First Artist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 3 February 2012.
DAVID BAIN WELCOMED Fernando and suggested that, as his friend Dame Vivienne Westwood wasn’t able to come with him, he should bring her to the dinner as his guest. Fernando apologised on her behalf but said she is very busy with Fashion Week just now!
He then told us about his life and career so far. He was born on 6 March in Buenaventura, a small town on the Pacific coast of Colombia. His family was very poor and he was the youngest of four children and somewhat special as his mother had had an operation following the birth of his older brother to prevent her having any more babies! By the time he was four years old he wanted to be a dancer as he saw a TV programme in which little kids were doing ballet steps which he thought was beautiful and elegant, and he copied them. When he heard music he would always dance and move his body like a dancing skeleton as he was very skinny!
When he was six the family moved to Calle, a larger town inland, where his interest in dance increased as mum put him into a school which had a small group of children doing Colombian dancing – folklore, salsa, merengue and tango. There’s no tradition of classical music or ballet in Colombia and it wasn’t until he was 12 that he went to the only ballet school in the country which was in Calle. (Margot Fonteyn had been a guest there while she was living in Panama.) As his dad had also enrolled him in a football school, his days were full with normal classes, followed by football and then dance. There was no history of ballet in his family – his older sister is a computer engineer, his second sister a paramedic and his brother has just finished his military service.
He auditioned for the ballet school aged 12 and was luckily accepted. Josefina Mendez, a ‘Jewel’ of the Cuban Ballet who was guesting with the school, took his audition. He’d only done a month of ballet before the audition, so Fernando doesn’t know how he managed to do everything required but they must have seen something in him. He stayed two years and during that time for consecutive years they prepared him for the competition in Havana. The first year he couldn’t go because of money problems, but the second year his family did everything, including mortgaging their house, to make sure he was able to go. He won second prize and a scholarship to study in Havana.
The ballet school in Colombia, with its lake and swans, was very beautiful and magical and offered freedom being a long way outside Calle, and a completely different world from Fernando’s home area which was ugly and not very nice. It was quite a big school, similar to White Lodge. Most of the other students had been doing ballet since they were 8 or 9 so Fernando was in a special group to bring him up to the same standard for his peers. It was hard work running from one ballet studio to another for their three or four lessons a day. They didn’t do many performances but the main focus was preparation for competitions for which the best students were chosen. He was one of four from his school and gained a scholarship to the Lower School in Havana (L and 19 which is the road where it is) where he went for a year. It was a big shock and although still Latin American very different from home. It was on the coast, Cuba had its problems at the time, and the people were more extrovert and spoke quicker. Fernando was only 14, young to be away from home, so it was a big change for him but it was one of the best things that happened to him. He could only watch and admire as the other boys did great jumps and turns and he knew he had to do some catching up. It wasn’t until a floor exercise when they noticed Fernando’s pointed feet that they started to be more friendly! They were always practising and competing with each other which was good from a dancing viewpoint but his problem was having to take all his own decisions. He had half of the money from home for his rent as the scholarship covered his schooling but not the cost of living.
The lady where he was staying asked for money in advance as she needed a fridge and he gave her the money as she was cooking and looking after him. Initially it was fine but then it all changed and there was no proper bed or food or help so he knew he couldn’t continue like that. The school collected him and he went to live with the deputy director. They were preparing for competition at the time, working late rehearsing and as he wasn’t living close to the school it was tough to get home because there was no transport which was all being used to bring people from outside Havana to marches and protests at the US Embassy. But while in school he was always happy and won second prize again that year and a scholarship for the Upper level. His excellent teacher was Alia Velazquez who had trained in Russia. This was before the new ballet school opened and it was at the top of the old Gran Teatro, where they had to be very careful doing jumps and turns not to fall down a gaping hole! There he met Venus Villa, now with ENB, who became like his sister. She has a Cuban mother and an Italian father who comes from Milan. Venus suggested he stay with her grandma, who made leotards with a very old sewing machine to help with finance, and she helped and cared for him for over four years even when he had no money, so that he thinks of her as his own grandmother.
He spent four years in the Upper School where they did a lot of performances. The best were always chosen for the lead roles and, being concerned about the sacrifice his family was making, Fernando wanted to be the best for their sakes. Fidel Castro was involved with the Cuban ballet school and arts in general and was often around. Fernando met him and was able to thank him for the opportunity to be part of the ballet school. He danced Fille, Coppelia, Don Q, La Sylphide, and Papillon as well as roles made on him. The school was particularly strong on male dancers who often went straight into leading roles. Fernando loved going on tour around the country and abroad but when they were at home his grandma would invite people to parties as she knew he didn’t have the money to go to clubs and discos. Most of the Cuban Ballet went and ate and danced and had great fun at her home. Parties in Cuba are all about dancing rather than drinking.
Audio clip - Turin, living in the convent:
Fernando decided to leave when he got a scholarship to Turin. Venus needed a partner for the Rieti Competition in Italy so he went to Colombia to try to arrange the visa but needed money (you don’t make money dancing in Cuba) and although Venus’ father sponsored him it wasn’t sorted in time for the competition. Eventually he flew to Milan where Villa met him and they went to Turin where she and another girl had somehow managed to get a little studio, alongside and belonging to a convent, which was kept for poor and needy people. Men weren’t allowed in the convent but he stayed four months hiding from the nuns! Before he went out one of the girls had to check there were no nuns around and the same coming back but one day he was caught. He didn’t speak Italian at that stage so just nodded and shook his head and somehow got away with it as Venus’s mother said they were just having dinner with friends. Looking back they now feel the nuns knew all along that he’d been there!
His teacher in Turin was the Cuban daughter of Carlos Acosta's teacher Ramona de Sáa, the director of the Cuban ballet school. Fernando learned Italian and discovered a love of languages. He did some performances of Paquita, Carmen and some pas de deux. During the summer festival, the Biennale Dance, where Venus and he were performing, they met Jane Hacker, former director of ENB school, who’d known Fernando from competitions in Cuba. After one performance she asked if they would like to come to the UK to audition for ENB and the Royal. This wasn’t a problem for Venus as she had an Italian passport though it took some time for Fernando’s visa to come through but eventually they were able to come to London. Unfortunately Venus didn’t get a Royal contract after their six month apprenticeship and went to ENB while Fernando stayed with the Royal. Initially, they came for a week and at their audition which lasted three days there were variously Christopher Carr, Monica Mason and Jeanetta Lawrence. First day there was class, next the barre and then the centre and jumps. Because they had no English, Monica asked José Martin to tell them she’d like to see them dancing. They did Paquita pas de deux and some solos and made a CD of the music which didn’t work with the computer so they had to perform the pas de deux with no music and sang for each other during their solos! Before the audition Carlos had told them they wouldn’t hear for a while but three hours later he called a friend to put some champagne in the fridge before they went out to dinner. Neither of them could eat as they were too anxious and it wasn’t till they got back that the champagne was popped and then Carlos said they should go to the office the following day with their passports rather than to the ENB audition, and they had a contract.
Fernando has now danced in Cuba, Italy and England. He found it hard here as the way of dancing is completely different from the way he had been trained. The arms move differently but it’s good to have different flavours to put into the dance. The hardest thing was language: Italian is closer to Spanish but English is quite different. There are a few Spanish speakers in the Company but they weren’t always on hand to explain. Many times other dancers wondered what he was doing as he couldn’t understand the instructions such as go to the right. What was devastating was his mum’s death only two months after his arrival. It was difficult to communicate his feelings and shut himself off a bit. They were doing Firebird at the time and Carlos told him he was wanted in the office. He felt excited as he thought it meant promotion but it was the sad news that his 45 year old mum was seriously ill. The Company was very helpful in trying to get him back to Colombia but there were complications because he needed a visa so three days after her death he was still doing class. Eventually they succeeded but it was too late. Now Fernando can remember her as he’d last seen her, smiling and happy.
When he first joined he danced solos in Firebird, a Balanchine work and Fille. Christopher Carr was getting cross and kept talking about demi-pointe which Fernando couldn’t understand until Erico Montes, who’s Brazilian but spoke a bit of Spanish, tried to explain. His first solo role was Napoli divertissement when Johan Kobborg decided to give him a chance. It was only a year since he joined the Company and normally you wait a long time for such roles. He still couldn’t understand corrections and he thinks Johan felt disappointed, but now he realises that Johan didn’t want him to open his legs too much but Fernando was trying to show what he could do rather than dancing Bournonville! Eventually it got better. Then he was prepared to go to Canada for the Erik Bruhn competition, accompanied by Jeanetta Lawrence and Donald MacLeary. He did Romeo and Juliet and Bluebird with Yuhui Choe. He was hoping to get the prize but it went to a Canadian girl who’d lost her partner to injury and did well to complete her pas de deux with a partner she’d never danced with before, Guillaume Cote. Jeanetta and Donald tried to console him by saying she’d been very brave and deserved the award. Karen Kain said she thought he was someone who could die twice, perhaps because of the emotion. Romeo is one of his favourite roles. He also covered Homage to the Queen (Michael Corder’s choreography) with Alina Cojocaru but didn’t get the chance on stage. Then they stopped giving him roles but he didn’t know why. Recently Wendy Ellis said she would like him to do Jester in Cinderella which he loved. His favourite part is when you are completely alone in the middle of the stage. It’s very demanding and you can show a lot of strength and capacity and it gave him freedom to show off his talent. He was promoted after that to First Artist which was good as it’s very frustrating being in the corps after the Cuban experience but you think ‘that’s life’.
In 2009 he went with the Company back to Cuba for the first time in five years. It was very special as he was able to stay with his ‘grandma’, who had kept his room and things like a museum. She cried a lot but was just so happy to have him there. It was very emotional altogether and sometimes he seemed as popular as Carlos!
We’ve recently seen Fernando in his own choreography for Draft Works. He hadn’t been chosen by anyone else so decided to make his own work and asked Akane Takada and Leticia Stock to dance with him. Unfortunately this didn’t happen as Leticia has a problem with her back and Akane was told by the physio not to do any more following her injury. As he’d told his friends he was making a piece he couldn’t let them down so decided to do a solo but needed another element so introduced two chairs instead of the girls. It wasn’t his first piece of choreography. His first was the reason he became close to Vivienne Westwood. He was walking in Covent Garden when he was approached by someone from her agency, Matt Stephens, who asked if he was a model. When he said he was a ballet dancer the idea came for him to make a solo and pas de deux with music by Matt’s group, the London Musici. Some months later Vivienne and her husband with Matt came to see a performance of Sleeping Beauty when Fernando was doing the Garland dance. Matt told Vivienne he had met Fernando and she asked to meet him at her studio close to the RAD in Battersea. He accepted the written invitation without really knowing who she was as he had never been involved with the fashion world but when he showed the letter to a friend she was very impressed! A few days later Vivienne was in the papers and then he knew all about her. He went to the office and they discussed her charity event for the Rain Forest campaign at the Banqueting House. She said she’d like to work with him so, in Monica’s absence, Fernando cleared it with Anthony Dowell and Jeanetta and the project went ahead. He made a piece with three characters in which he was the dragon and Vivienne thought it would tie in with the Rain Forest campaign. The violinist Charlie Siem and Romany Pajdak were the other characters. They did it on the catwalk and it was a very special moment. Ever since then she has become his mentor and friend and regularly attends performances. On Sunday he’s doing a photo shoot for jeans and he’s recently been in Milan for mens’ fashion week. She’s a very straightforward person who gives him advice and he learns so much from her, her husband and her entourage. David commented that he’s the best dressed man in the Company. Sometimes this can lead to a bit of jealousy but Fernando just feels lucky to have been chosen.
Fernando’s interests are wide and varied and as he is very friendly his friends are from all walks of life. One particular friend is the opera singer Marina Poplavskaya. It began when he lived in Marble Arch and the nearby church had a beautiful choir. He thought they had the best of the best at the Opera House and he started going to opera rehearsals. Marina joined the Jette Parker Young Artists group when he joined the Company but as she was Russian with little English and Fernando likewise, their conversation was simple. Later when she came to do Don Carlos she asked him to dinner and they became close friends and she’s invited him to Munich where she’s singing Traviata. The life of an opera singer is better than a dancer who has to spend so much time in the studio while the singers have more freedom to do other things.
Most of Fernando’s friends don’t have much to do with the ballet world as if he spent the whole time with dancers their conversation would always be about one subject and he believes that to help you grow as a person and a dancer you need to have other experiences. He talks to everyone at the Opera House from Papano to the cleaners as everybody is interesting and instructive in some way. Away from the Royal he has done some guesting in galas etc. He has told Kevin O’Hare he does a lot more outside than with the company. One plan which management don’t yet know about is that he’s been asked to go to Rome in August to do Romeo with choreography by Massimo Moricone. This is the version that Northern Ballet dance. Vivienne Westwood will design the costumes. He’s hoping his Juliet will be Alina, which isn’t confirmed yet, and Federico Bonelli will go as well. The choreographer had seen Fernando at Escorial in Spain a couple of years ago when he was doing the Swan Lake pas de trois. He was invited to do Coppelia but he’s never done the whole ballet and they wanted him for a month so that wasn’t possible.
For his birthday last year his friends organised at the Royal College of Music a performance of Raymonda with Venus and afterwards they had a big party. In two weeks time he is going to Paris Opéra where he was invited by Isabelle Ciaravola, one of the étoiles, who saw a DVD of his Romeo and Juliet, gave him feedback and asked him to go to take class, see rehearsals and performance. He loves the Royal Ballet but the career of the dancer is very short and if someone offers him something better then there is a possibility of his moving on. You never know where life will lead. David said that it’s perhaps a troubling yet exciting time with the change of director imminent and that’s why Fernando wants to have something up his sleeve in case nothing happens here and he can be ahead of the game.
His Jester showed superb jumps and impressive display of character. Did he look at videos to see what the older jester’s used to do? Fernando said he saw all sorts of videos to see if he could gain something extra. There was a freedom after the first performance and he was able to watch other casts and wanted to make his performance special, and not just a dancing role. He put his whole heart into the performance as it was special for him.
What are the differences between the Cuban and English port de bras? Fernando said the Cuban technique is more acrobatic with huge jumps and turns and emphasises stage presence. Everything here is purer and soft. The port de bras isn’t given as much emphasis as here so it’s different so it’s more elegant and more exotic if you combine the two.
When he first came, it was noticeable that he appeared smiling and happy in every performance. Alicia Alonso always told them that whatever role they did, be it at the front or back, you give your all and shine so Fernando always wants to do his best.
Does he get back home? Since he lost his mother, he visits his father every summer but his siblings are now living all over Colombia so it’s more difficult to see them. It would be wonderful for his Dad to come over when Fernando does a very big role.
Saying that we shall look forward to hearing about the next 10 years of his career and what a great pleasure it was for us to have Fernando as our guest, David commented that he has had a more varied and interesting life than just about any other ballet dancer! Fernando replied that they’re quite impressed by the number of people he knows but he believes if you are a good person you will attract good people too. When his President came recently he had the pleasure of meeting him. While he was still at home in Colombia he asked for official help to fulfil his dream but without success. Now they are proud of him because of his achievements. He prefers to be known for his talent rather than as a poor boy. Because of his smile, people think he has had an easy life but they wouldn’t agree if they knew his background.
If Fernando is able to bring Vivienne with him to the dinner the other dancers will have to dress up, said David. His Mum always told Fernando you have to dress well and in Italy everyone is fashionable. He never thought of being a model but fashion is also the way you express yourself and how you’re perceived so gives you a feeling of security. Another friend, Martin Lloyd, is a writer and psychiatrist who says sometimes it helps to be good looking but what is in your head and your heart is more important as the present world can be artificial. Even so when you’re young you want to try everything because if not you’ll regret it when it’s too late.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Fernando Montaño and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2012