"I stay on the outside of the scene and I come across out here as being aloof and a little bit snotty," he acknowledges with a chuckle. The truth is he's never felt much affinity for the scene here. And why should he? The bay has never been a hotbed for his baby, jazz dance. Perhaps in consequence, he's prone to tossing out a few sacrilegious statements. He'll say, for instance, that he wants his company "to be East Coast good, not just West Coast good, and there is a difference." Or, when asked whether modern dance enters into his aesthetic, he'll qualify his answer -- jocularly burning bridges -- "I have an anti-West Coast modern sensibility, yeah."
But if Savage isn't personally putting down any roots, the Berkeley-based jazz company he founded, miraculously, is. The only company committed exclusively to jazz in the Bay Area, it's survived eight years now and grown in promise with each new season. Where other jazz companies have died aborning, Savage Jazz Dance Company has found a following and stayed true to its vision. What's more, it's brought fresh young dancers up through its ranks, forging a makeshift but legitimate academy that gives the company a rare lease on longevity. Last year SJDC drew high praise for its tribute concert to the music of Duke Ellington; next weekend the company returns to the Cowell Theater in celebration of music by Ellington's right-hand man, Charles Mingus, as performed by the ever-present Marcus Shelby Orchestra. If the company can take the heat it's been generating in rehearsal and crank it up another degree for the stage, the Mingus tribute should give yet another boost to its rising reputation.
Ray Savage knows this, and he isn't worried. As ever, he's confident but not quite cocky, and that peculiar mixture of humility and hubris only adds to his air of aloofness. Is it reverence or self-importance that makes him say, "Balanchine said, 'First a school,' so I took a page from him"?
It's the same way when Savage is asked about the great jazz choreographer Tally Beatty. It turns out Savage once had the privilege of sitting next to the late master while training at the Alvin Ailey School back in 1980-81. "A cab pulls up and out comes this man," Savage remembers. "He has this big walking stick and he hits the ground with it, with a, like, 'Aw yeah,' and he looks at me and he says, 'Who's that?' I mean, when I think about him I'm always humbled by what I'm doing. Men like Tally keep my ego in check. Great men like that don't get their due, so who am I to bitch?"
Savage began his dance career surrounded by greatness at the Katherine Dunham Company, where he first trained and later performed. He appeared with the troupe for about 2 1/2 years, then toured with Broadway musicals and joined a string of regional ballet companies, Ruth Page's Chicago-based group among them. In 1989, he followed his then-girlfriend to the Bay Area. "I got tired of being an all right ballet dancer," he says. "I was just changing my life."
He got a job teaching seven days a week at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley (he prides himself on never, ever missing a class), and quickly won impassioned disciples -- and detractors. "The first couple years the center got plenty of letters about my teaching style," he says. "I'm very confrontational. I give you enough rope and I will watch you hang yourself. You know, most people nowadays come to dance class to dance. I came to dance class to learn how to dance. I'm not a good validator. But my reputation got to the point where it took care of itself."
The uninspired dancers drifted away, while the devoted ones begged Savage to found a vehicle for their dancing and his choreography. Since then, his militaristic regimen seems to have been getting the job done. SJDC can now claim a bumper crop of rapidly maturing performers -- look especially for the increasingly sophisticated Susannah Blumenstock (you'll recognize her by her resemblance to Drew Barrymore) and the show-stealing Shenelle Eaton-Foster (you'll recognize her by her irrepressible funk). The company's anchor is Rocklin Thompson, elegantly built, impassioned, with a technique eons beyond his mere three years' training.
Meanwhile, Ray Savage's choreography -- ballet-based, plastic in its use of shape, pre-eminently musical -- is developing too. "The better the dancers get, the better I get," he says, in one of his occasional, disarming displays of self-effacement. "It's a two-way street."
But as soon as he's said this, that self-assurance, that unembarrassed pride, that pure gall, God bless it, rushes back in. "Give me some good dancers and I can make sure I won't bore you onstage," he says. "Give me some imagination and I might make some magic. Give me all that and the right night, and I might make a masterpiece."