DeKALB – Why would James Monroe Stevko have pursued a career as a dancer? After all, he still remembers that dance call for a musical at Glenbard South High School. He wasn't cast.
“Which is hard to believe today,” the 32-year-old Northern Illinois University alumnus said, laughing. “For never having danced, I think I did pretty damn good."
Stevko became a dancer because it’s what he was built to do. Randy Newsom, longtime director of dance at NIU, noticed it immediately when Stevko, who was dedicated to a music education major, added a dance minor.
“He possesses a very good physical instrument for dance,” Newsom said. “He has very, very good feet and very good legs and a very loose back. You could tell just by the way he walks – he’s a dancer.”
Here’s the catch: Stevko had never danced – at least not like he meant it.
“All I knew was music,” Stevko said. “I was a band geek, and I was going to grow up to be a band director, because that was all I did.”
Operative word: did. Past tense. Now, Stevko is an actor and dancer whose latest credit is in the off-Broadway Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” – “Fidler afn Dakh” – which was just extended to run through Oct. 25. It’s directed by Academy, Tony and Emmy Award-winner Joel Grey.
Stevko also has performed in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio Music Hall in New York City and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as multiple seasons at the Lyric Opera in Chicago and many more productions. He said he’s also a sought-after ballet, musical theater and jazz teacher for students and adults alike.
Funny thing, Newsom said, is NIU’s dance program, although he said it’s a powerhouse, has been sought after over the years only by those who know about its track record.
“A lot of people don’t realize how good Northern’s program is,” he said. “It’s word of mouth, and it’s served us well.”
One of its claims to fame: Anyone can walk through the door and try to become a dancer. No auditions required.
“We’ll take anybody, and it’s great,” he said. “You can come to Northern with no dance training at all whatsoever. A lot of people will eliminate a lot of of possible dancers.”
What serendipity for Stevko. He inherited a mentor in Newsom who’d developed a reputation for building dancers from the ground up. Newsom retired in 2009, the year after Stevko graduated.
“He would be the last I built from the bottom up,” Newsom said. “It’s a remarkable feeling to see what he’s gone on to do, and to know you’ve added something to the art form.”
Stevko starred in numerous NIU productions, his last as the lead in the ballet "Le Corsaire," before he went out into the world and continued building his resumé.
If you’re curious about his heritage, it’s Slovakian, but he’s born and bred American. He’s always had a fascination with languages, so as he sat in bed the day before the audition for “Fiddler,” he contemplated whether he should go for it – pretty typical, he said.
He went, and was quickly criticized for speaking in a German accent. Yiddish is German-like, but not quite the same, he said.
He landed the role of Mendel, the rabbi’s son, and the show has been running since mid-July. He’s also been heard on the podcast “Unorthodox,” where he was featured as a Gentile of the Week and talked about working with Grey and learning Yiddish.
“The Yiddish gives it an authenticity,” Stevko said. “It's been 50 years since it's been done in Yiddish, and we’re doing it in a city with the highest Yiddish-speaking population in America.”
He recommends that all students – high schoolers, those at NIU – take advantage of whatever opportunities they can fit in, and to take advantage of the proximity to Chicago.
“I wish I’d used the proximity to the city more,” he said. “Real-world experience is so important. Getting in as soon as possible is the best thing you can do.”
Most of all, though, he said don’t be afraid to try. To shift gears.
Newsom echoed that sentiment, and urged people to acknowledge, rather than ignore, what the heart wants.
“You’d see the ones who come in, and some of them would stand in the doorway and watch class,” Newsom said. “You knew they had this burning desire, and you just had to pull them in like a fisherman. Throw the bobber out and bring them in.”
“I had no business being in there, but I was amazed by everything,” Stevko said. “It was a very dramatic time, and it was one of the hardest decisions of my life. I decided to change my entire life and what I knew. I was obsessed. I had to be. I didn’t have a choice.”