Houston Ballet’s Jim Nowakowski’s life as a dancer
by Marene Gustin (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)
You might think that being an adopted South Korean gay kid with a cleft palate taking dance lessons would make for a rough childhood. But Jim Nowakowski just shrugs it off.
“I was adopted when I was six months old, so I really don’t remember anything but my family in Rochester, New York,” says the 21-year-old with the big smile. “I had surgery for my palate when I was very little [although this summer he had some additional work done on it], and the dancing wasn’t really a big deal—I had always wanted to be an entertainer. My older sister was my role model, and she took ballet. I was always copying her moves, so my parents put me in a class, too.”
And faster than A Chorus Line’s Mike Costa can sing, “I watched sis go pitter-pat and said I can do that, I can do that!,” Nowakowski became a ballet dancer.
And not just any dancer. In his teens he swept the competition circuit, winning the Gold Award (presented to him by none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov) at the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. He also won the senior men’s gold at the Youth American Grand Prix. It was there that he was spotted by Houston Ballet’s ballet master Phillip Broomhead, who was a judge, and invited him to audition for the company. He joined the corps de ballet in 2007.
“I think the competitions are really beneficial,” Nowakowski says, who hopes to someday be a competition judge like Broomhead. “You are around so much talent and you learn to deal with pressure. It’s different than being in a studio all of the time, but it really prepared me for performing.”
And perform he does. Nowakowski has a well-schooled technique coupled with a natural buoyancy and amazingly supple arms and back. He won raves from local dance critics when he performed in artistic director Stanton Welch’s abstract ballet Clear, as Gopok in The Nutcracker, and he stole Act I in the world premiere of La Bayadère with a powerful solo as the sun god. ›
“That was a real challenge,” he recalls. “It was a new role, so I really wanted to do it justice and leave the audience wanting more. I think that’s what I did,” he adds shyly.
In fact, so far, he’s only shone in short solos, and will likely do so again this season in The Sleeping Beauty in the Bluebird divertissement next spring and in Welch’s Tu Tu this month in the ballet’s season opener repertory program Body, Soul & Gershwin.
But that’s okay for now. As he builds his rep and gains ballet cred, he also gets to try new things and see how the other half lives.
“Being an ugly stepsister in Cinderella was a really crazy experience,” he says of dancing en pointe in those shoes ballerinas often refer to as little pink coffins. “It gives you real insight into what the girls go through.”
Maybe if he danced in pointe shoes as a kid, he might have had a rougher time in upstate New York. But he actually had an easy time of it.
“I didn’t realize I was gay until later,” Nowakowski says. “But my family and friends were so accepting and the ballet world is so open. For me, it was just a matter of time. Coming out of the closet was the best decision I ever made!”
And maybe the second best decision was coming to Houston.
“I love Houston,” Nowakowski exclaims. “Coming to a big city was great. The gay community is so supportive here. And the Montrose area is just great.”
And yes, this talented, sweet, and handsome young man is single. When he isn’t performing, rehearing, or taking classes (which is most of the time), he loves to hang out with friends at local clubs and new restaurants. He adores the Mexican and Tex-Mex foods here—his fave spot is Escalante’s Fine Tex-Mex in Highland Village.
He also likes reading self-improvement books, shopping in the Heights, seeing musical theater, and just hanging by the pool. But his real love is dance.
“I want to dance until I can’t,” he says. “Maybe I’ll choreograph someday, and I’d like to judge ballet competitions and help young dancers the way I was helped.”
Houston Ballet’s Body, Soul & Gershwin runs Sept. 9–19 at the Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater. For tickets and more information, visit www.houstonballet.org.
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.