tracy Durbin. She’s like my liberal mom,” says Nieto, “between her and Mom I have a balance that I really like.”

FRANCO NIETO will receive his Princess Grace Award at a Gala event (with the late Princess’s children in attendance) in New York City on October 22. Sarah Slipper, Artistic Director at Northwest Dance Theatre, will be with him. Slipper notes that, “any one of my dancers is worthy of this award. But I nominated Franco because this truly felt like his year to me.”

This award, the second for NWDP (ensemble member Andrea Parsons won in 2010), is a coup for a small company. The award has often been distributed among large, established companies on the East Coast. The recognition is terrific but the cash award, one-half a year’s salary for the dancer, is a boon to the organization as well. Photo by Chris Peddecord.

October Arts Calendar

Starts the 4th


Ching Ching Wong and Franco Nieto working with choreographer Ihsan Rustem on his new work, Mother Tongue for the next show. Northwest Dance Project presents their season opener, NEW NOW WOW! Runs thru October 6.



White Bird presents the Akram Khan Company. Though the company is from the UK, the dancers are from all parts of the globe giving their work a truly international look. They’ll be performing Khan’s newest work Vertical Road, which is inspired by the poetry of Rumi and the practices of Sufi tradition.

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Music to Our Ears

Portland Opera recently welcomed George Manahan as its Music Director. He’s been a frequent and popular guest conductor with the opera. Manahan has enjoyed a decades long career that has included fourteen years as the Music Director of New York City Opera and conducting for many other leading opera companies spanning the country.

How did we score such a prestigious conductor? It’s all in the connections.

“I love this company. Christopher (Mattaliano, Portland Opera’s General Director) and I go way back,” says Manahan, “and the quality of work here is great and it’s a place to do quality opera on a steady basis. Guest conducting is great, but being a Music Director is gratifying because you can follow through.”

He’ll reside in Portland part time as he continues as the Music Director for the Manhattan-based American Composers Orchestra.


  1. Nieto has 1,558 friends on facebook and I have 518. We both live in Portland. If he’s such an “ally”, we’d have at least 10 or 20 mutual friends. Hmmm

  2. Hi Ryan,
    Thanks for writing. I understand what you’re saying. But I think our extended community is like a big tent with room for many to fit inside. That said, I’m inclined to accept his statement at face value, he has gay friends— works in an industry with it’s own built in diversity and told me that he’s accepting. That was enough for me, but you’re entitled to question his commitment,

    I checked Facebook and I share only two friends with Franco Nieto, but I’m guessing that has a lot to do with: a. proximity, his long time away from Portland; b. generational, his father is likely around my age.

    Last thing, one of my brothers, Mike, is very conservative. We have decided never to discuss politics again (which is working out great!). My other brother, Rob, is nearly as liberal as me (okay, he and his wife march in their local pride parade). Both of those brothers love me, and I them. Both would say they were allies and I think they are.


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