Ballet High

What they really want to do is dance.

At the age of six, Raymond Rodriguez decided he wanted to dance. Specifically, he wanted to tap dance. His family was against it but relented when parents of a friend gave him tap shoes for his birthday. "They said, 'He already has the shoes, so I guess he can take the class,'" Rodriguez says in a phone interview.

Several years later, now an accomplished tapper, he auditioned for New York's High School of the Performing Arts. He'd never seen a ballet class. "They told me to change into my tights. I didn't have tights. So they said, 'Just roll up your pants and follow along.'"

Rodriguez was accepted. Coming from a Catholic parochial school, he had difficulty adjusting. He missed his neighborhood and his twin sister. He hated ballet class. He knew nothing about turnout, body line or pointing his feet; he simply imitated what he saw. Students had to take dance classes over Christmas break to keep in shape. Rodriguez went from place to place auditioning, and to his surprise, he was offered several scholarships, including one for the American Ballet Theater School. One of the teachers there took him under her wing. "She worked slowly; she broke things down for me. I started to understand what it was all about," he says.

He found himself being used in productions starring such artists as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. He was eventually lured away by the Cleveland San Jose Ballet and rapidly cast in leading roles.

Rodriguez is one of several principal dancers from companies around the world -- the American Ballet Theatre, the Boston Ballet, the National Ballet of China, England's Royal Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet the National Ballet of Canada and the Cleveland company -- who will descend on Vail for two Paul Mitchell International Evenings of Dance. Attending these is rather like skipping dinner and sitting down to an array of desserts: Instead of watching peasant dances, narrative passages, curtains rising and falling and props being moved, audience members sample one dazzling pas de deux after another. This year there will also be a duet by principals of the iconoclastic Pilobolus TOO. "We like to combine classical with great contemporary dance," says Katherine Kersten, producer of the event since 1993. "It's a wonderful contrast, and it keeps the evening fresh."

Kersten herself is a onetime soloist with the Milwaukee Ballet. In the past, she has brought to Vail such major names as Damien Woetzel and Darci Kistler. Thanks to her, Coloradans saw Ethan Stiefel a couple of years before he tore up the screen in Center Stage, proved just how vivid and sexy ballet could be and was proclaimed by some admirers to be the finest male dancer in the world. "I've tried to bring in young dancers on the verge of stardom," Kersten says, "and later have them back so our audiences can see how they've developed."

Vail's reputation is growing, and enticing dancers to Colorado isn't difficult. They usually enjoy themselves when they get here, too, Kersten says. "They're all principals. They fire each other up, and there's that buzz on stage."

Dealing with the altitude in Colorado presents a problem, though, and canisters of oxygen are routinely kept backstage. "But we don't give oxygen during rehearsals," says Kersten. "We want them to adjust. They're great athletes, and they generally do."

Rodriguez may need the oxygen. He will be dancing a Balanchine piece originally created for Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. It was McBride who taught it to Rodriguez and his partner Karen Gabay. Rodriguez describes it as "six and a half minutes of pure aerobics."

Galas such as the one in never become routine, Rodriguez says. "It's such a high when the audience is applauding and it's something I've given them -- something I love."

 
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