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Speaking Heart to Heart

Conversation with Eugene Ballet's Vanessa Laws and Leoannis Pupo-Guillen

by Dean Speer

February 14, 2009

It was appropriate that I sat down with one of Eugene Ballet’s couples on Valentine’s Day to talk about their respective careers, just a few hours prior to their dancing in that classic and romantic heartbreaker, “Swan Lake.” It was clear that both feel passionate about ballet and each also recognizes how fortunate they are in their careers...and to have found each other through ballet.

Leo: Baseball is really big in Cuba but ballet was an unknown to my family. Like every boy in my neighborhood, I was into baseball too and played soccer for three years but my main interest was acting. I was invited to audition for the Vocational School of Arts; I just didn’t know that reason was that they were looking for boys in the Ballet Department. At first I was not too exited with the idea but despite my dad’s disappointment my mom convinced me to accept because it was the best school in my city. It only took a trip to the local Theater for a “macho” sailor’s dance and a few appearances on local TV, for my family to see that a male ballet dancer might be okay.

As a professional I was lucky to have Fernando Alonso as one of my mentors. I finally “connected” to ballet and found it a way to freedom.

People may not remember but during the Clinton presidential administration, they held a lottery every two years from 1992 to 1998 for those who wanted to emigrate legally from Cuba. My family was one of the winners of the 1998 lottery and we were finally allowed to leave in 2004.

When we came to New Jersey, I thought that this meant the end of my dancing career; later I realized that dancing was the path to the life for which I was looking. I began to audition and joined the Roxey Ballet.

Vanessa: I was born in Virginia but was raised in Puerto Rico. As a youngster I had many interests and came into ballet via gymnastics and was fortunate to have Carlota and Maria Carrera, who had been Cuban trained and RAD certified, as my teachers. They also provided wise counsel on how to build my career.

Encouraged by my teachers I would travel yearly to the US for summer courses. In 1991 I was accepted to the Bolshoi’s program at Vail, where I heard through the grapevine that a few students might be invited to a six month study in Russia. I was selected and, at the end of my stay, was allowed the privilege to take the exams along with the Russian students -- and was invited back to attend the school full time the following year. I spent three years in Moscow and after our final exams, graduated with the class and received my diploma.

I danced for one year with The Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theater in Kiev where, with leave from the company, I was invited to tour the US with “Stars of the Bolshoi.” The following season I danced at The Chelyabinsk Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Russia. After an injury, I thought, “What next?”

I took a summer course at Rosella’s [Hightower] International Dance School in Cannes and then entered the Boston Conservatory where I obtained a BFA degree in Dance Performance and Education, while dancing for the Boston Conservatory Dance Theater.

I was working for Ballet Tech and freelance performing in New York City when, during the VSA Festival at the Kennedy Center I met the Roxeys who offered me an opportunity to teach and perform in NJ. Here is where I met Leo.

Leo: It’s actually a funny story. I was chatting in Spanish with a friend while at the barre, talking with him about who that cute girl over there was...and she heard and understood everything, as I didn’t realize she spoke Spanish.

Vanessa: We started dating but we kept it discreet – or so we thought – as I was his “boss,” being one of the ballet mistresses for the company. Of course the company knew and sweetly let us know collectively during a rehearsal.

Leo: Both of us started looking hard at our career options and when Toni [Pimble] came to New York to hold auditions for Eugene Ballet, I took the audition and was offered a contract. We had to decide what coast to live on – both of us wanting to be near to our families – and concluded that Eugene would be ideal.

Vanessa: Leo had a position performing with the company and I taught in the School and was able to take company class every day, which was great. In a sense this was like one, very long audition and after about year when a position became open, Toni offered me a slot in the company.

Toni gives us all lots of opportunities and motivates us to find our own way in roles, and coaches us. All of us in the company have a good working relationship.

Leo: I’m doing the lead male role of Siegfied in tonight’s “Swan Lake” and this is such a thrill for me.

Vanessa: I’m doing waltz lead, one of the two “big” swans in Act II, and Spanish in Act III. Having the chance to work in the same company is fantastic. We love Eugene, the beauty of the environment and we both feel so passionately about passing along our art – to the audiences and to future generations.

More about the artists:

Laws began her dance training at Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico. In 1992, she was invited to study at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow, graduating with Galina Solovieva’s class in 1995 with an Artiste de Ballet diploma. Her international training includes Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Boston Ballet, The Rome Festival (Italy), Nutmeg Ballet Co., International School of Dance (Rosella Hightower, France), Renaissance Ballet Company (Russia), Bolshoi Ballet Academy at Vail, Eglevsky Ballet & Royal Winnipeg Ballet School (Canada).

Laws’ professional career began at The Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theater in Kiev and at The Chelyabinsk Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Russia where she performed in many classical ballets. In 1996, she was chosen to tour with the “Stars of the Bolshoi,” performing “Giselle,” “La Sylphide” and “Don Quixote” suite, under the artistic direction of Yuri Grigorovich.

In 2001, Laws graduated from the Boston Conservatory with a BFA in Dance Performance and Education, while dancing for the Boston Conservatory Dance Theater. Laws has performed as a guest artist with Infinity Dance Theater, Vaccaro Dance Project, Ballet Ambassadors, and Contrast Dance Theater. Most recently, Laws was a member of Roxey Ballet where served as Dancer & Rehearsal Director. Laws, has worked as Principal Faculty at Ballet Tech, Mill Ballet School and Ballet Idaho Academy. This is Laws’ first year with Eugene Ballet.

Pupo-Guillen was born in Cuba where he began his ballet training, graduating from the Camaguey Professional Ballet Academy in 2001. During his studies, Pupo-Guillen was selected to participate in the Cancun International Dance Festival and performed the role of “Toreador” as a guest artist with the Costa Rican Youth Ballet. He was invited to compete in the prestigious International Havana Ballet Competition in Cuba. After his graduation, he joined the Camaguey Ballet Company. In 2003, Pupo-Guillen became Principal Dancer performing such roles as Escamillo in “Carmen,” Franz inCoppélia,” “Paquita,” Colin in “La Fille Mal Gardée,” Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” “Espada” and Basilio in “Don Quixote,” Albrecht in “Giselle” and Siegfried in “Swan Lake.” In 2004, Pupo-Guillen came to the United States with his family and joined the Roxey Ballet, where he expanded his repertoire to include the Jester in “Cinderella,” the Cavalier in “The Nutcracker,” the pas de deux of “Le Corsaire,”Flames of Paris,” and “Blue Bird,” and “Drummer Boy.” Last season Pupo-Guillen, was featured as Don José in Toni Pimble’s “Carmen” and in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?”

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