Arts Ballet Theatre Celebrates Two Decades of Dance

Written By Sean Erwin
February 20, 2018 at 7:56 PM

Anniversaries usually celebrate the success of a partnership with symbolic gifts of crystal, china, silver and gold. For the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida, the company celebrates 20 years of bringing dance to South Florida with red, brown, lilac, pink, and orange – the names of the movements of the late Venezuelan dancer and choreographer Vicente Nebrada’s, Nuestros Valses, as part of the season opener “Latin Bravura.”

On a Saturday a week after hurricane Irma, the company prepared for the opening of Program I, and the chaos outside the studio contrasted strongly with the air of discipline and focus on the dance floor.

“I remember my first time in Miami; it was 1997 and I was dancing [Stravinsky’s] The Firebird and, in fact, I was the first person to do that in Miami,” recalls Vladimir Issaev, the company’s founder and artistic director, looking back on these 20 years. “The time since that Firebird performance feels like just a week.”

During the rehearsal, Zane Wilson and Yanis Pikeiris – both choreographers from the Vicente Nebrada Foundation – coach Kazuya Arima and Hinano Eto on a passage from Nuestros Valses. The piano reaches the end of the phrase and Eto – supple as a willow branch – slowly stretches her leg up and out at a perpendicular.As the piano turns staccato Arima suddenly pivots her at the hip and Eto’s arms snap overhead.

Pikeiris and Wilson nod encouragingly and when the movement ends they join the dancers on the floor; Pikeiris to coach Arima on the finer points of the turn and Wilson to coax Eto into an impossibly deeper split. They run the movement again and this time both Wilson and Pikeiris applaud happily.

“The focus of Nebrada’s style is the partnering and the expressiveness of the dance as opposed to an emphasis on exactness,” explains Pikeiris. “He used to say to us, ‘worry more about dancing than the actual poses you are trying to do.’ The dancers are never in balance here. The girls are always kept off balance to keep the movement flowing. These dances are not really a pas de deux. They are a pas de trois, which includes the pianist. The piano determines when the dancers breath and where they have to attack.”

When asked how Nebradian and Balanchine technique stack up, Wilson – who danced with Nebrada and later served as associate artistic director when Nebrada directed the National Ballet of Venezuela – shakes his head. “Nebrada always wanted risk – if it was clean and perfect he hated it – he always wanted it different.I would say that this is the opposite of Balanchine – completely.”

The music for the movement Red Vals begins and Haowei Zhu – tall with the build of a soccer player – and Mary Carmen Catoya, ABT’s prima ballerina, run to the center of the floor and then pause. As the beat suddenly slows, Zhu reaches forward and places his hand on Catoya’s breast. She smiles and bats him away, and they start a game of throw and catch through a series of uninterrupted turns and rapid lifts. At the end of the final sequence both finish on the floor in a deep embrace, and the room erupts into the most extended applause of the day.

As Issaev gestures to Catoya to ramp up the energy, Wilson coaches Zhu on how to keep the petite but muscular Catoya from pulling him off his feet.

Pikeiris observes: “Decades ago I saw my future wife dancing the red pas de deux and was instantly enamored. In fact, Zane was dancing with my wife when I saw that.”

At this comment the afternoon feels surreal with the sheer mass of memories shared by Pikeiris, Wilson and Issaev, who each worked closely with Nebrada at some point in their careers.

A feeling that only deepens when the Venezuelan-born Catoya exits the floor and mentions that her first time dancing this piece was with Nebrada when she was 13.“Nebrada always emphasized projection and he insisted that you have to do things the best that you can, with your heart, like it’s the last time you are going to do them.”

Arts Ballet Theatre of Florida’s Program I “Latin Bravura” opens with two performances at the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3:00 p.m., Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 188th St., Aventura; and two performances on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 15 at 3:00 p.m., Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets $35; or


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