Dancer/Choreographer Paul Christiano dies at age 39

“A few years ago, Paulie was directing a production conceived and choreographed entirely by him from the ground up. Early on in the creation process Paul let me know there was an extra piece he wanted to add using eight specific guest artists. I told him, ‘That’s great Paulie, but we didn’t budget any cash for this show to hire extra dancers… it was meant to be set on our main company.’ Paul nonchalantly replied ‘Oh, that’s okay. I just took the money you’re paying me, divided it by eight, offered them each that amount to do the work, and they’re all good with it.’ Paul didn’t even take a cut, partially because he wanted to get his friends work, and partially because he had a vision he had to follow.

“His drive and selfless focus toward dance were absolutely impossible. We’ll all have to work just a little bit harder and be just a little bit more motivated to substitute the immeasurable amount of drive we’ve all collectively lost in him.”

Mark Hackman (Producing Director, Chicago Dance Crash)

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Paul Christiano | photo by Cheryl Mann

While dancing for Thodos Dance Chicago at the turn of the 21st century, Paul Christiano choreographed his first dance: Miracle, Interrupted. Set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the piece incorporated American Sign Language and an athletic movement vocabulary that would become Christiano’s signature. Miracle, Interrupted propelled Christiano’s career and he quickly entered the limelight as a recipient of the Ruth Page Award and nods from the media as one of sixteen “Chicagoans of the Year” (Chicago Tribune, 2003), “Best Dancer in Chicago” (Chicago Magazine, 2003), and one of the “Dancing Men of 2010” (TimeOut Chicago). Christiano’s resume includes collaborations with Nomi Dance Company, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Danszloop Chicago, Dmitri Peskov Dance Theatre, and Chicago Dance Crash. His work has been featured in the repertories of Thodos Dance Chicago, The Joffrey Ballet, and River North Dance Chicago.

“Paul was one of a ‘genius’ kind. He paved the way for so many artists to dig deeper, explore the unknown, trust their instincts, strive for bigger and so much better, and most of all to be extraordinary. When Paul was hard at work in the studio he drew the attention of everyone, inside and out. And when he took to the stage, he left us speechless and in awe.   I know Paul had so much more to do, so many brilliant moments to have, so many more lives to influence.” 

Laura Kariotis (Artistic Director, Nomi Dance Company)

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Christiano dances with Nomi Dance Company Artistic Director Laura Kariotis | photo credit: Topher Alexander

As a performer, Paul Christiano was bold and charismatic. As a choreographer, his work was poignant and thoughtful – he answered questions the audience didn’t know how to ask and probed for understanding of himself and the world through movement. His talent was undeniable, his work infused with athleticism and a relentless commitment to seeing the idea all the way through.

“[Paul] was immensely creative in his work and he brought an authentic and unpretentious energy with him whether he was dancing, creating or otherwise. I always felt drawn to him and enjoyed being around him, a man of a tormented and somewhat sad past. A man who fell victim to his demons and in the end, lost his life to them. He was soft in character and had a kindness in him that was both endearing and loving…. It was that kindness that made me adore him. Paul will be missed in the Chicago dance community more than he could have possibly known. He was loved and respected more than he could have possibly known. His intricate and brilliant work will live on as will the mark he has left here both professionally and personally. I wish for him the peace that was missing in his lifetime here on earth.” 

Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli (Founder/Artistic Director, Extensions Dance Company)

As the news of Christiano’s death at age 39 slowly spread across social media, the when, where, and how remained unimportant, because it really doesn’t matter. Throughout his life, Christiano’s greatest battle was with himself. It’s a battle he didn’t hide, and ultimately lost, but the legacy of his career, and the one he might have had, cannot and will not be forgotten.

Paul Christiano was, indeed, a miracle, interrupted.

“Paul Christiano was a brilliant artist.  And, like the streotype goes, had his probelms.  Paul was an artist who had demons, not a demon who made art.  Whatever Paul’s faults, at the end of the day if you were to put on the scale all of the good and beautiful things he brought into this world on one side and all of the bad and ugly things he brought into this world I would say that the good would outweigh the bad.  More so than if the same were done for me.  Paul Christiano was (is) my friend.  He carried a terrible weight and, in the end, it proved too heavy for him.  I will miss him dearly.”
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Joshua Paul Weckesser (Co-Founder, Bread & Roses Productions)

Paul Christiano | photo credit: Eddie Eng
Paul Christiano | photo credit: Eddie Eng

Note: There is no public memorial planned for Paul Christiano. He will be remembered by his friends and colleagues in a future tribute performance presented in association with Dance Chicago this November.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.

12 thoughts on “Dancer/Choreographer Paul Christiano dies at age 39

  1. Paul like so many geniuses’ was tormented, I think, (from knowing him and his family since he was two) because they are unable to cope in an ordinary world with ordinary people who, except for a few, could not understand him or speak his emotional language. But those who could, not only knew how extraordinary he was but also knew he was a gentle, innocent soul that was just lost in this harsh and too often unjust society. I will miss that little boy who danced his way into my heart with his enthusiasm and huge smile.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful tribute/memorial for Paul. It captures his loving, generous, caring spirit which I will miss. I’m very touched by all of the kind and wonderful things people have to say about him, and the phrase “Miracle, Interrupted” now holds entirely new meaning for me. The world was a better place with him in it, and I am honoured to have known and worked alongside this shooting star, this miracle interrupted.

    > “Throughout his life, Christiano’s greatest battle was with himself. It’s a battle he didn’t hide, and ultimately lost, but the legacy of his career, and the one he might have had, cannot and will not be forgotten.”

    I cannot agree with this. His greatest battle was the persecution he faced from our less-than-enlightened society. *That* is the battle he lost.

    Aside from family and friends, he had two passions which gave his life real hope, purpose, and meaning: dancing, and volunteering with B4U-ACT to work towards reducing social stigma and creating a more just society for those attracted to children and adolescents (with the side benefit of better protecting children and adolescents). Faced with having both his dancing and his volunteering taken away from him by the state for essentially bureaucratic reasons, and facing the prospect of living without these two passions for an unknown number of years, it seems he just couldn’t.

    Social stigma, prejudice, and persecution are what hounded Paul for much of his life, and are what eventually killed him. Paul is one example, but this is an epidemic that we as a society must wake up about! Caring mental health professionals are beginning to understand and spread this message; the artistic community has a role to play in this as well, especially now that Paul is no longer around to carry out this work himself.

    1. The demons that Paul had to deal with are more commonly called the citizens of Illinois – and the people of the world, more broadly.

      Out of a spirit of generosity, I am withholding judgment until I see how these citizens react to what they have done.

      I thank all those who have supported and accepted Paul.

  3. I would simply like to thank you for your beautiful and sensitive article, and to express my gratitude for the loving statements shared by Mark Hackman, Laura Kariotis, Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli and Joshua Paul Weckesser. This article, these people, every kind word — that will be my salvation in the weeks ahead. As his mother, I should be screaming with rage over what seems like such a selfish act. But I know my son, and I know his pain. So I’ve chosen to honor his final words, left for us to read at the site of his death: “For sixteen years, I’ve watched a set of meaningless legal restrictions lay waste to every last aspiration I’ve had for myself. Wedged in society’s blind spot, I’m constantly reminded by the people I might otherwise call friends or employers that my presence and contributions are dispensable and unnecessary. For the past seven years, I’ve lived strictly out of a courtesy to my parents. I’ve held out this long precisely because they’re good parents. The time has come for me to choose the only true freedom. Please know this decision comes as a soaring relief to me, as it should, upon pragmatic reflection, to my mother and father. My gratitude to the exceptions to the rule who jeopardized their personal and professional reputations so I could pursue some semblance of my livelihood. My love to my parents, who never wavered.”

    1. Jennifer, I am so sorry about Paul. We had fallen out of touch for the last few years, I had no idea he had died. I just saw this obituary today. He was a beautiful man and a valued friend. He struggled to find a place in this world and to live without harming anyone. I can’t imagine your grief, my condolences to you and Phil.

  4. I luckily met Paul through B4U-ACT organization and it was the best moment in my life (he truly grasped what I was feeling inside and offered me words of support and understanding which I had desperately longed to hear for years). I thank God that through lengthy talks with him I was left with a positive and influential reason to live my life shamelessly and instead cast aside my tormented days of guilt and misunderstanding that had been encompassing my whole life’s image up and until our many conversation’s together. What a blessing it was to embrace a sense of relief and peace from his edifying words of encouragement which were a turn-around, life-saving moment for me! I gained a lifelong realization that someone out there amidst this cruel world of ours; yes, someone whom I’d mysteriously met for the very first time…lovingly accepted who I am as a human being and taught me to stay the course despite the hateful hurdle’s or repercussion’s I may face in our world! It doesn’t surprise me though he decided to take an early entry into death’s doorway of relief because I can personally connect with how he was feeling inside…externalized abuse and faint hopelessness, despair, and condemnation! THANK YOU, Paul, and may your kind-hearted spirit enter a peaceful, joyous, and restful eternity as you face your maker whom we know is an all-forgiving, all-merciful, and non-judgmental God! Your journey here on earth has finally ceased my friend and all it’s hurdle’s and repercussions you faced personally have ended forever; however, your talent and contributions to our world are forever etched in our hearts ands minds and that makes us happy that God made you available for us to have known, appreciated, and accepted you in his image alone! We extend our unfailing love toward you and may you R.I.P! Your brother in Christ, James!

  5. Paul was my friend, and I will never forget him. I simply cannot believe I will never see him or speak to him again in the course of my association with B4U-ACT. He was one of the kindest and most generous souls I have ever met, and he was always there for me and others when we needed him. Thanks in large part to him and the way he lived his life, I will never feel ashamed to be a minor attracted person, and neither should anyone else. Paul proved every day of his life that people like us have a conscience, the ability to experience great love for our fellow human beings, and to have many productive gifts to offer society.

    Despite his tragic early departure from this world, and the equally tragic rejection of him by so many in a society that refused to understand all that he had to offer, his life carried an immense amount of value and inspiration for so many who had the honor of knowing him in any capacity. I want everyone to know that Paul never hated anyone, including the many who didn’t know him at all yet nevertheless hated him in mindless fashion simply because of his feelings. I will never forget the value of compassion and tolerance he taught me, and I will always be inspired by the person he was to strive to be the best person I can be. I’m now in a rare situation where I’m truly at a loss for words, but I want Paul’s family and friends to know how much he meant to all of us, and that both his life and his untimely death was never in vain. I offer my deepest condolences to his family and friends, while offering a promise to strive to honor his memory by being the best person I possibly can.

    1. You know, people don’t hate you because of what you are or because of your feelings. Or at least they shouldn’t. People hate you because of your actions.
      If you didn’t anything wrong there is no reason you should be ashamed. Still Paul Christiano did and he was paying consequences for his actions.

  6. I never had the privilege of meeting this extraordinary man. But it seems he touched several lives in a very positive way. His parents should be very proud of him. I truly hope for a day when our society accepts those who are not following in the stigma society has set for itself. I myself have a son who is a MAP and I love and accept him. It is not always easy to understand, I will admit. But one must throw off the blinders that we as people have placed on ourselves and be willing to accept the differences all of us have. And to lend support and love to those who don’t fit into the box society wishes to place them in.
    May you rest in peace now Paul.

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