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When Liz Monnier retired as artistic director at Fort Wayne Dance Collective, it was the end of an era. Although Monnier continues to work from an office at the Collective, she handed the reins of her baby, the organization she helped found more than three decades ago, to John Byrne, a talented and accomplished dancer and choreographer who has established himself in all corners of the county. But while he’s still deciding how he wants to make his own mark on the Dance Collective, he is wholeheartedly embracing the mission Monnier set forth from the beginning. Byrne comes to Fort Wayne via North Carolina, where he was born, and New York, where he grew up. His commitment to dance seems to have come at the same time he came into the world.
“I started in dance from the moment I can first remember,” says Byrne. “I was always moving, and as a child I would watch MGM movies and see Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I think I just knew then that would be my destiny.”
There was never any question in Byrne’s mind that dance was his future, his only career goal.
“It was my only skill,” he says, laughing. “Growing up, I was very theatrical, and I think as an artist you want to be multifaceted. Usually someone who’s an artist is drawn to more than one thing. I like to think of myself as a Renaissance Man.”
His studies took him to the North Carolina School of Arts, the School of American Ballet and Julliard, where he says he focused on modern dance and the great choreographers, including Jose Limon, Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor. Byrne’s first professional job was with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and he recently got a call to rejoin the company for a visit.
“I had danced with Paul Taylor Dance Company for four years; then last year they called me and asked me to join them on tour. So, 10 years later, I stepped back in. I thought it would be harder than it was. It was easier than I expected because I think I had the maturity and confidence to be more present in what I was doing. Obviously the physicality becomes more difficult. There are days when I can’t get out of bed because I’m sore, but that comes from dance being such an athletic activity.”
Byrne’s talent has put him in some very high profile company beyond the dance world. He was hired to choreograph Elton John’s Las Vegas show, and his collaborations with photographer David LaChapelle had included work with No Doubt, Norah Jones, Joss Stone, Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears. He has also directed a video by Florence + the Machine and worked on a variety of television shows and commercials.
“Although I do have a classical background, I enjoyed doing commercials for Sony, Target, H&M, Clinique. I like playing between the fine art world and advertising and commercials. It’s been fun to work as a dancer, choreographer and director in all these different projects.
“When I was approached in 2013 to direct the Florence and the Machine video, I had already heard the song ‘Spectrum’ and really liked it, so I was thrilled to direct, or actually co-direct with David LaChapelle, the video for that song. I found a great local dance school in Orange County and used the dancers there for the video, and they were able to provide the costuming. It was a great art project.”
Bryne now brings this varied experiences to his work as artistic director at Fort Wayne Dance Collective, and he is happy with the approach the Collective brings to the arts and the openness that is encouraged for those who may not have thought dance was in the cards for them.
“What was not mainstream is now mainstream, and people’s minds are opening up to accept the unconventional,” he said. “YouTube is the new source of entertainment. Not that TV is obsolete, but it’s not the No. 1 place for entertainment. Everyone has a voice now, and what makes the Dance Collective so cool is that everyone is qualified to express themselves. When I’ve worked in TV and film, I’ve always used people who are interesting rather than just going with the predictable. I think my role in this organization and in this community is to help people reach their hopes and dreams and express themselves creatively. My interest is in cultivating what has already been established.”
While he is still settling into his new position and determining what his plans will be for the Collective down the road, he is getting to know the staff and has Monnier on site to help with the transition. Although he visited Fort Wayne in June to get a feel for his future home, he’s already finding things he loves about his new hometown.
“I think this is the quintessential American experience. For me, Fort Wayne offers everything you could want but also has a real intimacy about it.”
While Byrne hopes to help establish Fort Wayne Dance Collective outside the borders of Indiana, he also aspires to bring dance to people who may not have ever envisioned themselves dancing. In fact, he says, anyone who brings this article with them to FWDC will be able to take a free dance class to see if dance might be exactly what they need in their life.
“I want to bring people out of the woodwork, people who maybe are at home and haven’t moved in awhile. Come here and move in a safe way. This is your home, and my office is open for anyone who wants to come by.”