Sunday, January 27, 2002

Ballet's new stars set to debut

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

Nelson Madrigal and his wife, Lorna Feijoo, are Cincinnati Ballet's new principal dancers.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        In front of a large family audience, with babies crying and taped music blaring over scratchy speakers, Cincinnati Ballet's newest stars recently made their unofficial debuts.

        Cuban dancers Lorna Feijoo, 27, and Nelson Madrigal, 26, partners onstage and off, were introduced early this month during the company's Home Cities Tours. They will make their official debuts Friday and Saturday in George Balanchine's “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.”

        Home Cities' laid-back school-assembly atmosphere is not exactly the setting for a grand entrance, yet Ms. Feijoo admits to being a pre-show wreck.

        “I was very nervous,” she said in the wings after the performance at Northern Kentucky University. With production stage manager Thyra Hartshorn translating, she added: “I couldn't sleep at all last night and woke Nelson up at 6 a.m. I'm very happy to have this first show over with.” Mr. Madrigal rolled his eyes recalling the 6 a.m. wake-up.

Ms. Feijoo makes a point to choreographer Bart Cook.
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        By its very nature the tour is bare-bones and rough-edged. Dancers troop off to area stages to present bits of repertory. No sets or special lighting enhance their performances.

        No set design? No problem. This couple demonstrated why everyone at the ballet company is crazy about them: They handled Balanchine's devil of a pas de deux with heart-melting grace.

        Intrinsic in Cuban dance training, as important as technique, is the credo that your dancing must touch the audience. The people out front must be moved by you.

        This ardent spirit infuses the couple's dancing whether in the studio or onstage, and seeps into their personal connections as well. Artistic director Victoria Morgan is touched by their personalities as much as their dancing.

        “"They're terrific in class — hardworking, eager and open and they're wonderfully giving with everyone.”

  • What: Cincinnati Ballet, Winter Festival: “Beyond Innocence,” “Out-O-Sense,” “7 X 5” and Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.”
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center, downtown
  • Tickets: $9-$51 at the Aronoff and Music Hall box offices and Ticketmaster locations; 241-7469, 621-5282 or
  • Read the review: Saturday on Cincinnati.Com, keyword: dance
        If you're not into hugs, beware of Ms. Feijoo. She's an unabashed hugger — of little girls asking for autographs, of startled teen-age fans, even of seasoned newspaper photographers.

        The openly affectionate Latin temperament is a stereotype, but Ms. Feijoo is no cliche. She warms easily to anyone within arm's length.

        Mr. Madrigal is not as eager to dole out hugs, but he is no less charming and warm. They're both soft-spoken and quiet, but he's the quietest, often deferring to her in conversation.

        They were hired as principals in early December after the abrupt resignation in October of principals Anna Reznik and Alexei Kremnev. The Cuban couple have signed for this season, although the company would like to keep them for at least an additional year. They're expected to figure prominently in future performances.

        Expectations are very high at the company.

        Mr. Madrigal was praised by fellow Cuban dancer and American Ballet Theatre principal Jose Carreno as “one of the most important male dancers in the world-known Ballet Nacional de Cuba.”

        Ms. Feijoo left the Cuban troupe as its No. 1 ballerina. Former New York City ballerina Merrill Ashley said a year ago in Dance Magazine that Ms. Feijoo is “one of the most special dancers I've ever seen. She has everything — speed, strength, a big jump and a love of movement.”

        Ms. Feijoo and Mr. Madrigal come well-touted and praised in international dance circles as well, having toured with Ballet Nacional de Cuba for several years.

        Los Angeles Times critic Lewis Segal praised Mr. Nelson last year for his “brilliant turns and jumps, perfect clarity, whether on the ground or in the air, and disarming modesty . . . .”

        Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times said of Ms. Feijoo in 1999 “(she) embodies the strong projections and centered dancing of Cuban ballerinas. Her technique is powerful . . . .”
        Dynamos onstage, they can be vulnerable off. Famished and beat after a recent rehearsal, they seemed to cave under the weight of it all. They've been heavily promoted as the company's latest stars and were learning new dances they would be performing with less than a week's rehearsal.

        Added to that was the frustration that they had been unable to pass their local drivers' tests and had to depend on others to drive them around. And the ongoing struggle to understand unfamiliar English words flying by them a mile a minute. (Mr. Madrigal said they learned English by watching American TV and movies.)

        After that particularly trying rehearsal and amid some confusion and tears from Ms. Feijoo, a staff member took over and promised to order food and get them wherever they needed to go.

        In response, Mr. Madrigal defused the tension with “How about to the disco?” (A destination as popular as the beach in Cuba.)

        At a later interview Ms. Feijoo, composed and looking elegant with a delicate shawl draped over her shoulders, commented: “It shouldn't matter when you have bad days. Our teacher Alicia Alonso always says it doesn't matter if you're happy or not, when it's time to dance — class, onstage, wherever — you must forget about your problems.”
        The couple grew up in the disciplined world of the Ballet Nacional in Havana. The company of hundreds of dancers is led by the legendary Ms. Alonso, a renowned ballerina who danced into her 70s.

        She performed with American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before returning to Cuba to build a world-class company from the bottom up. Dance is so popular in Cuba that people line the streets for tickets when the company performs.

        “Three-hundred kids audition every year. Only 10 girls and 10 boys are allowed in,” Mr. Madrigal said.

        First-rate Cuban dancers dot the rosters of American companies all over the map, from American Ballet Theatre in New York to San Francisco Ballet — where Ms. Feijoo's sister, Lorena Feijoo, dances.

        Ms. Alonso has retained her ties to the larger American dance companies. But no one leaves Ballet Nacional without her approval.

        Mr. Madrigal said she wasn't too pleased that Cincinnati was their first choice. “Where is this company?” Ms. Alonso wanted to know. But she eventually warmed to the idea. They have an open invitation to return to Cuba and probably will someday.

        “Cuban families stay very close,” Ms. Feijoo said.
        For now they like the change — in Cincinnati's more modern repertory, if not the cold weather. (There's no running down to the beach after rehearsals as in Havana, and they've learned to appreciate the value of a car's defrost button.)

        Life has improved significantly; Mr. Madrigal finally earned his drivers' license (after two tries). Ms. Feijoo must try again (her third attempt). They both drove in Havana, but maybe the rules are different here — no sliding through stop signs as Ms. Feijoo did, for instance. Cincinnati Ballet staff set up cones in the parking lot to help them get the hang of things.

        Movement is the key to their onstage happiness, too.

        Since they were hired in the fall, it's been a challenge to stay in their seats. Ms. Feijoo paced impatiently offstage during Nutcracker in December. Mr. Madrigal was nursing a strained back, an injury that occurred his first week here.

        Offstage, there's a yearning for Cuban food. They miss tostones (fried plantains) and platenos (flattened plantains) and pork prepared the way it is at home.

        But they're all smiles about being here and happily toasted with champagne their new apartment in Northern Kentucky three weeks ago.

        They say they're even ready to tackle some Cincinnati chili.


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