Sunday, December 5, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

The determined orphan


The youthful-looking man comes out on the stage trailing the announcer. He is dressed all in black, with black hair, black short beard and dark eyes. A dancer for sure, with feet turned out, head upright and neck long. He stops at center stage — although nothing else about him stops. He vibrates in place. The announcer’s short introduction is not short enough for him. At last, the microphone is in his hands.

Serkan Usta looks out on the audience. Beaming. He takes a deep breath, pauses, and then proclaims to us all, “You will love this ballet!”

An observation? A threat? A plea of hope?

If you visited Istanbul, Turkey, not too many years ago, you probably bought trinkets from the many dealers hawking goods near some ancient museum or some amazing mosque. Souvenirs to bring home to Iowa. While you were standing there, a small boy kept poking you in the leg. Tap, tap, tap. He was holding out a bag for you to use as a container for your souvenirs. A child of the street. You paid him a dollar and off he went to peddle another bag to another tourist. A blink in your life.

And the boy?

“I grew up in orphanage. I went there when I was 5. What happened, in those days my mom had an arranged marriage. The guy was 20 years older, and she was 15. She got married, and I was born when she was 18. When she was pregnant again, I was 5 years old; he left us for another woman. My mom was not very educated, but she is smart.  So, she sat in a huge factory and sewed. I would sit next to her.”

Matter of fact. No embellishments. No romanticism. No reprise of “Aladdin.” Life as it is. You fill in the blanks.

“She would take me to school, but I was off to the streets the moment she left. Istanbul is huge. Like 15 million people. I was all over the place. At 5 years old.”

And Serkan Usta’s adventures would begin, roaming the streets of one of the largest cities in the world. A child alone.

“I would go to touristic areas to make some money. All the tourists, they buy little things and they try to hold them. They have no bag, and I would come to them with a plastic bag, and they’d say, ‘Oh thank you,’ and give me a dollar. I didn’t speak English. I would just tap their legs.”

And what would you do with the money?

“At night I would go to the movies. My mother would come home. ‘Serkan is nowhere to be found.’ I’d show up at 10 at night. She would be crying.”

And so after many such episodes, with no ability to keep him safe, and more than a few brushes with disaster, off to the orphanage Serkan Usta went. From 5 to 18, he was one of many children with the government as parent and the orphanage as home.

But around the age of 10, Serkan’s life changed. A man came to the orphanage to leave a donation, saw all the boys and proposed that some of the boys come and audition as dancers with his company. They needed male dancers. Serkan was one of three who made the cut. A new beginning. Dance became his love, and the director became his surrogate father. A good time in his life.

Before long, he was recognized as a star. At 16, he was asked to come dance for the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. He was unwilling to leave the man who taught him dance, but at 17, he accepted the full scholarship to the Kirov.

Ah, but another problem for this orphan, how to get to America with not a nickel to his name?

“I go to the airport and knock on people’s doors, like TWA, Turkish Airlines, Pan Am. Pan Am, one of the managers said, ‘Do you have $12?’ I don’t have $12. He takes $12 and gives it to me. And then he said, ‘It will cost $12.’ I give him his $12, and he says, ‘You have a standby ticket now.’ ”

The next hurdle was the visa to America.

“I needed to know English for the visa. I didn’t. The ballet school told me when they ask me about English, tell them to read the second page of my application. The visa guy looked at the second page. It said, ‘Ballet is international language, he does not need to speak English to learn it.’ The ballet school wrote this. Amazingly, I got my passport.”

And now the 5-year-old orphan, very fluent in English these days, stands on the stage at Hoyt Sherman Place, the Artistic Director of Ballet Des Moines. Next to him is his wife of many years, Lori Grooters, Ballet Mistress. Her involvement in his life?

“I can do anything next to her.”

And he has done much. Dancing, choreography, running Ballet Des Moines.

And now he wants you. It’s no more complicated than that. Sure, he wouldn’t mind some more money for his productions, and more money to pay his dancers, and of course he’d like a bigger stage. But he makes no bones what he really wants. He wants people in the seats. He believes if he can get you there, you will be amazed and changed, and you will never leave.

“People deserve to see something really, really cool. I’m 41 years old. I live here. I’m probably going to die here. Before I do, people need to come see this ballet. I need people.”joes 1 11.5

Serkan Usta looks at me with an evangelical fervor… but then we run out of time. Back to practice he goes. The company has another performance, and he has work to do. He leaves in a whirl of graceful movement.

So, now that we’re sitting here alone, do you feel that tap, tap, tap at your leg? Could it be an orphan with a ballet ticket? CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

One Comment

  1. Lisa Church says:

    This year’s production of The Nutcracker will be my 10 year old daughter’s third show with Ballet Des Moines. She adores Serkan and as a parent I appreciate his enthusiasm for the kids. He is a whirlwind and you can’t help but smile as he buzzes through the room. Des Moines is lucky to have him here!

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