Peter DiMuro’s transformation from “pudgy, in-the-closet country boy” to professional dancer, choreographer, and artistic director started with a role in his high school’s production of “Carnival.” Through this first foray into musical theater, he discovered the freeing nature of dance and the chance to express himself without words, he says.
DiMuro, now the executive artistic director at The Dance Complex, was hooked. And over the past 30 years, his award-winning career has included leading dance companies—Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, Dance/DC Metro, Peter DiMuro Performance Associates—and teaching, performing, and choreographing all over the world.
A year shy of 60, DiMuro has refused to retreat in any way, instead taking on new roles, including as the inaugural 2018 Choreographer in Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
His days are packed at The Dance Complex (536 Massachusetts Ave.), which serves more than a thousand dancers of all levels and ages each week. The complex also puts on festivals and workshops like “Running From/Running to…Cambridge,” which shares immigrant and refugee stories from the community through dance.
Since arriving at The Dance Complex in 2013, DiMuro has shepherded dance residency programs for internationally acclaimed dancers and up-and-coming artists, introduced an advisory council, and overseen a year-long reflection on the mission of the 27-year-old organization.
On top of the administrative demands of his leadership role, DiMuro also makes time for his own creative contributions at the organization, and for his dance company, Peter DiMuro/Public Displays of Motion.
Five years into his role as executive artistic director, DiMuro reflects on his artistic life and the future.
How do you fill up your creative well?
People see me as an extrovert. I’m truly an introvert, and I love spending time alone. I don’t get enough of it. For whatever reasons, I’m much clearer of head. And whatever dysfunctions I grew up within our family, the youngest of three and usually the people-pleaser, when I’m around people I try to be pleasing. And so when I can free myself of pleasing others and have a focus on what it is I’m making, that usually helps me. I go to dinner alone. I go away for a couple of days here or there as much as I can. That seems to help. And on the flip side of that, when I can’t do that, I just try to keep including myself in that equation.
Have you ever suffered from burnout?
The five years that I left Dance Exchange, I was in my mid-40s to early 50s, I’d been with the company for 15 years. I was in a quandary, it’s like the mid-life crisis you think you’ll never go through.
I’d worked hard and was on a roll of making probably 10 new works a year. Stopping doing it while I was still capable—I, one, needed a rest, and two, started to wonder: ‘What is my voice now? Who am I without this large organization that I’d been with?’
And I would say coming to The Dance Complex has solidified a lot of that in a way. My job here is to be an artist who is also the executive director; that’s a very important thing, I think, for arts organizations to realize. I’ve fought for that in different ways over the years, mainly because I feel once we only have a business approach to an arts organization, then you put at risk the ideals of what it is to be an artist. It’s not just about the bottom line, it’s about what does the community need and what’s the culture of the way you work, all those kinds of things.
You’ve said Liz Lerman calls you the “Mayor of Dance.” What does that mean to you?
I just so believe that dance does save lives, including mine. Dance is the unsung hero of the arts, but it’s also the unsung hero for a society. To be a citizen who dances, you open up to a whole new language and a whole new way of communication, a whole new way of reconciliation. It’s really hard to be mad at somebody when you’re shaking their hand, when you’re hugging each other and that is in its own form its own dance. So there’s so much about movement that I feel is a gift. To be a citizen, if not the mayor, a citizen of dance is an important thing.
What gets you out of bed in the morning and what’s a typical day for you?
On my best days, I think it’s when I really envision what’s going to happen, and that usually has lots of shifts and turns in dealing with a business thing for half an hour, somebody who is upset for another 25 minutes, someone who’s very happy over lunch.
It’s a little hard now because we have hundreds of people who come through the door every day, so it’s hard for me to be engaged with everybody. Just like in dancing, the transitions are really important in a day like mine, or anybody who deals with a lot of pulls, on the development end, on the admin end, on the creative-in-studio end. I try to prep myself walking from one place to the next or from one floor down to the next. And there’s this idea that I am physically and emotionally shifting to be prepared to go into this next room.
Conversely, what keeps you up at night?
Some of it is money, but not all of it is money. Some of it is the idea of being able to translate the value of what it is that we do. But when it really comes down to it, it’s not so much getting the money, which I think is easy if you know how to translate value. Because of course, it’s a no-brainer that people should be supporting this place or supporting dance in general. But we’re up against—just as we are in our government right now—we’re up against people who lie and people who are out of touch with their own truth. And I wouldn’t say it’s so much about anti-dance, it’s about anti-human. We have to really find ways to translate the value of human beings.
So we have to understand that people have this picture of dancers. It’s in New England and we have this Puritan streak, so it’s sensual and therefore taboo, which is just craziness. Or else, it’s valueless. The smartest people I know are dancers because we’re in our bodies and our brains at the same time.
It’s the translation [that] keeps me up. That shifts with every transition in the day you might have, and [when] you go to meet a funder or a potential board member or a new student, it’s: How do I open this door for them so they can see for themselves what this is? And what color is that door, and what’s the latch on it, and are there window panes? How do I paint this picture to make it a new place for them?
What assumptions do people make about you that you wish you could correct?
I feel like for me and for many people, getting older, you become part of the wallpaper. As I get older and some of our [students] don’t know that I’ve had a dance career or that I’m even making dances. Sometimes, I feel like there’s this assumption that as we get older, we lose our past. And I’d love for people to know that in some ways, I feel more creative now and I feel like dancing more than I did in my 40s—maybe not my 30s, but my 40s for sure. And there’s just that assumption about people that as they get older and grayer, that they’re not as vitally creative or dynamic. And there’s something that I’m feeling, especially as I approach my next birthday, which is a big one, about how to keep breaking that myth for people and setting a tone here the same way.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.