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A Line On Ballet’s Ballets

An Interview with LINES’s Arturo Fernandez

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Saturday, 7 August 2004

We met LINES balletmaster Arturo Fernandez “under the clock” at the beautiful St. Francis hotel on Union Square in San Francisco on a clear, crisp and sunny blue day for a fascinating conversation.

DS & FT: Thanks very much for meeting with us. We like people to initially talk about their first forays into the dance and ballet world in their own words, as it makes each unique story fresh and more interesting. Please tell us how you got started in ballet.

AF: I started at 17. I had been previously involved with acting and theater and was in my first year of study at United States International University in San Diego. My life changed in one night. The dance department put on a performance of "Giselle" with Deborah Hadley in the title role and her then-husband as Albrecht. It turns out Debbie was six-months pregnant at the time, but what a performance! I went to Elaine Thomas who was at my advising table and told her and them that I wanted to be a ballet major. She conferred with others at the table and they said okay. I’ve been dancing ever since, and I really hungered after it and wanted it.

What about your first classes? How did your dream compare with the reality of the demands of the craft?

The reality is that I came back to where I’m from, Oakland, during summer break and took as many classes as I could at the Oakland Ballet. I also did the same at San Diego Ballet. I found the changes were immediate. I had never been a really “physical” person, and this changed the way I saw myself and the world.

The program at USIU is a degree program? Did you go back and finish?

Yes, it’s a four-year degree program and I went back and completed two years. As I said, I hungered so much for dance, that I began auditioning around and got a position at San Diego Ballet and worked with them for two years. This led to other jobs around the country. In 1980 I moved back to Oakland and joined the Oakland Ballet and also free-lanced. A year later in 1981, I joined ODC where I stayed for 11 years.

Tell us more about ODC...

It was originally known as the Oberlin Dance Collective and featured the work of four choreographers: KT Nelson; Brenda Way; Kimi Okada; and Pam Quinn. This was a whole new way of moving for me. I became the rehearsal assistant to Brenda Way when she became the director.

Learning dances and parts takes a special talent... I seem to have a facility for learning everyone’s roles! I learned quickly. Some of it is muscle memory too. I try to get up and “dance” everyone’s part.

I took class with Alonzo King in 1982 and this was again a life-changing experience for me. I immediately connected with his way of seeing, learning, and feeling about dance. We became good friends and I then started teaching and filling in for him on occasion. Eventually I took over his 6 p.m. class and became balletmaster in 1992.

Early on, I wasn’t that familiar with Alonzo’s choreography and his concepts behind it and was constantly trying for a unison look of the corps, which is not necessarily his aesthetic! For his work, the dancers put as much as themselves into it as possible, to create the art. I had to re-organize rehearsals to have the dancers establish more of the correct qualities - more than just doing steps. I was initially interested in form, while Alonzo was more interested in feeling. I think this is why we work so well together.

How do you remember all these ballets? Do you learn each part too?

Yes, I learn all the parts with the dancers as Alonzo is constructing the piece. It’s interesting to note that in Mr. King’s creative process, 90 percent of the time the dance comes first, followed by the music. And when we work with composers (which is very exciting) on commissioned scores, they compose to the movement, rather than the other way around. Both of us are very interested in the process (of creating).

I’ve not yet seen Mr. King’s work and am looking forward to seeing it when the company tours later in 2005 to Seattle. What can you tell me about his preferences for production values ?

He is very interested in lighting, which makes such a huge difference. He seldom uses sets and likes to think of the dance itself as sculpture. We are very fortunate to have Axel Morgenthaler, the great Canadian lighting designer, work for us; he will do "Before the Blues" for example, but also collaborated on "People of the Forest" with the Company. Our Associate AD, Robert Rosenwasser, is our primary costume designer, ("People of the Forest") who has worked with Colleen Quinn is a couturier designer.

How big is the company and what does the future hold?

We are generally about 12 dancers. We will be touring for 8 weeks during the 2004-05 season and are excited to be able to go to, in order: White Oak for three weeks; back to the West Coast to Santa Barbara; Lyon, France; Neuss, Germany; Dartmouth, New York (Skirball - NYU); Bermuda; back on this side of the water to Minneapolis/St. Paul; Detroit, Stockton, California; Scottsdale, Seattle, SUNY - Oswego, Albany. And then we also have our two San Francisco seasons - one in November and the other in April at the Yerba Buena.

You are very busy, and yet I understand you have many other dance-related activities.

I really like teaching and my guest teaching schedule takes me all over the country. I also choreograph and am setting a new "Dracula" for Inland Pacific Ballet (Claremont, CA) directed by Vicky Koenig. I also stage Mr. King’s works around the country. These are some of the highlights of my career!

What are some of your personal interests? What’s the latest book you’re reading? Any hobbies?

We have a wonderful golden Cocker Spaniel whose name is Buddy. Buddy is in Chicago right now, as my partner often works there four days a week. I miss Buddy!

I’m currently reading "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" by David Sedaris, which is a riot, everyone should read it! I love growing orchids.

Edited by Jeff.

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