Q: Right now I’m baffled more that at the story but to the fact that you where on Broadway dancing La Sylphide! What I mean is, that dance was so big back then, so main stream, to be performed not only on Broadway but in Hollywood movies as well. The Box Office Hit “The Turning Point” the story of two ballerinas forced by events to confront their past, received 11 Oscar nominations in 1977. Why do you think ballet was so popular back in the Sixties, Seventies and the Eighties in America ?
A: I’m going to say it, it is my theory…. The cold war! It was all about the United States being in this rivalry with the, back then, Soviet Union….The Soviet Union really promoted ballet heavily and the US had to respond to that; and because of this rivalry they were investing a lot of money, they had to! That’s why today they, the US government, does not support it anymore, they don’t need to! If you look back at it, it all was about politics; and just because of that reason there was this huge ballet boom, and it is very sad that that was the main motivation behind it and not the love for the Art! Today it is systematical that every year the first cuts to save money, to balance the budget, are to the arts and ballet is the one that soffers the most. Back then there were many ballets on Broadway, all over New York City for that matter…
Q: How many schools there where in NYC at that time?
A: There where so many that it is difficult to recount them all……. it was an exciting time, there was so much going on. I mean the greatest choreographers in American ballet history, were alive and still working… first and fore most George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, Martha Graham was alive and still working Alvin Ailey and the City Center Dance Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem Merce Cunningham and Dance Company, Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation and of course The American Ballet Theater. It was an awesome time in NYC city, there was so much going on…
Q: Could it be possible that American Ballet picked in the Seveties and because of that today is what is left…
A: I never saw it that way. It is obvious that after Geoge Balanchine died there was nobody, at that level, to take his place and ballet suffers because of it and the same with the others choreographer. But today we have enormous talent we have wonderful dancers as good as the one in the seventies if not stronger; better. I think it is an economic thing, we picked economically, yes!
Q: I think you must be right! I saw a while ago’ a beautiful documentary “Only When I Dance” on a very young Brazilian dancer Irlan Santos Da Silva that was able to rise from Rio De Janeiro’s slams all the way to The American Ballet Theatre Company in New York, thanks also, to a monumental love toward him and dance from his family and Marisa Estrella, his inspiring teacher. It was one of the most moving documentary on ballet that I have ever seen. The grace and the talent of this boy were absolutely unseen, he moved many people to tears. Back to you… What happened after Broadway and Nurayev?
A: After Broadway I accepted an offer to danced with the Boston Ballet for two seasons and started touring around the country with the company after that I also joined the Fort Worth Ballet School and for 3 years I traveled back and forth between NY and Fort Worth in Texas. But by the early eighties I felt something was changing in me… something was missing from my life, you know AIDS appeared in NYC and a lot of my friends start dying from it… AIDS changed everything!! It is because of it that I started searching for something. I think I also had this feeling inside this urgency that I want it to help people at that point of my life. Tina Bernal a teacher at The School Of American Ballet, suggested that I would start teaching. And she planted a seed in me and I really started to think about it seriously…. I cut my career short and enrolled at NYU. By 1985 I was enrolled at NYU and bealive it or not I was working at Saks 5Th AVE for Kalvin Klain, I could not dance and go to school it was impossible, I had to give it up for a while. I have to say that my boss at Kalvin Klain, Myra O’Leary was the nicest person I ever met she made it so easy for me, I had to go to school everyday and she would work around my school schedule. She could feel my straggle and she respected me for that. It took three very long years of hard work but I was able to graduate from NYU and to get my B.F.A. and M.F.A.
Q: How did you end up to Southern California?
A: One day I realized I just had to help others as myself had been helped…. and especially under privileged children…. I wanted to teach dance to people that because of economical difficulties would have not…could have not chosen ballet as an artistic medium to express them self’s. They would have missed that chance…… to experience such a great art form. During a visit to LA I was offered to teach ballet at the University of Riverside of California and I took that position and I packed and left NYC it was 1990. I would teach two days a week and that was a great way to start I really want it to change radically my life, try a new place, and what would have been a better place than California? Before I left for Los Angeles I applied for a full Bright scholarship in New York City though, the scholarship was named after Senator Full Bright, thinking I would not get it but eventually I did, while teaching in Southern California at the Riverside School. I was the first dancer, back then, to be awarded with such a scholarship It was the chance of a life time and I had to return back to NYC immediately and live for Denmark I would teach ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet, at the university of Copenhagen! It was a wonderful unforgettable experience but after 1 year there, I was happy to return to Southern California. I had learned so much while teaching in Copenhagen and I wanted to share that knowledge and eventually open my own Ballet School
A: When was that ?
Q: It was January 1992 I came back, this time, determined to teach and open my own Ballet School I was disappointed with what I saw when I was in LA I would go around LA dance studios to try to understand the scene and what I saw was a lot of schools that their priority was only to make money. They were very dishonest toward the dancers, lying to the children promising careers… fame… in order to have them competing, that involves money, for a professional career knowing that a lot of those dancers did have not the right instrument, the right body to dance professionally to make a career out of it. It was the fall of 1992 when I came back to Southern California…. I had a friend back then that thought at at inner city school and I said to him that I would have liked to come in at the school and set up a program for Ballet starting to 3rd grader. My friend asked the principal at the school and she asked me how much would it cost but I made my self clear that it was all for the love of it… at no charge to the children, she agreed to it. The day I went in at the school I expected to find 20 to 30 children….she had 300 ready to go, all lined up.
Q: How wonderful!
A: It truly was! We had to find in a hurry a space Downtown Los Angeles to accommodate everybody and to be near the children From the first day a buried my self in it I taught and taught and it was so rewarding…. we were there for 6 years from 1993 to 1999. It was so cold there… in the winter the studio had no heating system and when it was raining it would leak inside from the ciling. It was unbelievable if I think about it!
Q: How did you manage a non profit school? Did you had sponsors right away? Who was your first donor?
A: No we didn’t have any sponsors, but we managed. The parents of the dancers were so happy with the good influence that ballet had on their children, actually they were stunned. That they would help me up with anything they could. Our fist donation came from a woman that had a dance shop and had a shipment of leotards that could not sell and she decided to donate them to the school….
Q: I’m sure you’re doing much better now with such and incredible board
A: ahahah not really I mean we have a wonderful board of great people but we are still struggling to race money that are so important to the art.
Q: What was your first production at the school?
A: It took a while before we were able to mount a production….Back then I would go to around to elementary schools trying to find talented children to train and at a point I think I was working with 30 different schools. My partner at that time Nick Moss played a huge role in getting the fist grant that allowed us to mount our first wonderful production of the ballet “La Source“. At the Long Beach Convention Center and what really helped was a story that CBS did on our school, The City of Angeles Ballet. After that performance I got so many calls from people all over the country, and donations too, it was a wonderful time and It was also a personal time of sorrow, morning the loss of Nick. It was 1997. I really went through a terrible personal moment of my life and it is during this difficult moment that I met the wonderful Lettie Ibarra, she really helped me to take the school to all an other different level. We moved to an upper floor, we had heating and cooling system a new hard wood floor and new barre and because of her, also, we changed the lives of hundreds of children…. that wanted to express their view of the world through dance.I mean… back then there were not classically trained ballet dancers in Los Angeles!
Q: Which comes to mind…. that’s why I wanted to interview you … How come we live in the richest city in the world and there’s not a City Ballet? New York London Paris Milan Tokyo Moscow Vienna and all the major cities in the world have a City Ballet except for Los Angeles? Why do you think that’ so?
A: I think is because we don’t have a philanthropic history in Los Angeles I think also because LA is a new city, it didn’t really took off until after the second world war and back then already all the major schools in Europe and on the East Cost were well established…. with their art programs…. Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh were blossoming with art. I just don’t think that Los Angeles had that kind of history, I guess the politicians, the experts… didn’t think ballet was good enough for LA
Q: To dance is esencial to life! Tell me more about the City of Angels Ballet
A: After 9 years downtown we moved… I think it was 2003, to Silverlake, where we currently are, and at that time…. at the same time I reconnected with a friend Stephanie Saland. She was a principal Ballerina at the New York City Ballet and I asked her to come in to teach at the school with me. She was a great Ballerina and a great teacher we really developed a great friendship and a wonderful work relationship. She would come down from Seattle for one week every month and sometime she would stay for two, especially when we started to get requests not just from inner city children, to join the school of ballet, but also from young aspiring professional dancer; she was that committed. Everybody was on scholarship still and at that time we were able to perform a version of “La Sylphide” I rearranged the choreography to help the children. ”La Sylphide” is the oldest surviving romantic ballet, It was choreographed for the first time by Italian FilippoTaglioni, around the 1830′s, it was created for his daughter, the famous Prima ballerina, Maria Taglioni, who swept hearts in Europe in her role as the doomed winged Sylph looking for human love. She became so famous in that role that a doll was made of Maria, with little wings, as the tragic nymph. Queen Victoria’s favorite doll. We performed it at the Japan & American Center Theatre in Little Tokyo and also at the Riverside Theatre for an AIDS benefit. After this performances we had a lot of great feed back which got us a lot of requests to perform all over Los Angeles County. But i have to say that it is thanks to the support and help of Zappora Carz, also a ballerina from the New York City Ballet, my partner Doctor Richard Wulfsberg that loves and believes in ballet more than I do if thats possible, and Ed Lipman our production Manager that works with computer animation and creates magic and our new conductor Scott Dunn that the City of Angel Ballet has been able to become a true professional and wonderful school. They all joined us 4 years ago’, I meet Richard 3 years ago’ Since then we have been performing amazingly. For last year performance of “The Nutcracker” with had a fantastic animated stage that resemble a gigantic book cover that spelled “The Nutcracker” We had the best season yet.
Q: Where did you perform it? What’s in store for C.A.B. new ballet season?
A: It was at the Fox Performing Art Center in Riverside, that recently had a 35 million renovation, and it was a success The ballet opens with a huge story book coming forward toward the audience and it reads ”The Nutcracker” and it turns around towards the audience while coming foreword and slowly opens up in to a parlor where the first seen of the show opens and you can see through the windows that it’s snowing, it is quite a scene. Since the show was such a success, we are performing “The Nutcracker” again this year; at the Fox Performing Art Center. I’m adding two very talented principals dancers from the Mexico City Ballet, to last year cast, and new costumes. The rehearsal starts after labour day and I would like you to be there at the school to see the dancers rehears
Q: I would love that Mario It would be an honor. At the beginning of the interview you mentioned that you felt home for the first time, that you grasped the meaning of that, in Italy, just last month. Where in Italy were you exactly… ?
A: Yes it’s true! it was a breakthrough, I was in Florence…. I was there for two magical weeks… I really needed a holiday after a year of teaching. We rented an apartment in Santa Croce and from there we went to visit Rapallo and spent a couple of days in 5 Terre in a villa by the sea. It was unforgettable, what a beautiful land. I can’t wait to go back to Italy but this time I want to spend more time in Milan. I fell in love with Milan, what a wonderfully elegant city. We were there only for two days and I really loved it! The only night that we spent there, our last night in Italy, we went out to dinner and had the best risotto con Funghi Porcini I ever had. It is my favorite Italian dish. I can cook a good Risotto, but that one was perfect…
Q: To conclude, I was going to ask you what is your favorite Italian City and dish, but I think you have already answered both….Something you want to add.
A: Yes! I have a wish…. a dream. Since I have visited Milan it is always on my mind….To bring back, the beautiful dancers of City of Angels Ballet to Milan with me next time, to perform there. It would be great… I just want it to put it out there…
Mario is emotional again and he’s doing is best not to show it I feel his love for his school is tremendous I was so moved by it that the only thing I could do was to smile at him and thank him. He couldn’t see me though, crossing my two fingers behind my back wishing him luck, thinking ” I hope it will come true….”
“See you at La Scala Mario!”
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS by Andrea Marino