In any case, his on-camera image is sure to improve next week when the Feld Ballet is featured in the PBS series Dance in America. Though Feld's troupe is only five years old, it routinely sells out theaters around the world and keeps its dancers on the payroll 40 weeks a year (rare for his under-subsidized, impoverished art). Soon the company will even have its own Manhattan home in a renovated art deco theater. Before settling down with his troupe, the boss had been constantly on the move choreographing his highly theatrical, plotless ballets for the likes of the Joffrey, the National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Swedish Ballet.
"Each time I make a dance, it's like being a virgin," he jokes, but the 36-year-old New Yorker has been around. In the mid-'60s he was a much-touted solo dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, though he says now: "I'd never have been great—my feet don't point properly and my legs should be stronger." Turning to choreography for ABT in 1967 (before he even attained the rank of a principal in the company), Feld startled the dance world with previously unknown formations and figurations in his first major work, Harbinger. The New York Times' critic called Feld "the most important indigenous talent since Jerome Robbins." Feld was just 24. Seven months later he proved that he was no fluke with At Midnight.
Ever impetuous, he took $12,000 in savings—and four dancers—and founded his own company in 1968. "Many people never forgave me for leaving the ABT and the dance establishment," he says. Indeed, Feld was denounced in the press as "arrogant" and his youthful company (average age: 21) was called "the Children's Crusade." Two and a half years later, the company folded. "I learned a lot about myself and my profession," Feld notes. Though he came away "hurt and defeated," he felt even surer of his talent and convinced "I am the best one to determine how it is to be used." He did return briefly to the ABT as a dancer and choreographer, only to bolt for good when, as he puts it, "One day I found myself walking across the stage carrying grapes on my head thinking, 'What the hell is this all about?' "
In 1974 Feld formed his present troupe. Success and a dozen ballets later, he now also runs an esteemed school in a converted New York belt factory. In the past year he actively recruited pupils from Chinatown to Harlem and, of 1,800 tested, picked 130.
Feld, the son of a Brooklyn lawyer and his travel agent wife, started his own career at age 11 at George Balanchine's school. Five years later Eliot was tapped for the role of Baby John in West Side Story on Broadway, and he also danced the part in the movie. Along the way he fell into a two-year depression and lived on unemployment until analysis cleared his head.
Now that he is a choreographer Feld is more driven than ever. He spends hundreds of hours working on ballets in his Broadway studio. "I guess I go on because it gives me more pleasure than pain," he says. "Anyway, I have nothing better to do with my time." With his art paramount in his life, he says, "I don't have a relationship and I don't need one."
Such dedication is a plus—and minus—to his company. "He is the most difficult person I've ever worked with," says Christine Sarry, Feld's prima ballerina since the days of the Children's Crusade. "But without that kind of drive and passion you wouldn't get the same kind of creativity."
Remember the hotheaded, bitchy male choreographer in The Turning Point? Eliot Feld does. He's been told he was the model for the character—and he turned down an offer to play the role. "None of it was serious," he scoffs with appropriately bitchy disdain.