FARGO-As a dancer, Eddie Gasper stepped across Broadway stages with grace in blockbusters like "Sweet Charity," "West Side Story," "Guys and Dolls" and "The Music Man." But it was here, in our own river city, that Gasper left his biggest, lasting footprints on the dance and theater scene.
On Wednesday, he was remembered as an integral choreographer and director at Trollwood Performing Arts School musicals, and as a co-founder of the Red River Dance and Performing Company, Carousel Dance Theater and Gasper School of Dance.
Gasper took his final bow Tuesday night in Bradenton, Fla., surrounded by his wife, Kathy, and family. The 86-year-old died of complications from cancer after being diagnosed just two weeks ago, his youngest son, Marty, said Wednesday.
Gasper picked up a love for dance from an uncle, a former vaudeville performer. He carried that passion for performing throughout his life and passed it on to family, friends and students.
"The biggest take-away so many people got from him is a really strong work ethic coupled with an appreciation for the good times," Marty said. "Things are hard and they don't get done unless you put forth the effort. But there has to be a time when you sit back and appreciate it, as well."
Calling him Eddie, as did all of his students, Marty said his father "was like a caricature of himself, such a colorful person."
In the early 1950s, after a stint in the U.S. Air Force, the senior Gasper moved to New York and made a name for himself as a dancer in "West Side Story" and "Irma la Douce." In 1962, he caught the eye of legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse and was cast in "Little Me."
In a 2004 interview with The Forum, Gasper recalled how Fosse chided the dancer for not being in his production of "Damn Yankees" seven years before.
"You didn't take me," Gasper replied. The two became friends and Fosse hired him as an assistant on three shows, including "Sweet Charity." In 1967, Fosse sent Gasper to London to direct and choreograph a staging of "Sweet Charity" that starred Juliet Prowse.
Marty and his siblings have seen clips of his father in his prime on Broadway.
"The grace this man had onstage is unlike anything I've ever seen," the proud son said. "You don't see that grace and way of controlling your body that is smooth, masculine and confident but so graceful."
He said his father's last role was Ebenezer Scrooge in Gasper School of Dance's 2009 holiday production, "Dickens Dance."
"At 80 years old, he commanded the stage with the smallest, most impassioned movement and choreography," Marty recalled. "Even if it wasn't his prime, his performance was remarkable."
Making a mark in town
Eddie and Kathy moved to Fargo in 1978 when he started as a director/choreographer at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Later that year, they started the F-M Center for Dance and would later found the first professional dance company, the Red River Dance and Performing Company. The couple began Carousel Dance Theatre in 1996 and later Gasper's School of Dance and the FM Ballet, both now run by their other son, Matt Gasper.
From '81 ("Oklahoma") to '91 ("The Music Man"), Eddie and Kathy either directed or choreographed the mainstage musicals at Trollwood.
Vicki Chepulis, a co-founder of Trollwood Performing Arts School, said the two were "instrumental to the success of Trollwood.
"I credit them with setting a bar, a standard of artistic excellence that really helped put Trollwood on the artistic map," Chepulis said, adding that Gasper served as a mentor to herself and Trollwood co-founder John Marks.
"What was really unique about Eddie as an artist was that he was always trying to express his humanity," Chepulis said. "It's something I don't see in every single artist and he really lived that out. He just brought a vibrancy and a curiosity to life that inspired a lot of people to really realize their potential. A lot of people became a different kind of person because of the influence Eddie Gasper had on their lives."
One of those is Tim Kasper, who co-founded the vocal group The Blenders with fellow Trollwood alum Ryan Lance and married Eddie and Kathy's daughter, Melanie.
Another is Daniel Charon. The Moorhead native started taking classes from the Gaspers as a 13-year-old in 1985 and the next year was on stage with Red River Dance and Performing Company and Trollwood.
"I never felt like he treated us like younger kids," Charon said. "I felt like from the first day you walked into his studio he treated you like a professional. He was so passionate about what he did, it exuded from him. Everyone latched on to what he said."
Charon credited Eddie and Kathy with his success as an artist, having spent 20 years as a professional dancer in New York before becoming the artistic director of the Ririe Woodbury Dance Company, a contemporary dance troupe in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Everything I do is because of Eddie," Charon said. "That experience was really profound."