OBITUARY:Rafael Aguilar

Rafael Aguilar achieved remarkable fame during the last decade of his life. After years of struggle he was hailed in Paris as a brilliant choreographer of Spanish spectacle, accepted in Madrid as choreographer to the National Ballet and in Britain won a Lawrence Olivier award for the best choreographer of the year in 1992.

He was born Rafael Ricaurte in 1926, the only son of wealthy parents in Ecuador in 1926. His widowed mother sent him to Europe to study at universities in Heidelberg and Paris but when he came in contact with the life of the boulevards he rebelled and threw up his studies to spend his days in ballet studios and theatres. He was something of a dilettante, slightly effeminate and mannered, with a flippant charm. His mother, realising that he was wasting his time in Paris, demanded that he return home.

He flew back via New York, where he was interrogated by immigration officials. When he gave frivolous answers to their questions about his political beliefs, he found himself incarcerated on Ellis Island as a suspected Communist. Only after lengthy legal representations in Washington was he eventually released, after a hair-raising experience in which he was imprisoned with criminals in a lunatic asylum. This experience must have sharpened his dramatic sense.

After this ordeal his mother realised he would never fit into the family mould and gave him his freedom. He returned to Europe at the age of 30 with one obsession; to become a ballet dancer. In 1950 he turned up at my school of Russian ballet in Chelsea to enrol as a student. After two and a half years of intense study he went on to Sadler's Wells, but by now he realised he had started his training much too late to become a first-class ballet dancer.

He went back to Paris and met Manuela Aguilar, a powerful Flamenco dancer with whom he trained and danced. Later they married and he assumed her name. She possessed a masculine strength and became the core of his life. Together they formed a group of Spanish dancers and toured Europe. During the Seventies they came several times to Holland Park open-air theatre to give concerts of Spanish folk dance and flamenco.

Over the years Aguilar developed his company and his gifts as a choreographer. He constantly toured Italy, Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries. He set up residence in Madrid and tried to form a national ballet, but being Ecuadorian he suffered stiff opposition. Retreating to Paris, he made his headquarters in the Rue du Douai but kept in constant touch with Spain and its dancers.

It was a gruelling life, but it was the life he loved. Always gentle- mannered, he became remarkably adept at calming Spanish temperament and continued to expand his gifts as a choreographer. Quite suddenly when he was in his fifties his creative flair blossomed and his ballets were hailed as masterpieces of dramatic intensity. He scored his first triumph with a work based on the play The House of Bernada Alba. It was danced and mimed in silence with staccato bursts of castanets and rhythmic heel- beats. It was considered an outstanding ballet.

In 1992 he won the Lawrence Olivier Award for his production of Matador staged at the Queen's Theatre, London, in 1991. The next year he enjoyed a successful season at Sadler's Wells Theatre.

Probably his most spectacular achievement was a large-scale production of the ballet Carmen with a cast of 45 at the Palais du Sport in Paris. He conjured a highly charged interpretation, daringly mixing the music of Bizet with Sarasate and inserting episodes of fierce, noisy flamenco dance and song which excited audiences to fever pitch. Last year he presented at the same venue a season of flamenco which included a much-praised production of Bolero.

Invited back to Spain, he created a new work for the National Ballet. Whilst rehearsing he was stricken with cancer. After one strenuous rehearsal he collapsed and died of heart failure. He was a brave and tireless artist whose triumph was too short-lived.

John Gregory

Rafael Ricuarte (Rafael Aguilar), dancer, choreographer and teacher: born Ecuador 1926; married 1970 Manuela Aguilar (one adopted daughter); died Madrid 2 March 1995.

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