Fernando Bujones

Ballet dancer of meteoric leaps and dazzling turns, prodigious technique and 'unforced clarity'


Fernando Bujones: dancer and teacher: born Miami 9 March 1955; married first 1980 Marcia Kubitschek (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Maria Arnillas; died Miami 10 November 2005.

The ballet dancer Fernando Bujones's prodigious technique, pure style and vivid presence made him an international star, although his performances in Britain were few. His wiry frame belied the explosive strength that erupted in his meteoric leaps and powered his smoothly dazzling turns. Yet he also emphasised classical exactitude, paying meticulous attention to geometric detail, exploiting his long, hyperextended limbs to achieve a glittering clarity that seemed to slice space. He could be an expressive dancer, too. In dramatic ballets, he combined an eloquent body language with a strong-featured face, framed by black curls. He said he was inspired by the passion of Rudolf Nureyev and the perfection of Erik Bruhn.

London audiences were able to witness all those qualities when he guested with the Royal Ballet in 1985 and 1986. In La Bayadère and the pas de deux from The Corsair they saw his astonishing virtuosity; in La Fille mal gardée they discovered a lighter, more lyrical touch in sympathy with Ashton's choreography and linked to a warmly sensitive interpretation of character. The Dance & Dancers critic Judith Cruickshank wrote of his "elegant line, beautiful hands and feet, and above all an unforced clarity which allows you to see every stage of the step or variation with nothing fudged or skimped".

Fernando Bujones was only 50 when he died, of melanoma, in his native Miami. His parents were Cuban. When he was only a few months old, his mother Maria Calleiro returned to Havana with him, and there, aged seven, he started ballet classes in a series of several state schools. Aged nine, he and his mother left Cuba for good, forced by the American embargo to fly first to Canada, then Prague, then Paris. They had had to leave everything in Cuba, except for a bag of clothes, and arrived in Paris without a penny. Fortunately Fernando's cousin Zeida Cecilia Mendez was waiting at the American Embassy with money to pay the taxi. Zeida was Fernando's link to the ballet world. She had danced with the Cuban Ballet and was to become one of Fernando's key teachers.

The family settled in Miami, where Fernando, aged 10, made his stage début, appearing in the role of the Prince as a boy in the local company's production of The Nutcracker. Two years later, his mother seized an opportunity: the New York City Ballet principal Jacques d'Amboise was appearing in the theatre where she was stage manager and she asked him to give her son (waiting in the wings in tights) an audition.

D'Amboise was sufficiently impressed to recommend that Fernando should enter the School of American Ballet. So, aged 12, he arrived in New York on a scholarship, to be taught by two great male teachers, Stanley Williams and André Eglevsky. Aged 15 and still a student, he danced with the André Eglevsky Ballet, where he partnered the future star Gelsey Kirkland, then a soloist with New York City Ballet, in the Don Quixote pas de deux. They caused a sensation. The image of him soaring above the stage in immaculate entrechats huit was, apparently, unforgettable.

On graduating in 1972 he turned down Balanchine's New York City Ballet in favour of American Ballet Theatre, whose repertoire has a more traditional eclecticism. It was a difficult choice. He regretted having to sacrifice the opportunity of dancing a wide range of Balanchine ballets; but he particularly relished ABT's bravura Russian 19th-century classics. For all his virtuosity, though, he always eschewed exaggeration. "I never try to overdo or over-theatricalise," he said. "I prefer, if anything, to understate."

His first leading role was in Anton Dolin's Variations for Four, where, as Patricia Barnes wrote, "the poise, musicality and dazzling purity of his virtuoso style recalls Mikhail Baryshnikov at much the same age". Other leads followed in ballets such as Lander's Etudes, Balanchine's Theme and Variations and Bournonville's Napoli. In 1973 he became a soloist and in April 1974 he made his London début, at a Palladium gala in aid of one-parent families.

In July of that year he entered the International Dance Competition of Varna, Bulgaria, the contest of all contests. Although relatively inexperienced, he won the senior division gold medal (the first American to do so) and a special prize for technical excellence. On his return, ABT promoted him to principal, making him the youngest in the company's history. Otherwise, though, his remarkable Varna achievement was eclipsed in the media by Baryshnikov's defection from the Kirov Ballet. It was an oversight that goaded Bujones into declaring "Baryshnikov has the publicity, but I have the talent": a rejoinder that, with greater maturity, he would deprecate.

He danced in some 34 countries and guested with more than 60 companies. He appeared at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival and made his début with the Paris Opéra Ballet on his birthday in 1981. He partnered the world's greatest ballerinas - among them Natalia Makarova, Margot Fonteyn and Carla Fracci. It was while dancing in Brazil in 1976 that he met his first wife, Marcia Kubitschek, daughter of the former President of Brazil. She already had two daughters and, after their marriage in 1980, they added another, Alejandra, in 1983.

As well as bringing his virtuoso technique to Russian classics such as Don Quixote and La Bayadère, he danced Giselle and Bournonville's La Sylphide with an immaculate Romantic style. He performed contemporary works such as Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Robbins's Fancy Free and Cranko's Romeo and Juliet; and he had a particular affinity with the dance-dramas of Antony Tudor.

In 1985, with Baryshnikov now in charge at ABT and Bujones's increasing unhappiness at the paucity of new roles, he was dismissed for refusing to dance in a New York season. In 1989, after Baryshnikov's departure, he was reinstated and in 1995 gave his farewell performance with the company at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

He had long been teaching and staging ballets for leading companies around the world. He was a permanent guest artist with the Boston Ballet and while appearing with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany he met his second wife Maria, a Peruvian dancer. In 1993, he became director of Ballet Mississippi in Jackson; in 1996 he was appointed Choreographer-in-Residence of Texas Christian University's Dance Department. In 2000 he became director of Orlando Ballet in Florida, where his dynamic leadership had been expanding the company's stature, transforming it from a provincial to a national ensemble.

Nadine Meisner

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