And Then We Danced
Meet Annisquam’s Scott Fraser, the quiet motor behind a legendary Cambridge ballet company
“I feel like I’ve had the same job since I was 24 years old,” Scott Fraser says. “But it’s always different.”
Fraser is the executive director of the Cambridge-based José Mateo Ballet Theatre, founded more than three decades ago by Mateo, Fraser’s partner in life and in work. Together — with Mateo creating his unique Neoclassical ballet repertory, and Fraser finding support for both on- and offstage ventures — they have nurtured one of the few single-choreographer ballet troupes in the United States. But JMBT’s impact extends way beyond entertaining audiences, with years of dedicated humanitarian work as well.
JMBT’s complete activities reflect José Mateo’s ambition to use dance to facilitate social justice. Alongside three decades of original choreography — hundreds of concert-length works created over that time — Mateo and Fraser have worked with a network of agencies that focus on social outreach. Adbar Women’s Alliance, National LGBTQ Task Force, Spare Change News — these are just some of the organizations that JMBT shares space with in its Harvard Square Sanctuary Theatre home. Mateo’s Dance for World Community, which brings more that 15,000 people to Harvard Square each June, brings even more social activists into partnership with JMBT, like the Rowell Foster Children’s Positive Plan, Homelessness Empowerment Project, and MASSCreative.
JMBT’s performances are not limited to its primary home in the the privileged spaces of the Sanctuary Theatre. In the troupe’s second home in Dorchester, JMBT runs a dance school in Upham’s Corner, and the troupe’s performances at the Strand Theatre there have helped enlivened that neighborhood.
“One of the biggest blessings in all this work is our perspective,” Fraser says. “We’ve been able to show that what happens in the dance studio happens in other areas of life. That the artistic impulse in one to live by.”
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José Mateo is an extraordinary man. The Cuban-born choreographer came to Boston after his studies in Princeton and his years as a dancer in New York. His choreography alone — hundreds of ballets, created and performed by his personally trained troupe since the 1980s — makes him one of the most prolific artists in the contemporary dance community. His gift for bringing people together has earned him many awards, the most recent being the Commonwealth Award — the state’s highest — from the Mass Cultural Council.
Nobody does what José Mateo does. And Scott Fraser makes it possible.
“José started the company in 1985,” Fraser says, “I showed up in late ’86 or ’87. I was really wet behind the ears, like 24 or 25 years old.
“For me it was captivating,” he says of those early years. “The whole community of art-making fascinated me. Our growth was slow and steady — José was always a talented dance-maker, but then we really got active in the late 90s.”
“Got active” indeed. Years of performances — a subscription series of half a dozen programs, complemented by a seasonal Nutcracker (see video, below) run — drew a loyal, hardcore audience of Boston’s most knowledgeable ballet lovers. First JMBT performed at Boston’s Emerson Majestic; then the organization joined with Old Cambridge Baptist Church in the historic Sanctuary Theatre in Harvard Square, moving its teaching and performing operations there in 2001.
The multiple ambitions of the company have created a versatile role for Fraser. That’s what he’s thinking about when he says that each day is different.
“I spent years around capital fundraising,” he says. “I also spent a year in historic site management. I spend a lot of time in creative place-making. For four years, I spent 20 or 30 hours a week building a network of support in Upham’s Corner.”
Directing a ballet company is a “do what it takes” position. It effects the lives of hundreds of dancer, theaters and students. And audiences. In the case of JMBT, that’s multiple audiences. The audiences that have come to see Mateo’s choreography. The students and coaches nearly every day in the Sanctuary Theatre. The 15,000 people who attend Dance for World Community in June, easily the largest dance initiative in the area.
A robust education program for dancers has always been part of JMBT as well — at the Sanctuary, in offshoot schools on the South Shore, and now in Dorchester. The programs have grown into a huge endeavor, with dozen of teachers and hundreds of students at all levels.
“I used to know the name of every single one of those 200 kids,” Fraser says, “but now it’s 500 kids, and I know none of them.”
The vastly different worlds of Harvard Square and Upham’s Corner are perfect complements for JMBT’s mission. “There’s a hierarchy of forms in modern cultures,” Fraser says. “What Ballet Theatre has done is turn that on its side. To honor all traditions. For me it’s like El Sistema in music — a wonderful affirmation of how the arts can serve as a tool for community building.”
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Recently, Fraser has re-connected with his Cape Ann roots. Despite a busy Cambridge schedule that includes teaching all day and performing at night, the couple decided a few years ago to move to Annisquam, where Fraser spent years as a young man.
“My family has been on the North Shore since the 1640s,” Fraser says. “I was baptized and went to kindergarden at the Annisquam Village church. I learned to swim at the bridge on Lobster Cove. I left with the fondest of memories at 8, and returned at 55.”
So now Mateo and Fraser have added the commute to their already frantic schedule — although that means they spend some time in their magnificent home at the edge of Dogtown, overlooking Langsford Pond.
A more substantial jolt to their lives came last spring, when Mateo announced he would retire from choreography and devote his time to his social outreach. The Ballet Theatre’s subscription season ended last May, but all of the other JMBT activities will continue. The move was definitely a shock.
“The whole thing was a surprise to everyone,” Fraser says, talking both as a business partner, and a life partner, “maybe even to José. He spent so many years, so much of his work, focused on how to make dance as impactful as possible, to bring communities together. He sees that as his legacy — the healing power of dance.
“I always thought that his identity as a choreographer was stronger than that as a social entrepreneur. But it was always incredibly fascinating, watching that process. It was never done until the night that it had to be done. For me the works were always strongest the first season, because they had that extra edge, that special energy.”
“But this is a time when when people are really questioning the one-choreographer organization,” Fraser admits. “The world moves so fast right now. People are not studying artists so closely anymore. I don’t think they’re delving that deeply into things.”
Fraser’s own future may bring some changes. The task of fund-raising never goes away for non-profit presenters, a task Fraser, who manages JMBT’s $2 million budget, knowns full well. In the non-profit world, where finding dollars through donors, grants and foundations begins and ends each day, Fraser stands out.
“I author lots of grants,” he says. “It’s so much less relationship based than it used to be. It’s just a form you fill out online now. Those used to be the best conversations for me: talking to people who were investigating funding the work. Those were fantastic conversations.
“If you get stuck in just fundraising, you’re really not in an interesting place,” he says. “It’s a tough place to be. And in ways you’re just trying to get people to shift assets from one worthy cause to another. It becomes transactional. That’s not the complete story of what we’re trying to do.”
▶︎ For more information, visit the José Mateo Ballet Theatre website.