Before he waltzes through his graduation from Yale Law School this May, or pliés his way into a clerking position with a federal district judge in Salt Lake City, Nate Freeman '04 — a virtuoso of ballet, law and many other interests — will grace the stage of Cordiner Hall on April 1-2 as he reprises his role as Romeo in the adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that he first staged in 2004.
But while Freeman is as nimble on stage as he is in a moot courtroom, it was a memorable Whitman moment that introduced him to a whole new world — dance.
As the lights went down and the curtains went up in Cordiner Hall, Freeman, a first-year Whitman student at the time, settled in to his seat and turned his attention to the dramatic events unfolding on stage. Though he had looked forward to seeing the spring semester 2001 student dance performance — featuring an eclectic range of music and dance — he had no way of knowing the impact the show would ultimately have on his life.
“I remember sitting in the audience, watching the dancers and just thinking, ‘I think I could do that,’” recalled Freeman.
Freeman played tennis and ran cross country in high school, but he never considered himself to be a “real athlete” — at least not compared to the brawny football players who were hailed as heroes in his small, Midwestern hometown. “But watching that performance, I started to reevaluate what it meant to be an athlete; what it meant to go through that kind of intense physical training and practice,” he said. “It was a really transformational moment for me.”
With a newfound appreciation for the art and athleticism of dance, Freeman enrolled in Whitman’s Summer Dance Lab, an annual program with a 40-year history of “developing well-rounded dancers who have the proper depth of training and experience.” But there was just one problem: Freeman didn’t have much experience as a dancer.
“I was bad. Really bad,” Freeman said with a cringe. “On the first day, they ranked us from one to 150 and I was number 150. That was really embarrassing considering that a lot of the dancers were 13 years old.”
Nonetheless, he persevered through the five-week program, led by dance instructors from across the country. By the end of the summer he had built an impressive foundation of knowledge and skills as a dancer. Returning to Whitman in the fall to pursue a physics-astronomy degree, he enrolled in a dance course taught by Idalee Hutson-Fish, adjunct instructor of dance.
“The Summer Dance Lab teachers kept talking to me about this ‘Whitman boy of mine,’ but I kept telling them I didn’t know who they were talking about,” Hutson-Fish said. “So in the fall, when he came into my class, I was quite impressed with, first, his tenacity, and second, with his physical ability to do ballet quite well. He had a ballet body, so to say, and he also possessed a keen physical intelligence and musicality. He was just an extraordinary young man.”
As he progressed as a dancer, Freeman had the opportunity to spend his second and third-year summers in Perugia, Italy, where he and other Whitman dancers took part in a ballet course taught there by Hutson-Fish. It was during one of these trips that he and his traveling troupe attended a dance performance of William Shakespeare’s tragic romance, “Romeo and Juliet.” Though Freeman and Hutson-Fish both gave the performance mixed reviews, it got the pair thinking about creating a new adaptation of the work to be presented by Whitman Dance Production.
“The beginning of the performance was interesting, but the rest of the show was actually pretty bad,” Freeman said. “So our thought was, ‘Let’s create a show like this one … only have the whole thing be really good!’”
Freeman returned to Walla Walla and, under the guidance of Hutson-Fish, began choreographing the first pieces of the new adaptation. “I thought that I was just going to be an assistant choreographer, but when I came to Idalee with my first piece completed, she said, ‘This is great. Why don’t you just keep going?’” Freeman said.
Keep going he did, until the dancer-turned-choreographer had carefully planned all of the group numbers and selected the accompanying music. Freeman’s final adaptation drew from a number of inspirations, perhaps the biggest of which was the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film, “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes and John Leguizamo.
“The film has sort of a disjointed style and it really modernizes the story. Everything is sort of in-your-face,” Freeman said. “I used a lot of contemporary music from the score of that movie, but I interspersed a lot of classical music, too.”
On April 9, 2004, after months of planning and rehearsals, Whitman presented Freeman’s stirring adaptation on the same stage that, just a few years before, had first ignited his passion for dance. This time, however, it was Freeman, dancing as Romeo in his own production, who inspired the captivated audience members.
“The whole experience really helped me believe in myself as a dancer,” Freeman said. “It’s something that has followed me everywhere.”
Indeed. Since graduating from Whitman, a variety of opportunities have taken Freeman around the world, but whether teaching English in France, learning Arabic in Egypt or studying law in New Haven, Conn., he has always found the time for dancing and performing, he said.
For two weeks in February, Freeman returned to Whitman to collaborate with Hutson-Fish and a company of campus and community dancers to orchestrate a second staging of his 2004 “Romeo and Juliet” production. The April show is a special occasion for Freeman to reprise his role as Romeo — alongside Tillie Gottlieb '11 as his Juliet — and return to the place that nurtured his development as a dancer and choreographer.
“To have Nate come back and restage his “Romeo and Juliet” is an important event not only for him and me, but for the Whitman dancers as well,” Hutson-Fish said. “The dancers have thoroughly enjoyed him, his work and his down-home, ‘country boy enthusiasm.’ He is an inspiring and successful role model.”
But Freeman assured that the Whitman dancers aren’t the only ones to benefit from his return. “I really miss Walla Walla; it’s such a great town. And I miss the students at Whitman. There’s just a different vibe here and people are really cooperative and there’s this sense of community, of coming together. You can tell that people really enjoy and respect one another … that was one of my favorite aspects about going to college here.”
After the April performance, Freeman will return to Yale to graduate and launch the beginning of his burgeoning legal career. But despite the many unwritten chapters ahead of him, he has no plans of closing the book on dance.
“I think dancing will always be a part of my life,” Freeman said. “It’s been fascinating to see how dancing has the ability to touch people’s lives and, really, that’s why I went to law school — I’d like to be of use to someone other than myself.”
Freeman’s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” along with several other works, will be performed in Cordiner Hall on April 1-2, beginning at 8 p.m. For more information, click here.