Friday, August 4, 2006

She was just 19 when she arrived from the Dominican Republic to study at the Washington School of Ballet. Within a year, Michele Jimenez became an apprentice in the Washington Ballet and was plucked from the corps by the late Mary Day to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker.”

That performance in an iconic role was only the beginning of seven remarkable years of growth for Miss Jimenez, who has blossomed from a fresh-faced, talented youth into an artist of wide range and sensitivity, enthralling audiences with her beautiful, strong technique; musical phrasing; and appealing stage personality.

Miss Jimenez gives her final performance in the area on Tuesday, appearing at Wolf Trap as a featured dancer with the Trey McIntyre Project. A few days later, she flies to Europe to become a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet.

Other dancers have begun their dancing life in Washington and risen to national and international acclaim — Mimi Paul, Amanda McKerrow, Kevin McKenzie, Virginia Johnson, Julie Kent — but none has had such a significant part of their performing career here. It is safe to say the city has never had such a distinguished dancer in its midst for such an extended period.

The story of Miss Jimenez’s arrival in Washington has a bittersweet tinge. A year after she was born, it was discovered her mother had cancer; all the time she was growing up, her mother battled the disease while at the same time giving her daughter extraordinarily loving support.

“She had that vision, getting me dance videotapes and books and special teachers even during the most difficult times of her illnesses,” Miss Jimenez says.

When she was invited to audition for the Washington Ballet, she found herself going instead to New York to be with her mother during the cancer treatments. A year later, not having taken classes regularly and quite out of shape, Miss Jimenez auditioned to be a pupil at the Washington School of Ballet.

Mary Day, who founded both the ballet school and company, had a legendary talent for picking promising dancers. She well remembered her first impression of Miss Jimenez and reminisced about it with me a week before her death last month.

“When Michele first came to the Washington Ballet she was quite heavy,” the late Miss Day said, “but I immediately saw her talent and passion for dance. I worked with Michele, and her body slimmed down, her knees and ankles took shape, and we were all so proud of how she looked and danced.

“After Septime Webre came in as the new artistic director, he was not interested in her — his first impression was that she was too heavy and he wasn’t going to keep her. When I found out, I went to him and asked him if he was out of his cotton-pickin’ mind to let such a talent go. So, he kept her in the company and … discovered the magnificent talent that she is. She turned out to be his muse, and the rest, of course, is history.”

Mr. Webre proceeded to make Miss Jimenez the company’s prima ballerina, casting her in a wide range of roles in the classic and modern-classic repertoire, including the ultimate romantic ballerina part, Giselle. He made roles especially for her — notably in “Carmen” and his own version of “Cinderella.”

Besides her great technical verve, Mr. Webre says, “She is such a warm, generous soul, with a great joy and sense of unadulterated love when she dances.

“She’s also filled with great paradoxes,” the director says of his muse. He speaks about what an elegant beauty she was as Giselle and then adds, “If someone puts on salsa music, suddenly she’s shimmying like a showgirl at the Tropicana.

“When I was doing ‘Peter Pan,’” Mr. Webre continues,” Michele was dancing Wendy. … Her talents were revealing themselves to me in the choreographic process, and she was gorgeous, with these delicate extensions and balances — it was like smoke dancing. Then she had to fly with the harness on, and the first time she was hooked up and went into the air, she let forth the most vulgar string of curses in Spanish. She’d been so soft and willowy and suddenly she sounded like a truck driver.”

Trey McIntyre, a choreographer who has created works for leading companies here and abroad, says of Miss Jimenez: “She is quite simply one of the best dancers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.” Now resident choreographer at the Washington Ballet, Mr. McIntyre created “Here, No There” for the company in the spring to music of the Beatles. In it, he made a poignant solo for Miss Jimenez set to John Lennon’s “Julia,” a mute tribute to her mother’s death 11/2 years ago that she danced with life-affirming grace.

Miss Jimenez has danced in Mr. McIntyre’s summertime company since its inception. “Nothing stops her from giving absolutely everything she has,” he says. “Whether it’s her complete physicality or her incredible reserve of emotional depth, she’s part of the creation process, and I can’t imagine what more I would ask for. I could watch her do the same piece of choreography a thousand times and see new things in it because she’s continually accessing this deep well of creativity.”

Of all her roles, Miss Jimenez calls dancing in Mr. Webre’s full-length “Romeo and Juliet” her greatest experience. “I love doing the full lengths,” she says, “being a character and going through all those emotions.”

For his part, Mr. Webre observes that when he hired her, he knew she was talented but “didn’t know how far she’d take it.” Having her just one season later handling “the depth and nuances necessary for a full-length title character like Juliet was testament to how she met the challenge that was given to her.”

Mr. Webre says it is “bittersweet” for him to lose a collaborator and colleague, but he feels “at this stage, she’s clearly ready for any challenge. We hope to have her back as a guest — she has a standing invitation.”

Ted Brandsen, artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet, says he first heard of Miss Jimenez through his resident choreographer, Krzysztof Pastor, who held that same position in the Washington Ballet when Miss Day was director and alerted him to the talented dancer.

Last year, the director saw a videotape of her. “I was immediately captivated, not just by her beautiful lines and easy technique, but by her energy and freshness. It’s rare to see those qualities translate to the small screen.

“Going from a smaller company to a much larger one — the Dutch National Ballet has 80 dancers and gives 150 performances a year — will take Michele some time to adjust before she settles into the company’s rep,” Mr. Brandsen says. “But she will be doing featured roles from the beginning, starting with parts in Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ in September. It is too early to say how she will develop in our company, but I look forward to seeing her dancing on our fabulous stage in Amsterdam.”

Most of Miss Jimenez’s focus now is on realizing her dream-come-true of dancing in Europe.

“I don’t try to think too far ahead,” she says. “This career is so short — I want to just savor every moment. I’m not looking any further ahead than my first day of work.”

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