Argentina's Phoenix

Ballet is on the upswing again at Teatro Colón after its latest stumble.
Published in the April/May 2006 issue.

Oohs, aahs and the occasional gasp escaped the velvet-lined box where a bevy of retired dancers and choreographers and one mink-clad companion watched former colleagues—members of South America’s oldest and finest classical ballet troupe—perform at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. The occasion was the resident ballet company’s 80th anniversary gala performance last September.

Paloma Herrera was a vision of precision in a variation from Raymonda, and company members and other guest dancers performed Jorge Amarante’s whimsical new ballet, Estío; Sleeping Beauty, Act II; and five pas de deux, including one from Carmen that was the ne plus ultra in sexiness. The most passionately applauded number was a two-part tango ballet, El Ultimo Café and Romance del Diablo, danced by homegrown star Julio Bocca. His partner, Ballet Argentino’s Cecilia Figaredo, began the piece in a 1940’s suit and gradually stripped down to black panties—and nothing else.

Labeling the onstage fireworks a happy success, the Argentine press gushed in its coverage the next day, paying high homage to the performance as well as the cocktail reception that followed, where cabinet ministers, novelists and society figures mingled in a salon modeled after Versailles. The following month, South America’s most prestigious performing arts venue—facing growing instability—closed, and the Colón ballet’s Nutcracker performances were canceled.

A Troubled Past

The Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón, to use the company’s full name, has a perplexing history of ups and downs. Created in 1925 by the Ballets Russes’ Adolf Bolm, its reputation as South America’s finest classical company endures. Graduates of its associated school, the Instituto de Arte Superior, including Herrera, Bocca, Maximiliano Guerra, Luis Ortigoza and Iñaki Urlezaga, have achieved global prominence. But for years, the state-operated ballet has been plagued by strikes and shortages and rarely toured. In addition, a constant change of management, stagnant salaries and a paltry 40 performances per year have done little to build an esprit de corps—or maintain its international reputation.

Argentina’s problems may account for some of the ballet’s turmoil. Once a prosperous nation rich in natural resources, it has suffered military coups, corruption and the infamous reign of terror in the late 1970s known as the Dirty War. The latest blow was the collapse of the economy in 2001. Much like the Great Depression in the U.S., this meltdown led to frozen bank accounts, inflation, homelessness and civil unrest. Argentines were desperate to leave the country, and many who could did.

But even before 2001, dancers schooled at the Instituto were leaving Argentina. Thanks to over-protective union regulations and pensions endangered by budget shortfalls, dancers stayed on the payroll for as long as possible. With a retirement age of 63, few spaces ever opened up for new dancers. As a result, many talented dancers had to look outside their own country for work. Bocca and Guerra, who danced principal roles with the Colón ballet although they were stuck in the corps, also went, respectively, to American Ballet Theatre and La Scala Ballet, eventually founding their own companies. Urlezaga, who also has his own company now, joined The Royal Ballet in England. And Luis Ortigoza is now a principal at the Ballet of Santiago in Chile.

A Turnaround

Fortunately, Argentina is on the upswing and the Colón has reopened. In November 2005, one of the labor unions representing the dancers reached an agreement with the government to raise salaries for the first time in 15 years. This year, the Teatro Colón, built in 1908 and one of the country’s most ornate buildings, will receive a long-overdue renovation. The city’s secretary of culture, Gustavo Lopez, and the Colón’s new ballet director, Oscar Araiz, are embarking on a revitalization campaign. It looks as if the company is finally emerging from a burdensome past to rechart its course.

Araiz, an Argentine choreographer who founded the Ballet del Teatro San Martín and has worked in Europe and with the Joffrey and the Royal Winnipeg ballets, was hired in 2005 to lead the Colón ballet after the very brief tenure of Michael Uthoff, who had been forced out in yet another of the Colón’s political dust-ups. Admitting that his mission is both a “noble” and a “heavy” one, Araiz says his hopes lie with the next generation.

Juan Pablo Ledo is one of 19 new dancers, brought in under contract in 2004 by Uthoff. Ledo, 23, had previously danced with Bocca’s Ballet Argentino, because there were no vacancies at the Colón when he completed his studies at the Instituto. 

While Ledo relishes the experience—and prestige—of dancing at the Colón, he admits that the constant change of directors has been a headache. Even worse, the opera dominates the schedule. “The Teatro Colón is one of the most important theaters in South America and the world,” he says, “but the Colón ballet is neglected. Once [the] opera is programmed, there are few days left for the ballet. We want to dance!”

The lack of performance opportunities is one of the dancers’ chief complaints. It’s also why ABT’s Herrera, who trained at the Instituto, says she could never go back to Argentina to join the Colón, even though she sometimes flies to Buenos Aires for the weekend—a nine-hour flight and 5,253 miles—to help out by performing for free. “It would be very frustrating,” she says. “I wouldn’t get to dance enough.”

She adds, the Colón has “65-year-olds taking somebody else’s place—people want stability, but that’s not the answer.” She’s quick to tell her friends at the Colón that a dance career in U.S. also has its pitfalls. “Here it’s not too great either,” says Herrera. “You dance, you retire, and then you’re out.”

But Guerra, who, together with Bocca, is credited with pumping up the popularity of ballet in Argentina in the 1980s and debunking the taboo of boys in ballet, believes Araiz can resurrect the company. “He loves the company,” he says, sipping a beer and signing autographs for fans in the theater’s café. “He was always a great director. He’ll bring balance. If you want to know where you are going, you have to look back and see where you came from. Oscar will try and do that. It’s important that they feel they are part of something special.” 

Under Araiz’s guidance, the company will tour Argentina and travel to Uruguay for the first time in years. Because of renovations to the theater, there will be only 25 performances in 2006, but the hiatus will leave time for Araiz to create a signature style. “This is a very eclectic company, with different styles and techniques,” he says. “I think my job is to work on a more defined identity [for] the company.”
Back To The Future

Despite its difficulties, the ballet company continues—perhaps because of the attachment the dancers have to dancing there. Before the gala last September, the company was rehearsing Araiz’s contemporary ballet Adagietto in the basement rotunda. Guerra lifted partner Maricel Di Mitri, holding her horizontally and making elegant scooping movements with her, as if she were a human spoon. The ballet is full of small surprises and tender charm. In one moment, she laid her cheek in his outstretched hand before sliding into an arabesque penchée as he held her by her raised foot.

Araiz, a slight man with close-cropped gray hair and a blue button-down shirt, rose from his chair with a clap to halt the pianist and make his corrections, laying his hand gently on De Mitri’s head. She laughed and took his arm. Despite recent strikes and Uthoff’s resignation, there was no tension in the room. Di Mitri, a graduate of the Instituto who joined the company in 1992 and has appeared with many other troupes, says she’s never been able to leave. “I am in love with this theater,” she says. “No other theater makes me feel this way.”

Herrera, who auditioned at the Instituto when she was just eight years old and remembers skipping school to watch rehearsals, agrees. “To be a kid in that theater was the most incredible thing to ever happen to me,” she recalls. “They were making the sets, the props and costumes right there. It was full of magic.”

Araiz dreams of programming more radical ballets that will stir up his dancers’ sensibilities and cast off the company’s somewhat fusty image. To that end, Araiz hopes to introduce works by Sweden’s Mats Ek, best known for his reworkings of Giselle and Swan Lake, to reflect psychological and current issues, and by Angelin Preljocaj, whose Le Parc was a paean to sensuality inspired by Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s “academic, but in a modern way,” says Araiz of Le Parc. “It could be a good bridge. [The Colón] is the best classical company in Argentina, and we must keep that. But the repertoire must grow.”

In the meantime, he and his charges are off to a strong start. Headlining the 2006 season is an all-Argentine program that will help set the groundwork for a reconceptualized company. The ballets on the program—Aire de Tango, Cantata para América Mágica and Estancia—choreographed by Ana María Stekelman, Luis Arrieta and Araiz, respectively, are built around Argentine themes and set to music by 20th-century composer Alberto Ginastera. The 2006 season also includes a fair number of the classics: Les Sylphides, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and a Stravinsky program. “This is an equilibrium of tradition and modernism,” says Araiz. “That’s what can help the company find its identity.”

Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University, in New York City.