Not many dancers start out as jocks, but I hear that you went to Syracuse on an athletic scholarship.
I was waiting tables, and I was put on the football table, and I noticed that they all had cars and were living it up. So I went out for swimming, and that’s how I got a scholarship. I didn’t know anything, but there was a wonderful coach, Coach Webster, and he trained me. And when I went in my junior year and I said I’m gonna go to New York and be a dancer, I thought he’d hit the ceiling. He thought I was mad.
How about when you were younger? Were you a big reader?
I read a lot. I had an uncle who used to give me classics like Treasure Island, and I read all the Tarzan books. But now some of my favorites are Nabokov. Right now, I’m rereading Ada.
Nabokov was a butterfly collector, as are you.
Yes, I have a huge collection. Not just butterflies—it’s bugs in general. And I find things in the basement—they’re dead. Little mice, all dried up. Things like that. It’s like a collage, you know? And it’s 3-D instead of a flat surface.
Okay … How about music? What did you like early on?
Handel, ever since I first discovered him. I was about 23. I’m not musically educated. I never learned to read music. I just love to listen.
Did you start dancing right away when you came to New York?
I was so lucky because I was able to work with not just Martha and Merce Cunningham, but Anna Sokolow, Jerry Robbins, Balanchine, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman. You could sort of table-hop. All the arts were smaller, and we all knew each other. Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—we all came to New York at about the same time. And Allen Ginsberg. Groups would meet fairly regularly and just have fun and talk about ideas. So there was a lot of elbow-rubbing, which I’m not sure happens so much today.