Stages of Life

Hugh Nini's life has gone from musician and ballet dancer to a published author of a book that has won international acclaim.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Hugh Nini
Hugh Nini

Hugh Nini faced a lot of unexpected turns in his life.

He came to North Texas in the 1970s as music major, but pursued ballet for a career.

Following an injury, he pivoted to teaching -- founding the Denton Ballet Academy in 1979, which trained thousands of students and became an institution in the city.

And then there was a spontaneous trip to a flea market in Dallas in 2000, where he and his now-husband Neal Treadwell found a picture from the 1920s of two men lovingly gazing at each other.

That picture led them to compile similar pictures of men from the 1850s to the 1950s into the book Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s – which has garnered international attention.

The title of the book reflects not just the pictures, but also the choices Nini has had to make throughout his life.

"The message of the book is love," he says. "The subjects of the book all project love."

An Artist's Life

Nini, who grew up in Houston, came to North Texas in 1974 as a French horn major, eager to study with world-renowned conductor Anshel Brusilow. He worked his way from 5th chair in the symphony orchestra to principal horn in his second and third years -- while studying ballet at the same time.

"It was an insane three years," he says. "It was impossible to do both of those in parallel any longer. I stayed for three years because of Mr. Brusilow. I was very aware I was in the presence of a great artist."

He chose ballet, dropping out of North Texas to enroll in the Banff Centre for the Fine Arts -- and making it to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1977. He was on the path to becoming a professional dancer.

But he was never able to realize his dream.

During a return trip to Houston, he suffered major back and head injuries in a car accident. He could no longer dance.

Recovering from the accident was a slow process.

"I think my survivor skills kicked in," he says. "The natural logical thing was to go back to French horn. While French horn was my first love, ballet was my greatest love."

So, in 1979, he founded the Denton Ballet Academy -- which he owned for 35 years. The school became the place for young ballet dancers to train and put on the annual performance of The Nutcracker.

Nini's first batch of students all went on to professional careers. One won gold medals at international competitions. He relished watching his students grow as performers and people.       

"When you're a ballet teacher, you'll have a student for 10 years," he says. "If I'm doing my job right, they're going to leave the nest because they're going on to bigger things. That was the tough part of teaching, but it was gratifying to see them do great things."

In 2011, Nini sold the studio after Treadwell, an executive in the cosmetics industry, transferred to New York City. There, Nini worked as a freelance ballet teacher and is on the faculty of the Joffrey Ballet's professional division, NYC.

And he soon was enmeshed in another project that came about unexpectedly.

Preserving Love

That project began in the year 2000, when Nini and Treadwell left church at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. They realized they didn't have any plans that afternoon and decided to stop by the Love Field Antique Mall.

After wandering around the store separately, Treadwell showed Nini a box he had found.

One photo stood out -- a male couple in a backyard patio, looking serenely into each other's eyes.

"We were just stunned that a photo like that had ever been taken," Nini says. "And that it survived 80 years."

They paid five bucks for the box.

They figured they were preserving the picture, which was taken during a time when same-sex relationships were against the law. He says he was "gobsmacked" that it was photographed.

"Whatever happened between the couple in the photo" -- and Nini acquiring it approximately 80 years later -- "is anybody's guess. But somehow it survived."

They never expected to find a second photo.

But they did. Soon, they developed an instinct to look for them -- finding them in flea markets on their trips to Europe and, as the internet took off in the 2000s, through online auctions.

They ended up collecting more than 3,200 photos of men in love.

"What we got here is amazing," Nini thought. "It's a crime no one else is seeing it."

They compiled the pictures in a book that came out in 2020, drawing articles in the Washington Post, Esquire and Rolling Stone and TV interviews in Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Canada, Brazil, Finland and Spain.

Readers have expressed how much the book means to them, including at one small book signing.

"There were tears," Nini says. "People are quite moved when they see this book. We get communications from people every day expressing what this book has meant to them. It's been overwhelming."