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'How can you put us in ballet? How can you do this to us?'

An Interview with Ruben Martin, San Francisco Ballet Soloist

by Azlan Ezaddin

August, 2004 -- San Francisco

With four precocious boys at home, Ruben Martin’s parents had “Big trouble. Big, big trouble. Four boys. No sisters. All boys. Both of my parents worked at the time. They worked until late, so they were trying to find something to keep us busy until they could come pick us up or they could be at home where they could watch us.”

So, Señora Martin attempted to enroll Ruben and his brothers in rhythmic gymnastics to take full advantage of and perhaps to satiate their penchant for physical activity. Fortunately for ballet fans worldwide, she quickly learned that rhythmic gymnastics was strictly only for girls and was advised to take her sons to ballet instead, which -- especially in Spain where a man’s religion is soccer --was strongly identified with the feminine. Ruben recounts, “At first, we protested: ‘Ballet? How can you put us in ballet? How can you do this to us?’

“They took us to ballet school. And of course four kids, you know, with nice facilities; they took us right away. I was 12. Moises was 10. And the twins were eight. We started at the same time but at different ages. At first we hated it of course but we had a nice group of guys in our class, so we had nice soccer matches before with the barres. And then when we started, we found a lot of interest and we were very, very absorbed by it.”

It may have taken pick-up games of soccer to keep the Martins interested in ballet, but Ruben is now a soloist at San Francisco Ballet by way of the English National Ballet and Moises a corps dancer also in San Francisco.

Ever since Ruben joined SFB in 2000, he has been featured in significant roles, even as a member of the corps de ballet, and quickly established himself as an audience favorite. One reason is his enjoyment of dancing which he partially attributes to the repertory. “We have much more diverse repertoire. We have so many different ballets. In one year, [SFB Artistic Director] Helgi [Tomason] started giving me more chances.”

However, with parts consistently created for Martin by choreographers such as Mark Morris, Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov, frequent selection for soloist roles by visiting ballet masters staging the works of George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Hans van Manen and Stanton Welch, and a quick promotion to the rank of soloist, the joy of performing probably isn’t the only factor in this dancer’s meteoric rise.

“It’s got to be a bit of everything.  When people that know you choreograph -- from the company or something -- they know you; you’re in their minds. They have an idea of what they want. The people that come from outside, they come to see class for two days. So you have to be up there and be giving your best.  Even if it’s two classes, they need to see that you are capable of doing those things.

"I like to work hard in class -- to start class with the same energy, as high an energy as I can, because that’s what’s going to give me the base and the technique that I need throughout the day to rehearse. If you don’t take class that seriously, I think you can start losing your technique and your strength. So I think it's what keeps you up to that level.”

Martin is certainly known for his work ethic, pushing his body daily to maintain a high level of performance. “It depends what people think of their bodies: what they can cope or not. But for my body what I need to do is being on that level and what makes me stay at that level is to take class everyday with high energy.”

A start at the English National Ballet

Martin almost began his professional career in San Francisco's school several years earlier. “I was actually supposed to come here before instead of going to London, but the scholarship didn’t go quite through.”

However, he gained much needed experience during his time at the English National Ballet. “I joined [ENB] in ’96 until 2000. The company has so many shows, so you will be on the stage most of the time. We were most of the time touring throughout the UK and a little bit abroad. We used to dance all over the UK and different stages We got used to stages very raked, or very high floors, very small.

“I was lucky in London, because the variety of companies that go to that huge city is amazing. Actually when I was in London, I had a girlfriend at that time that was in the National Ballet in Amsterdam, so I would go visit her too. I also had a good friend here that was also dancing there at Amsterdam, so I got to see a lot of German, French companies.”

Returning to London in September with SFB will be a homecoming of sorts for Martin. When he performed with the company at Covent Garden in 2001, he says, “I had a few of my friends there because we went at a time when they were on lay-off, so I didn’t quite get to see all my friends but a lot of people I knew came to see the show. They were really impressed with the company.”

However, although his brother Moises performed at Sadler’s Wells with SFB in 1999, dancing there on this tour will be a new experience for Ruben. “I never danced at Sadler’s Wells. I can’t remember the differences in the audiences between Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House. The reception at the Opera House wasn’t quite as much as here but it still was great. I felt they liked the company.

“I used to visit my brother at Sadler’s Wells everyday when they were there. He was in the SFB school for two years and then he joined the company during my last year in London. When the company went to London, he was already a member of the company. I went to the hotel with my brother and his friends to see the shows. I got the chance to see backstage almost every show.”

It was, in fact, during the 1999 SFB tour to London that Martin auditioned for the company. “That was the first time they were in London. When I came here, to actually join the company, was my first time in San Francisco."

Going home

“The culture is totally different that’s for sure. The way the company is run. I found it took me a little while to get accustomed to here”

The place he misses the most in Europe is, of course, Spain.

“I miss it, especially when we have a very long layoff. Our layoff was almost two months long and we spent the whole time there because we were doing this gala right after the beginning of the layoff and then [former SFB School Associate Artistic Director] Lola de Avila was having her showcase right at the end.  So we had to stay in Spain the whole time. Being there for such a long time -- you get used to it and you get the old habits back."

“After London in 2001, we toured to Spain for almost three weeks. We danced in Barcelona and Bilbao. My parents and brothers came to see the shows. And last time, when I did a couple of galas in Madrid for the main festivities, they came to see that. Every time they have a chance, they come and see Moises and myself. They love, they love to do that.”

Incidentally, Martin’s youngest brothers chose not to follow in the footsteps of their elder siblings and instead pursued careers in law. “They were the ones that had the best facilities, feet like these, and beautiful legs, but it wasn’t meant for them. As soon as we left, they lost track and lost interest. They even sent a videotape to Stuttgart Ballet School and got a scholarship for one year. And after one year there, they decided that they weren’t meant for ballet. We were telling them the number of appearances and how hard the days. You really have to be into it.”

Still, we certainly can’t begrudge the Martin family for having already gifted two other boys to the ballet.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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