Maria Piedad, Ecuador’s Shinning Light

Working with The National Ballet of Ecuador, and The American Ballet Theatre fulfills childhood dreams.

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B.Seed : Thanks for being on Brightseedblog Maria. At the site “Jacchigua es Ecuador” in the short bio about Rafael Camino of the The National Folklore Ballet Jacchigua, it says: “In 1967 he watched how his classmates, Lechuguin Hidalgo and the brothers Icaza, performed as dancers of the Ballet of Patricia Aulestia, in a presentation at the local Rex Theater. He felt like jumping from his seat to the stage to dance – was greatly motivated by the lights, the scenario, the public and the culture..” It is clear from your bio, Maria, that you have wanted to do what you do for a long time. Looking back, can you remember that time, perhaps an inspirational moment, when you knew you wanted to dance?

Maria : What I clearly remember is the first time that I saw a ballet performance on television. I was very intrigued by what those women dressed in white tutus were doing. I asked my mother what was that and she told me: that is ballet! I was about three or four and I told her that I wanted to dance like them. Luckily, she had taken some lessons when she was a teenager and I insisted so much that she taught me ballet, that one day she put her old tights on and taught me how to do relevé on 5th position. I do remember very well that moment as something very special because my mom and I were wearing special clothing for doing that. After that, I started telling her over and over that I wanted to study ballet

. However, we were living in the outskirts of Quito and there were no dance schools around. Those were years that i danced by myself at home with any kind of music, participating in small dances at my school and enjoying the outdoors meanwhile daydreaming of dancing ballet. When I was nine, we moved into the city. The first thing that my mother did was take me to an audition at the National Dance Institute. Best decision ever because I was accepted and immediately started my pre-professional ballet training. I was so fascinated by that, by the discipline, the ballet class ceremony, the demanding physical training, the music, the attires, everything! I think that I would have been bored easily if my mother had taken me to a dance studio (more recreational) rather than to this school.

B.Seed : You are a teaching assistant, i believe, for the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School-the children’s division. The ABT 2013 Nutcracker at BAM opera house, how did it go? Are they, at that age, interested in ballet as a career?

Maria : I worked for ABT’s JKO School the last school year as a teaching assistant and for its summer intensive as a counselor. I was also ABT’s Nutcracker children’s rehearsal assistant and ballet teacher in 2013. It was a great experience because I was given the opportunity to help with the kids’ rehearsals directed by Melissa Allen Bowman, director of children’s division and also when they were incorporated to the company rehearsals at ABT and BAM. I also taught some of the warm-up classes for the student performances. It was a great experience because I participated in the Nutcracker, one of the top five ballet companies in the world. It was very rewarding to see how all the children were very excited about being on stage and dancing with the ABT dancers and stars. Many of them are thinking already about a possible future as ballet dancers and they feel very motivated to achieve that dream, not only because of the fact that they are JKO’s students but also because they were dancing for an important audience at BAM. Of course, there are other kids that were just enjoying the moment and living their lovely childhood, as it should be, without any concerns about what they would be doing when they grow up.

B.Seed : “American Ballet Theatre’s 2014 season of The Nutcracker will be the last performances of the ballet at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Beginning December 2015, Segerstrom Center for the Arts and American Ballet Theatre will co-present annual engagements of The Nutcracker in Costa Mesa, California.” How will this affect the JKO Children’s performance and you?

Maria : My personal opinion is that to perform a ballet, as beautiful as ABT’s Nutcracker to other audiences, is an advantageous idea since audience diversification is very important for any ballet company. ABT has a strong commitment to present its work to the widest possible audience because it is the America’s National Ballet Company and following this premise, California will have the opportunity to enjoy this classical production. Due to the fact that ABT and JKO School are directed with the highest professional and artistic standards, I think that this decision rather than affect their students will increase their opportunities to perform out of New York; and maybe, other ballet schools associated with ABT’s National Training Curriculum could be incorporated in the production.

B.Seed : You’re also an adjunct dance instructor at The City University of New York where you teach Jazz dance for the College Now Program. The Bronx CC student body, a melting pot some-what like the city of Quito in Ecuador in that regards wouldn’t you say?

Maria : I worked for CUNY’s College Now Program last semester teaching jazz at college level for high school students. However, the budget for dance classes was cut and the class is not happening this semester. But yes, The Bronx is a melting pot of Afro American and Hispanic/Latino communities mostly. In Quito, the diversity is represented by the different socio-economic levels that exist. I worked with students with diverse backgrounds, teaching at the American and German Schools, in pre-professional schools, private studios and also volunteering for programs which work with children who live in poverty and risk situations. Regarding ethnicity, in my opinion, Quito is more uniform because the majority of the population is mestizo. In other words, we have an indigenous/Caucasian heritage that varies in percentage from one person to another, and also an Afro Ecuadorian background. In New York, the population is not only different regarding socio-economic status but also because their ethnicity and religion. On the other hand, almost the entire Ecuadorian population is Catholic or Christian, even in the indigenous or Afro Ecuadorian communities. So, I could say that Quito is a western mestizo society very influenced by the American Culture. Of course, Quito is a melting pot compared to the rest of the country because there are people from different provinces living there; but certainly, the diversity is not as huge as you can see in the Bronx, and in general, in New York City.

B.Seed : Besides instruction in theatrical jazz dance technique you developed the syllabus and “practical and theoretical portions” for this class. That that sounds a lot like physics. What should “theoretical” mean to your jazz dance students?

Maria : My main objective was that my students not only gain kinesthetic and cognitive competency in the vocabulary of jazz dance but also gain a historic perspective about this dance. Maybe, the term “theoretical portion” sounds a little dense but as I mentioned before, College Now Program gives high school students classes at college level. Inside this pre-university experience, they are required to practice and learn jazz technique and also to reflect and research about it. Outside the dance class, my pupils had to watch short videos of different dances such as West African, ragtime, Charleston, rock ‘n roll, hip hop, and others and had to write reflection papers about them. This overview helped them to understand, in a better way, the different influences that jazz dance has had and what current trends have been derived from it.

B.Seed : You won an award, I believe, as best high school student at the National Dance Institute in Quito. How tough was it to do that? Were you bullied as a student?

Maria : I was awarded that prize automatically since I was the only ballet/modern dance student who graduated from that school in 1997. This school has a nine-year pre-professional program which was very demanding due to the fact that I had to attend to regular schools during mornings. At my first year of studies, there were about 90 students distributed in six different level-one classes. The second year, there were only 30; and year after year my classmates quit the school. In the end, there were only three of us attending the year number nine. It was a very tough year because I had started to dance professionally with the National Ballet of Ecuador, I was having many performances for the school and I was working on my graduation project that was a monograph about ballet history. I attended very traditional primary and secondary schools. I remember days that I even did not sleep in order to complete their hard homework. I studied there from 7am to 1pm and my ballet training was done from 3pm to 8 or 9 pm daily. I was an outstanding student in these schools too and a student leader. Opposite to being bullied, I was a very popular student since my life style was very unusual: dancing ballet here and there. However, at the National Dance Institute there was a kind of cold environment due to the natural competition that exists in Ballet, which was even colder when I became a professional ballet dancer during my last year of studies.

B.Seed : I am sure there was a formal introduction to Ecuadorian dance here, I believe, a more intimate study of ballet for you. Patricia Aulestia, prima ballerina Noralma Vera Arrata, did they or others have any influence on you at this time? role model?

Maria : Not really. Noralma was not famous anymore back then and Patricia had been living in Mexico for many years, so their names were not familiar for me as a student. I knew about them from a book that was published in 1993 about Ecuadorian Dance History. However, it was very pleasant to read how they both had achieved successful careers even abroad. The closest to a role model that I had was Sandra Maythaler who was a dancer with beautiful artistry and strong technique. Watching her dancing at the company, as a child and teenager, clearly established the standards that I wanted to achieve in Ecuador. On the other hand, I had some favorite ballet dancers from the international dance scene like Rudolph Noureyev, Darcy Bussel, Silvie Guillem or Irina Saptchits. They represented what I wanted to be as a ballet dancer when I was a student and later as a young ballerina.

B.Seed : Jacchigua was legalized as a dance group and NATIONAL FOLKLORE BALLET JACCHIGUA began about the time you entered high school. José Vicente Mantilla, and Rafael Camino Collantes were, i believe, instrumental in the production and creation . Was Jacchigua part of your high school dance history?

Maria : Rafael Camino was one of my teachers there. Since the National Dance Institute has the national dance track, many of the people from it were dancing for Jacchigua and I was very familiar with their job and performances. But undoubtedly, the artist that I remember as the most influential at my high school is Paco Salvador whose work embraces not only dance practice but also a deep anthropological and cultural research about what Ecuadorian Dance is. Clearly, Jacchigua is the best known dance group but Paco is the person who influenced and helped me to build my concepts about our National Dance.

B.Seed : From the site jacchiguaesecuador.com “..Folklore is culture because all those who read are cultured. Folklore is the ancient knowledge of the people since 1982, because it is anonymous, because it is the knowledge of the people that is transmitted from generation to generation..” Do you agree? Does/should Ecuadoran Folklore have a special place in your mind? or is it just the past?

Maria : Talking from my experience in cultural studies, I disagree with the use of that word folklore to make reference to different cultural expressions including dance. In my opinion, the use of this term belongs to the old anthropology school and is a way that the western civilization has used to minimize the knowledge and culture of indigenous or native people. For example, nobody says that ballet is a folkloric dance even though it represents the old customs and traditions of Western Europe. Oppositely, ballet is seen as a refined art, and some times, as a superior style of dance. For this reason, I do not like to talk about Ecuadorian folkloric dance; I like to talk about National or Ecuadorian dance. Ecuador is a Plurinational country where 13 indigenous languages are spoken, understanding by this that there are several diverse indigenous nations and Afro Ecuadorian communities living together with the mestizo people who are the majority in the country. As a mestizo artist, I have a clear preference for western/Caucasian dances such as ballet or contemporary is. However, I like Afro Ecuadorian dance above the other national dances that exist in my country and this dance has influenced my choreographic works. My indigenous heritage is represented by my enjoyment for Kichwa language, which I speak at a beginning level. Ecuadorian national dance does really have an important place in my artistic practice. I would like to take the challenge to define or identify a national style of concert dance, enterprise that could be very difficult to carry on due to the fact that Ecuadorian concert dance has had a variety of influences .
In my opinion, the duty of people who work purely with national dance is to research and preserve our vast cultural traditions and not being static in cliché models using what some people still call folklore. To talk about Ecuadorian Dance in this way is certainly limited and disrespectful because it is categorizing our cultural diversity in just one box.

B.Seed : Cuban National Ballet School, and Escuela Politécnica del Ejército. Why did you go to them?

Maria : Upon my graduation from the National Dance Institute and having danced with the National Ballet of Ecuador for a year, my father told me that I had to study abroad if I wanted to be successful in my career since the artistic and technique standards were lower in Ecuador compared to the rest of Latin America. So I applied to the National Ballet School in Havana, one of the bests ballet schools in the world, and I was accepted. After a year of studies there, and having had several serious dance injuries, I decided to study for my ballet teaching degree, a crucial decision that helped me later to craft my career as a choreographer.
On the other hand, Attending Escuela Politécnica del Ejército’s long distance learning program was a circumstantial decision. I broke my foot while dancing and I had to rest. I was a bit depressed due to that period of inactivity (about 6 months) so she registered me in this University’s long distance learning program. Eventually, I ended up finishing my bachelors in Linguistics there. Fate is fate, and despite the fact that I did not like that career, that degree helped me later to enter NYU to pursue my M.A. in ballet pedagogy. Studying linguistics also helped me to re-find my interest in addressing social issues. As an artist, social activism is very important to me because I firmly believe that the final objective of any art is to propose or make positive changes happen in our society.

B.Seed : You worked with Jaime Pinto Riveros at National Ballet of Ecuador on The Nutcracker, The Three Musketeers, The Taming of the Shrew, and Vivaldi. Was this your first time working on complete ballets of these famous works?

Maria : No, because I had previously choreographed the complete Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote for the children of Ballet School “Danzas” in Ambato, Ecuador. I also danced the Sleeping Beauty suite in 1998 at the National Ballet School in Cuba and I staged for them the children’s choreography of the Enchanted Garden of Le Corsaire in 2000. However, working with Jaime Pinto was my first time staging and directing rehearsals with a professional ballet company, a rewarding experience that helped me to craft my artistic career as a ballet teacher, répétiteur and choreographer.

B.Seed : Masters programs at Simón Bolívar and New York, Is this the end of your institutional education or do you have more plans for college?

Maria : It is not the end. In my experience, the academia is incredibly helpful in an artistic career if you have the right teachers. At Cuba, I studied with Mirtha Hermida, Adria Velázquez, Martha Iris Fernández and took several workshops with Fernando Alonso (founder of the Cuban Ballet) and Ramona de Saá. At ABT I studied directly with Raymond Lukens, Franco De Vita, Kate Lydon and others. All of them were and are great ballet artists and I was very lucky to have them as my instructors. NYU has an excellent dance education program where I could learn from artists such as Deborah Damast and Claire Porter and reflect deeply about pedagogy with Susan Koff and Patricia Cohen. As you can see, my institutional education has given me a supporting environment not only for perfecting my art but also for researching and reflecting on new ways of addressing choreographic creation and dance pedagogy. For the future, my plans are to further investigate the contemporary choreographic practice, its meaning and its relationship with the audience.

B.Seed : Education has been key in your development as a dance professional. Having connections helps too. Who do you credit, if anyone, as noticing or helping you get work at National Ballet of Ecuador and American Ballet Theater?

Maria : I worked for two periods at the National Ballet of Ecuador, the first one as a dancer (1996-97) and the second one as a director of rehearsals (2004-08). The second time, undoubtedly, the person that was fundamental for getting that position was the choreographer Jaime Pinto Riveros. I was not working at the company but I had permission to take classes there since I was preparing myself for a dance meeting in Vienna. It was a coincidence that Mr. Pinto was there to stage the complete version of The Taming of the Shrew. He was familiar with my work as a dancer and knew that I had graduated as a ballet teacher in Cuba; he was looking for an assistant and he told the director that he wanted me for that position. He believed in my talent because I was only 25 when I directed my first rehearsal with the company. I always say that my first master´s in dance was working with him as his choreographic assistant. He is a very generous artist and human being who always shared his immense knowledge and never hesitated to teach me how to direct rehearsals and how to choreograph. He has been very influential in my career and I can always count on him for advice. On the other hand, the natural connection that I had to get my position at ABT was being an ABT/NYU master´s student. The program happens at the ABT studios and its students have the priority to be offered the teaching assistant jobs. One of the objectives of the ABT´s pedagogical program is to give the best education to its students, and part of this is working at JKO School.

B.Seed : Do you have children or plan to have any soon?

Maria: No, I do not have any children but I would like to have them in the future. I would probably say not soon because I am interested in consolidating my career and furthering my studies in dance. However, I feel mature enough to assume the happy challenge that having a family represents. I do not like to have strict plans regarding that because sometimes life might surprise you.

B.Seed : Thanks for being with us. Anything you would like to say to our viewers or anyone?

Maria : Well, that I feel very lucky to be able to make a living from my dance. Having been born in a small country that has little recognition for its arts, and now teaching and choreographing in New York is undoubtedly the continuation of my childhood dreams. Beyond this personal happiness, dance has been the way to construct myself as a human being. I have expanded my mind and life philosophy by being nourished by other people’s believes and ways of living. I have met diverse people from different cultures around the world, people like you, who are changing to good our society using art as their main tool. I believe that more than the aesthetic or cultural values that any kind of art could have, the most important thing for an artist is to be aware of the socio-cultural environment that he/she is surrounded by, and to contribute in his/her own way to make the world a better place to live. Thanks for the interview; I have enjoyed it a lot! It has been very interesting and helpful in reflecting on my own career and the people who have helped to craft it like my family. Big thanks to them!

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