Dancer Brian Fisher Has No Regrets as Injuries Force Career Change
Applying Talent and Skills From a Lifetime of Dance
October 19, 2021—With forty years of professional dancing to his credit, dancer Brian Fisher is like a Bay Area dance institution. His career includes not only 28 years with established Bay Area companies such as ODC Dance, Mark Foehringer Dance Project | SF, Berkeley Ballet Theater, and most recently Sean Dorcey Dance. He also performed in many San Francisco Opera productions as a dancer and featured acrobat. His appearances in Broadway productions include La Cage Aux Folles and national tours with The Music Man and The Wizard of Oz. His long career has included accolades such as an Isadora Duncan Dance Award, but he "honestly cannot remember" when (In the early 2000's for Ensemble Performance). He has taught at the San Francisco Ballet School, ODC and San Francisco Dance Center.. "Either 2001 or 2002," he says, reflecting. But Fisher has announced his dance days are over as he faces hip replacement surgery and the partial loss of a toe. For some dancers, these physical losses would result in a debilitating emotional setback. Yet, Fisher faces this change in his career with optimism and without regrets.
Although he's leaving dancing behind, Fisher is staying on with Mark Foehringer in a different role. "I'm no longer dancing," he says matter-of-factly, "which is the big change. But it's not necessarily a different capacity; I have a new title now." Fisher has transitioned from Dancer to Artistic Associate and Rehearsal Director. "I think it will probably consist of running rehearsals and helping Mark with choreographic issues, which is what I've been doing for a lot of years now, as well as the dancing part," he says with a laugh. "We've just kind of made it official."
In Mark Foehringer's Nutcracker Sweets, a 50-minute version of the Nutcracker specifically designed for families with young children, Fisher always danced the role of Drosselmeyer. "The role was built on me," Brian says. Prior to Mark Foehringer, for many years he danced the role of Fritz in Berkeley Ballet Theater's productions of Nutcracker until he decided he was too old for the part. "You can only ask an audience to suspend belief for so long," he says.
His hip replacement surgery was scheduled for July but was postponed when he had to have part of an infected toe amputated. "I didn't want to learn how to walk on a new foot at the same I was learning to walk on a new hip," he says laughing. The hip surgery is tentatively rescheduled for January. As to whether these were dance injuries, "I don't think you can separate them, in my case. I danced professionally for forty years. I don't think you can say there was no wear and tear on my body in that time. However, when I look back at the older members of my family walking around, I remember them walking like I walk, and I think there may be a genetic component to it. If so, I was very lucky that it didn't hit much earlier in my career. The fact that I was able to continue dancing until I was almost 58 years old is really kind of astounding. I can't blame it on the dance. I can't blame it on genetics. It was probably a combination of both, and I still have no regrets."
Soon after he had moved from New York to San Francisco in 1991, Fisher's talent was recognized by Lauren Jonas, now Artistic Director of Diablo Ballet, at a dance class. Jonas insisted that he meet the director of Berkeley Ballet, who was putting together a company at the time. He didn't consider himself to be a classical ballet dancer, but Jonas insisted he could do it. Seconding that opinion, Sally Streets insisted he come to her class. Jonas told him ODC was auditioning, and he started dancing with ODC the following year.
Fisher last performed in February of 2020 with Sean Dorsey Dance. It was while touring with Sean Dorsey in New York and Los Angeles that he faced the reality that he couldn't continue to dance. He "sat down with the whole company" and told them he was not going to do the new show. "I felt they needed to get someone who could do all the things they wanted to do and who doesn't hurt all the time," he says laughing. "I've reached the point that I'm in such pain that I'm constantly medicated. So I need to back off."
But according to Fisher, he has nothing to feel sorry for. "I lived the dream. For forty years I did what I wanted to. I performed with some of the best in the business, and I performed for some of the best in the business. I cannot bring myself to say 'woe is me' at this point after forty years of non-stop work. I supported myself and my family, and I did that doing what I wanted to do on my terms. I'm not going to whine that, after all these years, I finally have to slow down." He's been married to his husband for 34 years, raised two kids, and has a home in San Francisco. "This is what I wanted growing up. I've lived the dream. I don't have a lot of goals left. I don't know what the future holds, and I'm open to a whole lot."
What is he looking forward to in the next forty years? "I have no idea," he says laughing. "I really don't know. I would like to keep working with Mark in this capacity. I would like to work with other choreographers in this capacity. I'm very good at helping to restage, at cleaning up choreography, if you will, and just being an outside eye. I have a lot to bring to the table. I'd love to be able to actually do that, in this day and age, but that position largely does not exist because no one can afford to pay for something like that. So I don't really know where I'll go in the long term. I'll work with Mark as long as he wants me to. He and I have been together about 25 years."
In contrast to many dance artists, when asked if he's brought his own artistic style to his work, he answers, "No. When I was dancing and when I was performing, and you can separate those two things out, you have to decide when the time is right to do either of those things. When I was performing I wanted to be the best color blue I could be. When you look at a painting, you're never ever able to say I like that color best in a painting because it's just that part of the painting. There is no one part of it that is more important than another. I wanted to serve the piece and the artistic vision. And that is what I'm good at doing, figuring out what the artistic vision is and serving that."
He loves dancers who have charisma, "star power", he says, "But you can never watch them in a piece without thinking that's who that is. And sometimes that's powerful and it really, really works." But, "Sometimes it gets in the way of the artistic vision of the piece. And that's what I look for as a performer. I don't want to take this over unless I'm supposed to," as in the Drosselmeyer role, which moves the Nutcracker along. "Drosselmeyer is supposed to stand out. I have to stand out." But in other roles, Fisher doesn't want to stand out more than anyone else. "I'm very good at figuring that out," he says. "I'm also very good at figuring out how to get other dancers to realize that while inside a work we're rehearsing." This insight extends to getting choreographers to explain their artistic vision and realize whether they're working toward achieving that vision. "If not, maybe a new direction is better. Maybe we should go back to what they were thinking before. I'm very good at seeing those things. I don't want to take over a creative process," he muses, "I want to help them realize their own creative process."
What does he look for to bring about this support? "Hopefully, I've been involved or been watching the process as it develops. Almost every choreographer will talk to somebody or talk in general to their dancers as they're building a piece. And you listen to what it is they're saying they want, what it is they're actually looking at when things are going, what it is they're asking their dancers to do to get to that place. And you just pay attention and try to figure that out. I think it's because I was a senior member of the dance community here for a very long time. I would end up in private conversations with the choreographer and be like, 'I think you're getting to where you wanted to go'. Or I'm not exactly sure this is what you intended, but you may be where you want to be now, and is there a way we can check that out. A fact check, if you will."
Fisher's talent for honing in on the artistic vision is not static. "You can't get married to what someone said they wanted the first time," he proclaims. "A process is a process, growing and changing. And the choreographer may wind up completely changing their idea without even realizing they've done that." Fisher laughs, "And then I have to decide is that a good idea to bring that up or just let that one roll because they're happy with where they are?"
Looking back, is there anything he'd want to do differently? "You know, I don't think so. Because I'm very happy with where I wound up. I learned so much. I did a little bit of everything. I experienced everything. And I wound up in my late fifties still dancing at a pretty high level."
Is there a highlight in his career that he looks back on? "There are way too many things I loved being a part of and doing to single out just one." Being on Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles was "incredible." "If I were going to wish for anything different, I wish I would have been a little bit older because I was too young to really appreciate that for the big deal it was." He danced in front of presidents of two different nations in Liberty Weekend on national television in 1987. Liza Minelli came backstage to say hello to the cast. "I'm really proud of a lot of things that I've done," he says, citing The Velveteen Rabbit, the current production of Nutcracker Sweets, Brenda Way's Investigating Grace, a piece for Sonya Delwaide that won an Isadora Duncan award, and Liz Roman's site-specific work. "Loved it," he gushes, "Partnering with a building! Who knew? It's such a gift to look back and remember all those things."
If Fisher has left his mark on dance productions, he has also made a lasting impression on children. The Velveteen Rabbit and Nutcracker Sweets are special to him because he loves performing for children. "Because they're not married to manners," he says, "They react! You could hear the kids talking. They were engaged the entire time."
What he loves about Mark Foehringers' vision for Nutcracker Sweets is that it exposes children to dance and live music, classical music, "something they don't get on their phones," he says. "It educates them and hopefully interests them to remember it or come back." Some of the children who attended past performances have come back with their own children. "It's just a part of their lives," he says.
Years ago he had a couple of 5 or 6-year olds in the audience who still come back to see Nutcracker Sweets year after year. One is now in college and brings his girlfriend. "It's an honor to be a part of something like that," he says smiling, "that someone has made a part of their life."
Mark Foehringer's Nutcracker Sweets runs from December 4-19. For more information, see https://mfdpsf.org/nutcracker-sweets/ .