During his 20 years as Executive and Artistic Director of TITAS, Charles Santos has been instrumental in raising Dallas’ international cultural profile by bringing dance groups of national and international significance to the city.
On Saturday night at the annual TITAS Command Performance and Gala, the organization’s Board of Directors will honor Santos with an award of appreciation for his dedication to TITAS and the arts.
Ahead of his big night, we spoke with Santos about some of his work with TITAS, his optimism, and…the Macarena.
Many people think that being a dancer is a combination of talent, hard work and maybe luck. What do you think dancers have that we don’t?
Oh, I think that’s all you said, but it’s also recognizing that a dancer, when they’re performing, is an athlete and they’re focused. Back when I was doing that, you went to rehearsal, you went to the gym, you went to class every day. It was like that. You don’t think about it, you do it. So they’re a bit fussy about that.
There are dancers who are very particular and who only eat organic food. And then there are people like me, when in the 80s when I was dancing, we would eat a performance burger before we went to get ready for a show. We were a little more irreverent about it back then.
When I was teaching aerobics in the 80s, all the instructors went to the Pizza Inn at lunchtime for the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Yes, we would have been friends back then.
As a leader of an arts organization and someone who has dedicated his life to the arts, what is one thing North Texas citizens need to know about the arts in our community?
I think there are two important things.
First, the arts are a vital economic engine for any community. When we put on our shows, we employ a group of people, we employ stagehands and we pay for the theater rental and all that. There are taxes that are paid for the tickets. People go to restaurants. They eat, they pay for parking. All of this is a creative economy ecosystem that sustains any city. So that’s a really vital part of that. It’s not just about entertainment, it’s a business.
Second, I think the arts are the lifeblood of any community. I think William Carlos said it best – “When it’s all gone, all that’s left in this culture is art.” We look at archeology and what we are. What we learn about these past civilizations comes from their art that has been left behind. It is therefore the essence of any community.
And I think any city that doesn’t take the arts seriously won’t attract the big business and tourism that they want. It’s the soul of a community and people want to know that they live in a city that has, you know, quality of life values.
In September 2001, you were working in New York for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council at the World Trade Center. Although you were scheduled to attend a morning meeting at the Windows of the World restaurant in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, you missed it. How has this near-death experience changed you for better or for worse?
Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I definitely had guardian angels. I always felt like I would have very easily been up there and if I had been up there at Windows of the World, listen, I would have perished.
It certainly made me appreciate each day a little better. I make a choice to try to be happy. I make a choice to try to see the best and I choose to be happy. And I don’t want to belittle anyone who struggles with depression or that sort of thing. I speak for myself. I make a choice to try to live a happy life. And a lot of that came from that experience.
And I’ll tell you, the most refreshing thing that happened during the week after the event was Broadway CARES, calling me and offering me tickets to see Kiss me, Kate, because my mother flew to New York to see my concerts, which obviously did not happen. And we all left. And for about two and a half hours, you know, I didn’t have to answer a phone call. I didn’t have to make the call–“Yes, I’m alive. I’m fine”, you know? When you’re comforting yourself while you’re trying to comfort people who are trying to comfort you, it can hit you and you can’t do the same, you know?
But it was for two and a half hours that I went to this show. I didn’t have to think about it. You know, my spirit was uplifted, and that was the most healing activity I did during that time, was just going to enjoy the arts. And so, I became very aware of the healing power of the arts on so many levels, you know, and whether we were doing a benefit for AIDS or breast cancer or just going to take a little bit of a break from life, it is healing. I’ve done benefits throughout my career, but you don’t really realize the benefits until you’re on the receiving end.
If there were no limits, in terms of money, time or talent, what would your dream show be?
You know, my dream show is really the project we created called The meeting in 2011, then again in 2013. I was at a dinner hosted by Chris Heinbaugh, Carol Reed and Craig Holcomb. They always wanted to write a top-down show which was a big plus. The next day, Chris came to my office and said, “It’s the 30th anniversary of the AIDS pandemic. You have to do it. And we’ll support you at the AT&T Center.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.”
And I remember the pivotal day when I invited all the companies. There are 15, I believe, artistic groups and all the artistic directors of all the companies. Everybody was there. We were going into the conference room and I said to my assistant John, “Either it’s going to be a clusterf**k or it’s going to be magic.” And I walked in and thanked everyone for being there, and I said, “Look, we don’t have a lot of time. So in the interests of time, I just have to hand these things out Well [Stevenson], I need you to do a ballet to this piece of music. And I’ll take this piece of music,” and Bridget Moore said, “I’ll take the Vivaldi,” and Bruce Wood said, “I’ll take that picture and that music,” and so on. going to do it and then work with the theater people to put the theme together and have the [Turtle Creek] Choral doing what he was. It was by far the best job I have ever done and the hardest I have ever worked.
So I guess you’ve already done your dream show?
Oh, I did. It was my dream show.
You are a very positive person who thinks about the positive aspects of life, but what keeps you up at night?
Right now we are in production week and what keeps me awake are the airlines and the weather. We have a very tight window for this big production this weekend with six artists coming from different cities. All must arrive in the small window because we have technical and performance rehearsals. So if they miss their six o’clock flight on Saturday, they have maybe two hours to fly to get there, or the show won’t be on them. The artists who are in five pieces do not fly out until Saturday morning to arrive here for a gala on Saturday evening. So we pray to God for weather and flights and there’s nothing we can do. It’s just biting your nails and solving problems.
Have you ever had a crazy backstage mishap and how did you get out of it?
I remember a year when I danced in Austin and I was allergic to cedar and had terrible cedar fever. I took two of these allergy pills and didn’t read the instructions that said it was one every twenty-four hours — and I took two. We were in the show and I’m completely offstage. And my entrance was with this dancer, Andrea, jumping up and I was catching her in the air, and then we were going up left, down right, across the stage. And I’m standing backstage and here comes Andrea, and she jumps up and lands on her feet and she just runs backwards because I didn’t move. I was zoned out on allergy meds and missed it all. I had to run to the other side of the stage and fake an entrance. You know, if I can say that, I was soaring like a kite and I didn’t realize it.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Guilty pleasure? We will probably RuPaul’s Drag Show and because of my friend Katie Carter, I had watched The Creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders reality show. I have to be a judge in this part of this series, not in the TV show, but in this formation. I had this whole experience with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and so I was watching this reality TV. Rick, my husband, would give me a hard time. I said, “I don’t care. I watch it.” Sadly, I have to admit that I’m a TV addict. We watch a lot of stuff on Netflix and all the streaming services.
And I think another guilty pleasure would be Whataburger and Oreos.
If you live in Texas, Whataburger isn’t a guilty pleasure, it’s a requirement.
The Macarena at weddings, yes or no?
No. With a capital N and a capital O. I can’t stand the song. I can’t stand the movement, but it’s the song more than anything that offends my ears. Do the electric slide.
With my family, it’s the chicken dance. And I’m like – who came up with this idea?
Someone who couldn’t do the electric slide.
Charles Santos will be honored at the annual Command Performance and TITAS/DANCE UNBOUND Gala on Saturday night at the Winspear Opera House. The event presents 13 works performed by national and international dancers and works commissioned by TITAS created specifically for the gala.
In Good question, we get to know influential artists a little better thanks to some original and stimulating questions. Who should we talk to next? Email me at [email protected]
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.