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Transcultural steps with a flair: Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros choreographs dynamic Latin counterrhythms for Miami's unique multiethnic ballet.

THE OPENING NIGHT of the Miami City Ballet on October 17, 1986, was an unforgettable debut. After a sampling of George Balanchine's neoclassical legacy, faithfully staged by Artistic Director Edward Villella, and a contemporary adaptation of Manuel de Falla's Amor Brujo, the curtain opened on the finale, a suite of nine tangos set to the music of the late Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla. Six elegantly embracing couples, sultry legs intertwined, over-arched feet delicately darting at the floor, wove on and off the stage in baroque patterns. Except for the principal ballerina, who wore fringed black with pink tights, the costumes, as well as the set, picked up the art deco chic of the Ballet's Miami Beach surroundings. The piece was Transtangos, Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros' first work as resident choreographer, and it displayed the brand new Ballet to perfection.

The company is unique among George Balanchine's progeny, distinguished as it is by a Latin American flair. Obviously the exuberant cohesion of the Ballet's contingent of dancers and staff from the Americas cannot be constrained in a city facing south. But at least part of the Ballet's personality has been shaped by Gamonet de los Heros, a young Peruvian hand-picked by Edward Villella to create new works compatible with Balanchine's masterpieces. "Miami Spice," one critic has called the result.

Transtangos, now the company's signature piece, was specifically commissioned to make an indelible first impression on the community whose support was so vital to the company's survival. And its success, both critically and at the box office, made Gamonet de los Heros an essential element in the formula that has yielded a lengthening list of subscribers and a budget of over four million dollars. Any given performance now includes a dash of Jimmy among the Balanchine choreographies. So it comes as a surprise that Gamonet de los Heros was already in his mid-twenties before he was even exposed to Balanchine.

His initiation, though, was almost a case of deja vu. "I was doing classical stuff and modern stuff," he remembers, "but I was looking for something faster and I discovered the neoclassical line pretty much on my own. Of course, I had heard of Balanchine, but when I saw his work, it was wow! I immediately understood exactly what he was doing." How does he feel about sharing the program with the master who, as Villella and other disciples constantly remind us, was the twentieth century's greatest ballet genius? "It's a total privilege, a wonderful thing," he sighs.

Peru, where Gamonet de los Heros received all of his training, offers such a wealth of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial traditions and treasures that its contemporary culture is often overlooked. A view of the facade of Lima's Teatro Municipal, a gold-balconied rococo jewel, is as close as most visitors come to its ballet season. Internationally, a reference to Lima's dance scene was a brief detail under the headlines when the Peruvian police raided a modest house in Lima and apprehended Abimael Guzman, leader of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, in the company of a local ballerina.

Current political and financial problems have resulted in less activity, but the 1970s were the golden years of dance in Peru, just as they were in Europe and the United States. Three resident companies, Ballet de Camera, Ballet de la Universidad de San Marcos and Ballet Nacional, performed in its theater circuit; musical comedies were regularly staged. And there was a national school of ballet which counted fourteen-year-old Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros among its pupils. By then he was a veteran actor with thirteen years of stage experience. His parents produced plays with religious themes, known as auto sacramentales, a Spanish medieval genre that arrived in Peru with the conquistadors and Christianity. As an infant, Jimmy was cast as the Christ child, his first role. Later, he played the twelve apostles and other Biblical figures and then moved on to musical comedy, where he started to dance.

There were the inevitable problems at home when he enrolled in ballet classes. "My father was in the theater business, and although he had enormous love for the art, he understood that in Lima, Peru, you can't make a living from ballet. And there was also the thing that a man does not dance. But I loved the art form and I got my way," he recalls.

After four years of ballet with Lucy Tellor de Lindar and Vera Stasmi, both European-trained, he began to perform in the new company created, for financial reasons, by the merger of the three government-subsidized troupes. The mix of classical and modern dancers drew ballet teachers from all over Europe as well as Martha Graham and Jose Limon's dancers from the United States. "But on stage I did all the classical repertoire--Don Q, Le Corsaire, La Fille Mal Gardee, Giselle, Swan Lake. I was always the prince," he laughs. "I think because I was tall. I adored dancing, and when I was dancing I would kill myself. I also worked with a folkloric group, Ballet Peruano, which integrated Peruvian and Andean themes into classical dance. There was a lot of eclecticism in Lima in those days. And I learned from it."

It all paid off when he was awarded gold medals in both the dance and choreographic divisions of a national festival in Peru, qualifying him to enter a world competition in Japan in 1980. On the way home Gamonet de los Heros stopped in New York and took classes at the Joffrey School until his visa was about to expire. Just as he was preparing to return to Peru, he heard that Ballet Oklahoma needed "a boy". "They gave me the job," says Gamonet. "Then Villella came to the company as advisor and later, in 1983, as director." Villella was Balanchine's neoclassical ideal. Due to multiple injuries he had begun distancing himself from the stage in 1978. But by then he already knew he wanted to direct, and he wanted to do it properly.

"Unfortunately most of us take off our tights and our dance belts and call ourselves artistic directors. That's crazy. You have to prepare," Villella explains. "So I found a small company, without an adequate staff, where I had to do everything by myself. That's how you learn, solving problems. It's like combat; you learn to survive. From that disaster I went to the Ballet Oklahoma and learned to deal with a board of directors, office staff, executive committees, finance committees, an orchestra, everything."

Gamonet de los Heros remained in Oklahoma with Villella long enough to dance his first Balanchine ballets: Concerto Barocco, Rubies, La Somnambule. Then he got the urge to choreograph in Europe. He turned down an offer in Belgium in favor of the opportunity to work as a choreographer for a season with the French Ballet du Nord, which also did a lot of Balanchine, and in Switzerland. When he went back to visit Oklahoma, Villella asked him to stay, and their association has been uninterrupted ever since.

In 1985, after giving a lecture in Miami, Villella was approached by three individuals who wanted his advice. A demographic study of southern Florida statistics, undertaken by the Rockefeller Foundation, had resulted in the startling conclusion that the area needed a resident ballet company. Where should they start?

"I told them that they weren't going to like what I was going to say," Villella recalls. "A ballet doesn't happen overnight. You need at least ten years, with a year and a half spent just on the organizational structure--staff, public relations and so forth. Usually nobody wants to do all this, but these people did. So when this opportunity appeared to create a ballet out of nothing, I was ready. I had the knowledge and I didn't want to waste any more time with disasters created by directors who had preceded me."

Villella designed an eleven-and-a-half-year program, now known throughout the world of classical ballet. He started to change opinions, habits and tastes to attract the audience for the contemporary repertoire that he wanted to do. "Because there was no way I was going to stage Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, which are the ballets the community here was comfortable with," he says.

Then he auditioned dancers. Convinced that the New York City Ballet already had under contract the precious few whose physical appearance conformed to Balanchine's aesthetic--a curvi-linear woman with a small head, short torso, long tapered limbs and the underside of her chin "the color of a peeled apple", as the master once specified--he looked for anyone whose body internalized rhythm to the point where it became a musical instrument. Drawing on talent from all over the world--Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, Vietnam, Portugal, South Africa, the United States--he found nineteen dancers, physically very different from each other, who all moved with the same musicality. Then he turned to Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros, because of his own extraordinary understanding of counterrhythms and phrasing, for a piece that would showcase the ensemble. "Edward called me about his opportunity to direct the Miami City Ballet. He wanted me to present a new work for the opening night, and he said it would be a lot better if we did something with a Latin flavor," Gamonet de los Heros remembers.

Ballets based on ballroom dance are nothing new, and the most successful are often set to music that the choreographer absorbed at an impressionable age. Balanchine's regal Vienna Waltzes, danced by the New York City Ballet, comes to mind, as does Twyla Tharp's torchy Sinatra Songs, choreographed for American Ballet Theater. In the Lima of the late 1960s and 1970s, teenagers like Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros were listening to the contemporary tangos of maestro Astor Piazzolla.

"I started to research the tango," he recalls. "I knew what the music was all about, but I had to decide what the piece would be all about. I mean, I come from Peru. We don't dance tango there except socially; it's not in our bones. I started taking private lessons, which were very costly and time-consuming. Then I discovered something very funny--it was not that complicated. So I did what I knew how to do--put the tango on point."

But first he had to reach the composer to talk about rights to the music and royalties. He called the music society in Argentina which gave him a telephone number in France where he was given a number in Germany. Then he was referred back to Argentina again. "Finally I got to talk to him." Jimmy remembers. "I explained the whole project; that it was a brand new company; that I was devoted to his music. I told him my background. He was fascinated with the idea, so he gave us a present--the music for free. He never charged us anything and, in addition to that, he sent me unpublished, unrecorded compositions and put me in touch with one of his arrangers in Buenos Aires.

"But there is something sad about Transtangos. Although Astor Piazzolla came to Miami several times after that, with our schedules I never got to meet him personally, which is something I will always regret. And he never got to see the ballet. That was tragic."

Since Transtangos, Gamonet de los Heros has created some two dozen choreographies for the company. He has yet to duplicate, either to the critics' or his own satisfaction, the bravura and popularity of his first work. But he is only thirty-six, and most of his pieces work very well. While he prefers to choreograph classical ballets, his reviewers seem to favor those with ethnic themes. A critics' choice is Nous Sommes, which premiered in 1987 and is an adagio for a couple set to Marie-Joseph Canteloup's "Bailero" from Chants d'Auvergne. Contropical, twenty-five minutes of Caribbean rumbas and guarachas, to music by Morton Gould and Louis Gottschalk, is another winner. Danzalta, an Andean ballet, has been well-received; Tango Tonto got a somewhat mixed reception. Yet to be seen in the United States is Gamonet's gift to his alma mater in Peru, a full-length ballet to Offenbach's La Pericholi, portraying Lima's legendary courtesan.

Few critics dispute Gamonet's talent as a choreographer of classical pas de deux and ensemble works that have nothing to do with ethnicity. They have been less pleased with what the Washington Post critic Alan Kriegsman and others call "abstraction in a neo-Blanchinian mold." But Villella will not allow his protege to become discouraged. "I'm here to protect Jimmy. I protect him by not allowing any criticism, regardless of its source, to go beyond that. He should have the freedom to work, the freedom to fail, with dignity. The critics are looking for something earth-shattering. So you end up with the 'New-Wave-Next-Wave' crawling-on-the-floor kind of stuff that's so exasperating to watch. I can be a great sounding board for Jimmy; it's a relationship between artistic director and resident choreographer. We don't always agree, but we have a great deal of personal and professional respect for each other."

Jimmy accepts such criticism more philosophically. "The beauty of the job is that you learn as you go. My inspiration comes from music and the dancers. But I don't want to be labeled only Latin American. That's not right because most of my pieces are neoclassical and I deal with contemporary composers, minimalist music, and classical music as well as folkloric music. That's why I have begun to say no to Latin themes."

There is at least one more in progress, however, a work originally scheduled for the Quincentenary, which he looks forward to completing, once the nightmare of musical problems is over. It was an idea he had rejected at first. Like many Americans, from North and South, he is sensitive to references to Christopher Columbus.

"But Edward came up with a very clever concept for the piece. He said, 'We don't have to get into politics for this. We can just present Spain in the fifteenth century, then we can jump to the Caribbean Islands and then to right here where we are--with jazz, the swing era and so many wonderful things--to Miami, to the New World.'"

Gamonet has no other future plans, except to develop new scores into new challenges for the ballet. He sees his dancers growing into the roles he choreographs for them, and developing the energy and attack required by their very powerful Balanchine repertoire. A regional company has risen to national status in a very short period of time. But Edward Villella and Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros are not finished. They share a vision of a world-class ballet in Miami, and their dream seems about to come true.

Paula Durbin is a lawyer, writer and dancer who works on educational and cultural exchange programs with Latin America.
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Title Annotation:Miami City Ballet
Author:Durbin, Paula
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:2470
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