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Ballet quest: in what might be the only project of its kind in ballet history, the birth of Compania Ballet Clasico de Costa Rica is a north-south effort involving artists from two countries--Canada and Costa Rica.

When Quebec's Ballet Ouest director-choreographer Margaret Mehuys announced to dignitaries of Costa Rica that her Montreal group would help this Central American country build its own professional ballet company, she gave local children permission to dream of classical careers.

Until that moment, such hopes had been squelched by prudent parents, because there was no Costa Rican ballet company to aspire to. But thanks to Mehuys and another Montrealer, Fury Darlington, Compania Clasico de Costa Rica was incorporated in late fall 2002. Its stage debut is planned for 2006.

The idea of a Costa ballet company has earned kudos from some quarters. At the September 2002 opening of the visiting Ballet Ouest's Nutcracker, a delighted Guido Saenz, minister of culture, posed proudly for photographs with adoring dancers and proclaimed that he would give "total support" to make the resident company happen. He has been as good as his word. He has formed a board of directors, encouraged sponsors, and, blessing the venture with the status of a foundation, made it eligible for tax deductions.

In what might be the only project of its kind in ballet history, the birth of Compania Ballet Clasico de Costa Rica is a north-south effort involving artists from two countries--Canada and Costa Rica. During the next three years, American-born Mehuys will integrate senior San Jose students into performances that will take place in Canada and in Costa Rica. The undertaking is the ambition of the Montreal-born ballet teacher with determination and energy to match her name--Fury Darlington. After a couple of short visits to San Jose, Darlington settled there in 1996 and immediately founded a school, La Academia Superior de Ballet Clasico de Costa Rica. Within months, she invited Mehuys to show a Ballet Ouest pas de deux from Gaite Parisienne.

"This country needs the classics," Darlington determined. Four years later, with backing from her board of directors and private sponsors, including Lorena Clare de Rodriguez, the wife of Costa Rica's president, she presented all twenty members of Ballet Ouest and dozens of San Jose extras in Mehuys's The Nutcracker. It was a sellout--reaffirming Darlington's conviction that the route to the hearts of the Costa Rican public was through tradition. "When I first saw The Nutcracker [in Montreal], I just loved it because Peggy [Mehuys] was playing to the audience--just what I want to do," Darlington said.

Saenz and another cabinet member, minister of foreign affairs Roberto Tovar, agreed. "I will assume whatever responsibility there is to help," Saenz promised.

Encouraged by success, Darlington pressed on with her goal to make a ballet company for her adopted country. With Mehuys's help, she offered Costa Ricans a chance to gain stage experience by dancing with Ballet Ouest. In September 2002, The Nutcracker had a second season in San Jose. That time, nine senior Costa Rican students and one classically trained, professional modern dancer flew to Montreal for two weeks of rehearsals. Then, Canadians and Costa Ricans traveled south to face three tense days of pre-performance problems--sets that were badly damaged by the humid climate, pointe shoes that arrived only at the last moment, and rehearsals with eighty of so amateur extras. On September 4, 2002, El Cascanueces, as The Nutcracker is known in Spanish, began its eight-performance run in the 1,000-seat Teatro Popular Melico Salazar in the heart of the capital. That night, Mehuys stood onstage before cabinet ministers, sponsors, and the general public and pledged her intent to bring the new company to life by integrating Costa Ricans into her own company and teaching Ballet Ouest's repertoire to the nascent group.

Trained at the Harkness Ballet, Mehuys, nee Lauermann, was 15 and living in Los Angeles when she was chosen by George Balanchine to dance in Serenade in a group that was the forerunner of the Ballet of Los Angeles. She danced with San Francisco Ballet in 1968-69, then obtained a bachelor's degree and began teaching ballet, arriving in Montreal in 1979. She founded Ballet Ouest to "give youth a chance onstage," and launched numerous careers in the process. Naturally, she couldn't resist Darlington's plea to do the same for the Costa Ricans. The sight of some young ballet students reinforced her decision: "These little beauties are the reason we're making the company. They are the future." Already she has noted at least one child prodigy: "It's spooky--the spirit of a professional dancer in a tiny body."

Because of Mehuys, that child and others will get lots of stage time, since The Nutcracker is scheduled to be a staple of each autumn season in San Jose. As well, a blended group of Ballet Ouest and Costa Rican dancers will give a spring season each year, starting in June 2003 with Coppelia. The Sleeping Beauty will follow in 2004, and Mehuys's contemporary ballet about surviving teenage suicide, Giselle d'ici, is planned for 2005. With redesigned sets and costumes typical of Costa Rica, it will be known in Spanish as Giselle Aqui. Tovar attended rehearsals as well, as performances of The Nutcracker. "I want to be part of this. This [venture] is an investment in the future of our culture," he said. "We hope to be the first Central American country to have a ballet company." Two members of his family performed in the ballet: his wife, Felicia, and his niece, Viviana Clare. Clare, who danced as a soloist in The Nutcracker, is expected to be a mainstay of the future company.

Until Darlington began to realize her hopes for Compania Ballet Clasico de Costa Rica, the only opportunities to see classical dance here came from infrequent appearances by international touring companies and ballet school recitals. The country is better served by contemporary dance: There are two active university modern dance groups and a full-time government-supported company. Gustavo Vargas, 28, one of Costa Rica's few classically trained male dancers, joined the latter company when he despaired of a ballet career at home. He took a leave of absence from modern dance to partner French-born Cecile Duvauchelle's Sugar Plum Fairy in El Cascanueces. Their partnership provided a hot contrast to the coolness of former Kirov dancer Igor Milosserdov and Bolshoi-schooled Elena Malinina, with whom they shared the roles. Like Vargas, Gloriana Alan was trained in Cuba. Mehuys considers Alan "true ballerina material" and has invited her to join Ballet Ouest as a principal dancer whenever she recovers from the injury that kept her out of the lead role in September 2002.

"Two years ago I worried about technique and perfection," Alan explained. "Now I concentrate on where dancing begins--in my soul." Saying she was "born to dance--I'm a ballerina; it's my life," Alan is convinced that Ballet Ouest's integrated shows have "opened the doors to classical ballet in Costa Rica." Now 27, she noted sadly that she will likely be too old to begin a career in classical ballet by the time Ballet Clasico de Costa Rica is established. "I wish I could be younger. I wish this could have happened five of ten years ago."

Corps member Jimena Samper, 20, found the idea of a Costa Rican ballet company "scary but incredible. I had always thought there was no point in dreaming because there was no hope of dancing professionally in my own country." Now she is allowing her suppressed desire to dance to resurface.

So is 20-year-old Clare, who danced with Ballet Ouest in Montreal and toured Quebec with The Nutcracker in December 2002. The possibility of professional ballet in Costa Rica is "like a dream come true," she said. "Even if the company doesn't start [soon] and I don't get a chance to dance, I know my students will have the opportunity to do what I couldn't."

Linde Howe-Beck is a Montreal-based dance writer who has been a DANCE MAGAZINE contributor for twenty-five years.
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Author:Howe-Beck, Linde
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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