THE AMERICAN DREAM - Starving artist finds his path

DeWayne Bartels

Erich Yetter says he is living the American Dream.

It, he said, smiling, came to him quite literally by accident.

Yetter, 49, is the artistic director of the Peoria Ballet, a path to The American Dream he said he never could have imagined as a high school football player in El Paso, Texas.

An accidental path

Yetter comes from a family of lawyers.

“The American Dream in my family was defined as a house, security and money,” Yetter said.

Yetter said as he grew into a young man, his concept of The American Dream included those signs that mattered so much to the rest of his family.

He recalled as a 10-year-old imagining what his life would be like in the year 2000.

“What I saw was a house, a family and a normal life,” Yetter said.

“That’s, I think, what everyone imagines.”

Yetter said he was never pushed to be a lawyer. Being good at biology, Yetter said, he imagined himself as a doctor.

In the ‘70s, Yetter was the poster child for the All-American boy playing high school football.

He thought football was the beginning and end of life until culture entered his sphere of consciousness in the form of Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“He, and others, opened my eyes to culture,” Yetter said.

“I thought, ‘Here’s a profession where I could take an athletic background and make it expressive.’”

Yetter said he began questioning what was so important about football, but not enough to stop playing.

In his junior year, an injury sidelined him for the season.

“To get stronger, dance was recommended. The dance teacher recommended ballet. She did that to help me build up strength, and because she saw something in me.”

Yetter said he jumped right in because a lot of athletes who had been injured took ballet.

“It wasn’t a threat to being seen as macho,” Yetter said. “I didn’t have to fight about it.”

Starving artist

Without realizing it, in those classes, Yetter was heading down his road to The American Dream.

“In those classes, the music and movement was so natural. Ballet opened a whole new possibility to me,” he said.

He returned to football, but it was never the same.

“After being exposed to ballet, I needed something intellectual to stimulate me,” Yetter said.

Yetter said he went to college conflicted.

He pursued a liberal arts degree, not knowing what he wanted to do, but ballet was in the back of his mind.

He transferred to Texas Christian University to study dance.

“In college, it just happened. I pursued ballet, but didn’t really see it as a career,” he said.

“I wasn’t looking back, though. Before I knew it, I was in the world of an artist.”

As a sophomore in college, he moved to Houston to study with the Houston Ballet.

He laughed. Studying with the ballet company was his intent, but he had not been invited.

“I just hung around until they took me under their wing,” he said.

He trained with the ballet company for two years.   

“My family was wondering, ‘What the Hell is up with Erich?’ I was the real starving artist,” Yetter said.

At that time, he was not thinking about The American Dream.

“But, I realized I was following my dream,” he said.

He waited tables in New York City while auditioning.

“I was optimistic, but depressed. I got frustrated,” he said.

“I thought about going home, but I had too much pride,” he said. And, fortunately, he added, he met a woman. She was a calming force, he said, and boosted his confidence.

Dream realized

While watching other dancers try and fail, Yetter decided to leave New York City and seek opportunities elsewhere. He found it in Columbus, Ohio. His girlfriend, he said,  saw a chance for him.

“She saw hope, finally, and married me,” he said.

The pair moved to England, then Memphis for 12 years.

“It was in Memphis I began to realize I felt I had achieved The American Dream. We bought our first home. We had our first child,” Yetter said.

The couple moved to Peoria in 2000.

“As I look back, the most important aspect of me achieving The American Dream was the freedom to make my career choice and pursue it,” Yetter said.

Yetter said for him, The American Dream is, “Pursuing your talent, pursuing what moves you and being able to make a living at it.

“It’s a sense of a normal life, a house you can raise a family in and being part of the community. Passion to pursue your dream has to come into play. It’s about being on the road to where you want to go.”

Yetter said he had learned that the satisfying aspect in his pursuit of The American Dream has been the journey.

“An artist has to do what he has to do. There are sacrifices,” Yetter said.

“You have to ask yourself what you will sacrifice. My starving artist phase really changed my definition of success.”