A dance company, like any group endeavor, is driven by a wide array of personalities. Some members are high-strung, others are down-to-earth. And some are “rocks,” the ones who are always there to support their colleagues on stage and in the studio.

Greg Waletski has filled this respected role at Zenon Dance for 22 of its 30 years, becoming “the glue of the company, with his steady compassion and humor,” said longtime friend and dancer Christine Maginnis.

Now he is stepping down. His final performances with the troupe will take place over the next two weekends at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis.

“I’m having a hard time letting Greg go,” said Linda Andrews, Zenon’s artistic director. “But I understand. He’s 47 and wants to leave on a high note.”

Age is not kind to dancers. Waletski’s wiry frame has endured its share of injuries. “I had shoulder surgery a couple of years ago, then popped a bicep tendon in the other arm,” he said over coffee and a bagel at Common Roots Café in south Minneapolis. “I feel like my body is breaking down a bit. I want to leave when I’m still able to move and not struggling. Dancing full-time is great, but it takes a toll.”

New direction

While Waletski said he will miss the “special connection” of working with a core group of dancers, he wants to pursue a new direction. “I’m ready to be physical in a different kind of way,” he said, citing projects with choreographer Megan Mayer.

“His dazzling mix of athleticism and utter grace makes him a favorite dancer and muse,” Mayer said of Waletski in an e-mail. “His dance card will be full, post-Zenon.”

In addition, Waletski will earn an American Sign Language certification. “I’m used to learning movement,” he said, describing his eagerness to expand upon interpretation skills gained from Zenon residencies with members of the hearing-impaired community. An “avid record collector,” he will continue to DJ for Hipshaker at the Kitty Cat Klub.

Such diverse endeavors are familiar to Waletski. Like many dancers, he has supplemented his modest income, but one source is unusual. For five weeks during the summer, Waletski works on a commercial fishing boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a gig dating back to his teens through family ties. “Sometimes we go all day and all night, sometimes there’s a bear picking through the fish in the net,” he said. “It’s a great job. It’s a break from dancing I’ve always loved.”

Blinded by Dance, not Science

Waletski grew up in Chanhassen and attended St. Olaf College, where he studied biology and planned to attend graduate school. But one dance course convinced him that science was not his future. He started at Zenon in 1989 in a “strength and stretch” class with Andrews. He earned a scholarship and met his partner, Joseph Espinosa, through apprentice program auditions.

By 1991 Waletski was in the company, with jazz choreographer Danny Buraczeski as co-director at the time. “I was back in the corner hoping I didn’t have to perform,” he said. “It was so hard to learn Danny’s movement and I was terrified someone would get hurt and I’d have to step in.”

But Waletski adjusted to Buraczeski’s style and that of the many other dance makers Zenon commissioned over the years. “He has an amazing ability to embody all the choreographic spirits we work with,” said Andrews.

Waletski counts Argentina’s Susana Tambutti and the Twin Cities’ own Morgan Thorson among his favorites. Thorson gave Waletski an especially memorable and witty role, mock-vogueing to a rock anthem by Queen in her 2010 work “Deluxe Edition.”

“He is so open, and through his openness he conveys a generosity. He’s incredibly honest,” Thorson said by phone. “He has a sense of mischievous, lighthearted questioning that goes on. It’s evident on stage. He’s alive!”

Waletski cultivated close relationships with his fellow dancers, particularly Maginnis, who spent 25 years in Zenon. “Greg always kept the tone light and easy even when were challenged by the drama inherent to a dance company,” she said via e-mail. “I have always felt that my performing chemistry with Greg is sublimely unique and delicious, but the beauty of Greg is that he makes every partner feel that way.”

Bittersweet final bow

According to Andrews, Zenon’s spring season will be dedicated to Waletski for “22 years of outstanding performances.” He will be dancing works by Daniel Charon, Seán Curran, Faye Driscoll, Wynn Fricke and Netta Yerushalmy in two separate programs over two weeks that also include pieces by Luciana Achugar and Mariusz Olszewski.

Waletski anticipates a bittersweet final bow. When the curtain falls he will feel “a freedom in a way, but I’m sure it will be sad.” Both Andrews and Waletski say he will be back as a guest performer. “There’s such a deep intensity,” Andrews said of their time working together. “It’s hard to just cut it off.”

 

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.