Edward Stegge: Beloved dancer retired, but not gone
By Lou Fancher
When Edward Stegge was 2 years old, he pointed up from his seat in the audience at a man dancing in San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker" and told his mother, "I want to be him."
He then set about becoming "him."
Now, at age 45, having danced with Walnut Creek-based Diablo Ballet from 2002 until his "final" performance on Nov. 15, the Concord native is retiring.
Dancing a specially created solo in "A Swingin' Holiday" to close the chapter on his professional career, that last show was unlike any other time onstage for him, Stegge said. A film tribute and special edition bottles of wine with his picture on the label have been prepared by the company.
But he isn't disappearing from the local arts scene. Sales of the wine with his likeness on the label will help to fund his ongoing position as the associate director for Diablo Ballet's Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids (PEEK) adopt-a-class program in Martinez and Oakland. It provides in-school movement and music curriculum and free dance performances to students and families in underserved areas.
"The video, the wine label, the love -- it was overwhelming. I felt like my life was flashing by," Stegge recalled. "I was inside my body, but outside of it, thinking it was so intense."
It was not unlike another intense moment in his life. But this memory, he says, was "like an in-and-out-of-body nightmare" and came after he was severely beaten in 2009 by two teenagers wielding a baseball bat.
"The first thing I remember is waking up and hearing a voice telling me I was at John Muir in Walnut Creek, and my skull was cracked," he said -- his first memory after the assault in which his wallet and cellphone were stolen. "They told me it was good the bones were crushed because if they hadn't been, the fluids leaking out of my brain would have gone down my spine, and I might have been paralyzed."
Three hours of surgery and a titanium mesh implant repaired the most obvious damage. Stegge's natural inclination -- to look away from the dark aspects of life -- kicked into gear after an initial period of being angry at himself for "being someone who was easy to attack."
"I felt anger, but then, I didn't want to carry around the weight of hating someone," he says. "I wanted the whole thing to disappear."
Diablo Ballet Artistic Director Lauren Jonas visited Stegge every day, telling him he'd have a job, soothing his confused, worried thoughts. Although he couldn't move one side of his body, he remembers thinking, "I know I had brain surgery, but I hope they didn't shave my head. I have a performance."
"I just kept telling him how much we needed him to get better because he had a lot of work to do," Jonas recalled. " I think if anything, he was scared, but never negative."
The doctors told him his brain could "regrow," and a community of dancers told him he was adored. "What I gained from it was so much love," Stegge said. "It was an unfortunate way to learn the lesson that people really do care."
Trained at San Francisco Ballet and New York's School of American Ballet, Stegge danced with Colorado Ballet for 10 seasons. Returning to the Bay Area, he performed with Oakland Ballet, San Francisco Opera Ballet and other companies before joining Diablo Ballet.
"He is a sweetie," Jonas wrote in an email. "Eddie is adored and loved by all who know him."
Stegge's career officially began on his 6th birthday, when he reminded his mother that the local dance school she'd called in the days after that fateful "Nutcracker" had told her the youngest age of entry was 6. Now, reflecting on the rigor of three decades of daily class, rehearsals and performances, he said, "I won't be glad to be rid of any part of it. I carry only the memory of good parts."
The good parts for Stegge happened primarily onstage, where the energy exerted in a flurry of quick jumps or the grand circling inscription of a leg in a cherished "ronde de jambe" provided a deep, visceral satisfaction he calls "surreal."
"I never enjoyed the rehearsal part, the fixing of things, as much as the pure joy of being in front of the audience and the immediate response," he says. "There's nothing like it; it's draining, but it doesn't feel like it."
Like most dancers, Stegge's not equating retirement with sitting still. He'll perform with Walnut Creek's Civic Arts Education dance students in "Winter Ballet Gala" in December. He's hoping to increase his involvement in PEEK's outreach activities. "Maybe if I'd met those kids who beat me when they were in second grade, like we do these PEEK kids, they would have turned out differently," he muses. "Maybe I can give a kid that same love I've felt and it will cause a change."