Photography by Peter Ross
Ryan Steele, the star of the new film Five Dances(in theaters Oct. 4) and an ensemble member of the Tony-winning musical Matilda, doesn't count calories. When he arrives at 10 p.m. sharp at one of his favorite dimly lit Broadway haunts -- having skipped, just this once, indulging autograph-seekers at the stage door -- he immediately orders a Jameson and ginger ale. "My job has me burning a lot," says Steele, who eats four meals a day and often pounds a pint of Ben & Jerry's Half Baked once he gets home to his Midtown apartment. "I don't need weird diets to do my thing."
Who could argue? Not audiences of Five Dances, who'll get quite an eyeful when the movie, directed by Alan Brown (Book of Love, Private Romeo), opens this month. "I don't think it's anything that'll hurt my career," Steele says about his very (ahem) physical sex scenes with his onscreen love interest, played by another real-life hoofer, Reed Luplau. "It just might give me a different sort of fan base." Furthermore, he's not the bashful type, because, as he puts it, he can't be. "Dancers have a certain amount of comfort that's a little weird to normal people," he says. "We're physical people. We're always changing in front of each other. There are no secrets in a dance company."
But beyond the physicality of Five Dances is a compelling story of an 18-year-old ballet dancer from Kansas who leaves his family behind in favor of sweat, competition, and a downtown Manhattan affair with another dancer--one that wouldn't have been conceivable back home. Fortunately, Steele's transition from the Midwest was less dramatic than that of his character. His parents have always supported his career and his sexuality, though he admits that in his early hometown dance classes, "we did a lot of punches and butched it up."
Now 22, he's spent half his life onstage, starting with a Detroit production of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular when he was just 11. He moans, recalling the debut, which eventually led to Broadway spins in Billy Elliot and West Side Story, his breakout role in Newsies, and his current turn in Matilda. "I'm getting old," he says.
Not quite. Steele is part of a new generation of rising Broadway demi-stars obsessed over on theater blogs, not least because he and his partner, fellow thesp Matt Doyle (The Book of Mormon), make such a handsome couple. "Once I knew I was in, he bought me a first edition of Matilda for Christmas," Steele says, referring to the classic children's book by Roald Dahl that serves as the source material for the show. He insists there's no competitive tension between the two: "What we're doing is so different -- I'm a dancer on Broadway, and he's an actor-singer. It gives us something to talk about."
Steele has ambitions beyond just dancing -- or, at least, he's open to the possibility of leaving that world behind--but he won't get too specific about his goals. "I've learned not to count anything out," he says. "That's a silly move in this business. There's something special about having your work cemented forever in movies and TV; it's a nice scrapbook. But there's also something really special about live theater."
One of Steele's recent live performances may still be on your DVR: He danced at the Tony Awards in June with the rest of his cast, before the show picked up some hardware (it netted four trophies from its 12 nominations). He's modest about the exposure, though. "I wasn't there for people to watch me dance," he says. "I was there to represent the show." But with Five Dances, Steele finally gets his chance to step out of the ensemble -- and to clear up one lingering question about his identity. "I get teased a lot," he says. "People say my name sounds like a porn star's." But that doesn't seem to faze him much. "It's valid. It completely does."
Watch the trailer for Five Dances, out Oct. 4, below: