It was one of those fateful encounters, like Lana Turner's apocryphal discovery at Schwab's Drugstore. But this wasn't Sunset Boulevard. It was Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where in a dusty, open-air dance studio with worn floors and a piano that was passable at best, a visiting ballet teacher from Washington caught sight of a slender, sloe-eyed teenager she would later describe as the most remarkable young dancer she had seen in years.
The girl was Michele Jimenez, who is now a principal dancer of the Washington Ballet. She is, in fact, its purest classical ballerina. Beginning Wednesday, the 22-year-old will star in the company's new production of "Carmen," which Artistic Director Septime Webre has choreographed especially for her. It will be the latest in a string of leading roles that she began performing even as an apprentice.
Jimenez is an unusually gifted dancer, blessed with long, lithe legs, extraordinarily pliant feet and a smooth, serene turning ability. Dancing seems to simply float out of her. With dark eyes and a generous smile, she is beautiful, too, which never hurts in ballet. You see her and wonder, isn't there a swan tutu waiting for her at some bigger, more classically oriented company?
Yet just four years ago, Jimenez was struggling to get ahead in her art on an island better known for baseball than ballet.
"When I walked in, she looked like every other beautiful Dominican girl," remembers Lorraine Spiegler, who in 1997 had journeyed to Santo Domingo seeking new talent for the Washington School of Ballet, the training arm of the Washington Ballet. She had heard that some Cuban dancers had moved there, and she wanted to know what had drawn them.
Spiegler adds: "But it was when she put her hand on the barre and pointed her foot and extended her leg in space -- it was how she did it that immediately attracted me. By the time she got into the center [of the floor] I was thinking, 'How old is this girl?' "
Like many Caribbean companies, the Ballet Clasico Nacional de Santo Domingo was poorly funded and little known outside its home. At 17, Jimenez had already outgrown the company's school and was performing leading roles along with the professional dancers -- though you could hardly call them that. The performers often went weeks without pay; in her more than two years of dancing with the company, Jimenez says she never received a penny.
So when Spiegler asked her if she wanted to come to Washington to audition for the school, Jimenez was ready. "I really wanted to leave, because I wanted more," she says in a soft, girlish voice, only lightly accented. "And it was getting a little . . . restricting."
Jimenez flew to Washington and auditioned for Mary Day, founder and director of the school. But her dream was cut short before it began. Her mother, who years before had survived melanoma, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Jimenez returned home to care for her. It would be a long time before she would come back to ballet.
Jimenez had had a comfortable childhood. An only child, she lived with her mother, who runs a party decorating business, and her stepfather, who leads a heavy-metal band. (Jimenez reveals this with a slightly embarrassed giggle.) She never knew her natural father, who left before she was born. Her upbringing was filled with music and dancing.
"Music is on every corner of the island, so you're listening to a merengue or a salsa all day long," she says. "In the cars, in the shops, there's always a radio on, and people are dancing in the streets. It's very lively, the island. You have to dance even if you don't want to. So you learn at a very young age."
Extraordinarily inclined to rhythm, Jimenez would often provide the floor show at her mother's parties, dancing to her stepfather's raucous beat. Thanks to him, she says, she can dance to anything. Still, she had to be pushed into ballet by her grandmother, a ballet lover, and at first she hated its rigor. But by the time she was a teenager she wanted no other life.
Scant professional training could be had on the island, she says. And so, when Jimenez was 14, her mother took matters into her own hands. A former Ballet Nacional de Cuba dancer named Armando Gonzalez had recently joined the Ballet Clasico (this was during Cuba's "special period" in the early '90s, when declining Russian aid led to increasing desperation on the island, and an exodus). After watching Gonzalez perform one day, Jimenez's mother approached him. He had come from a highly respected company with a world-renowned training system. Would he be interested in passing on that knowledge to Michele, as her private coach?
It would be an experiment. Gonzalez had never coached before. But he agreed, and the two met for daily sessions after her regular ballet class. He instilled in her the tenets of the Cuban school: clean, precise positions of the feet and legs; slow, sustained turns; fluid arms; and, above all, sensitivity to the music.
Two years later, she was performing with him at a gala for Cuban dancers, sharing the stage with stars like Carlos Acosta, of London's Royal Ballet and the Houston Ballet, and Jose Manuel Carreno, from American Ballet Theatre. Lorena Feijoo, currently a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, also performed at the gala and remembers being struck by the unusually supple footwork and musicality of Jimenez, who at 16 was so much younger than the other performers she was dubbed the "puppy" of the group.
"You don't often find in young dancers such a desire to interpret the music, as well as a passion," Feijoo says. "The joy and passion are often missing. But she had all that, and the abilities and the will. She worked hard every minute."
It was shortly afterward that Spiegler invited Jimenez to Washington. Almost two years later, her mother's health improved, and Jimenez flew here once again and was accepted into the Washington School of Ballet's advanced class.
After moving into an apartment across the street on Wisconsin Avenue, she was finally living her dream -- and she was tempted to run back home. At 19, she felt isolated from the other girls in her class who were four and five years younger. Accustomed to a life spilling over with relatives and yard parties and friends, she was achingly lonely in her empty flat. She had to leave the radio on to sleep.
"I'd call my mom, tell her I want to leave, I want to get out of here," Jimenez recalls, laughing. She stuck it out, soon relishing her freedom. Her classmates were still in high school, but Jimenez had only ballet, ballet, ballet. (She is close to getting her own diploma via a correspondence course.)
And at her graduation recital in 1999, she caught the eye of the Washington Ballet's incoming artistic director, Septime Webre, who found himself shifting around in his seat to get a good look at the willowy, dark-haired girl in the back row of the corps during the third act of "La Bayadere."
He asked her to audition for the company and hired her as an apprentice. The next year, after she elevated the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the company's annual "Nutcracker" to something approaching poetry, she became a full member.
Still, she is the only one in the company who insists on calling her boss Mr. Webre, rather than using his first name, as he encouraged her to do. "She meekly called me Mr. Septime for about three days, and then reverted back," says Webre. Meekness, however, is wholly absent from her dancing. "Her technical prowess is so great, frequently I'll give her a difficult step as a bit of a joke, and she'll do it, and that will be the choreography," Webre adds.
He cites as an example the ending of Jimenez's first solo in "Carmen," for which he suggested she throw in a double pirouette in the attitude position -- two turns on one leg with the other lifted and cocked behind the body, and the back slightly arched, making it much trickier than a more compact spin. "Little phenom that she is," Webre says, "Michele did it out of nowhere with no preparation." In fact, she did it twice.
While the technical feats seem to pose little challenge to Jimenez, picturing her as a wild, worldly femme fatale presents difficulties. Carmen is traditionally viewed as an untamed temptress whose infidelity leads to her death, while Jimenez's air of innocence is as inseparable from her dancing as is her high kick.
But she has come up with her own manageable interpretation of the title role.
"I think of her as a very strong, independent woman, very free," Jimenez says, squaring her shoulders in exaggerated resolve.
She is speaking on a break between rehearsals, and to keep her muscles warm has layered a torn gray T-shirt and nylon sweat pants over her flame-red leotard. Burly socks cover her feet. "She's like a modern woman: She can work, be with who she wants. There's nothing holding her back. So I try to feel a joy and a" -- she searches for the right word -- "a confidence in what I'm doing."
In fact, no other dancer in the company can match Jimenez's technical strengths, outside of Amanda McKerrow, the American Ballet Theatre principal who frequently guests with the Washington Ballet. (She and husband John Gardner will perform on the program, dancing in Choo San Goh's "In the Glow of the Night." The evening also includes George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments.")
As Webre has been fashioning a company of highly athletic dancers given more to energetic contemporary works than to the strictly etched tutu-and-tights repertoire, Jimenez increasingly seems something of an anomaly.
"She is certainly someone who should be tackling the great classical roles," Webre acknowledges, adding that this has never been the Washington Ballet's territory. A chamber-size company, it lacks the numbers of dancers -- and the budget -- to fill out a "Swan Lake" or a "Sleeping Beauty."
Unless the company expands and modifies its orientation, Jimenez's diet will be light on the classics she seems to have been born to dance.
But she is content to make Washington her home for now. Her mother's cancer has returned. She is undergoing chemotherapy here, and is living with Jimenez. The dancer won't be leaving anytime soon.
"I would eventually love to be with a bigger company," Jimenez said. "But right now I am given so many opportunities to dance, which is what I love. So many people believe in what I do. Right now I feel very good where I am."
November 5, 2001
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