“It’s important, if we’re going to survive as an art form, that we start reaching out to a younger audience.”
A decade ago, Gabriel Zertuche thought his dancing days were behind him. In 2005, he decided to move to San Antonio to live with friends. But within a year he began dancing for Ballet San Antonio, unable to give up his love of dance and performance.
“Ballet, I think for most artists, it’s one of those things that you can’t let go. It’s not something that you just throw on the back burner and forget about it,” Zertuche said. He started choreographing for the company and was promoted to ballet master. The company premiered Dracula, the first full-length ballet choreographed by Zertuche, in 2011. In 2012, at the age of 34, he was named artistic director–succeeding Mayra Worthen, who co-founded the company with Melissa Hale Coyle 27 years earlier.
Zertuche leads the company during a pivotal time for local performing arts and for Ballet San Antonio, one of three major resident companies at the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. During its inaugural season at the Tobin, the company increased its number of professional dancers from 21 to 34, and Zertuche expanded the company’s repertoire to four full-length productions. Amy Fote, a nationally renowned dancer formerly of Houston Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet was hired as ballet mistress.
In February, the company performed Ben Stevenson’s Romeo and Juliet in collaboration with the San Antonio Symphony. Stevenson, a legendary figure in the ballet world, is also an active member of the company’s advisory board and has collaborated with the company since 2013. For Romeo and Juliet, the company rented its sets and costumes from Houston Ballet, one of the biggest companies in the country. It is Ballet San Antonio’s most ambitious effort to date, rivaling major productions around the state in terms of artistry, professionalism, and the quality of its dancers.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” Zertuche told Out In SA just weeks before opening night.
The company’s recent accomplishments have not come without obstacles. Ticket sales cover just 30 percent of operating costs and the company has to rely on the generosity of foundations, individuals and corporations to meet its budget. “Courtney Barker, who is our executive director, has really done a terrific job of getting those kinds of grassroots efforts going, and getting corporate sponsorships and individual donors to get behind our company,” Zertuche said. “But we still have a long way to go.”
As the company raises it public profile, it continues to stay true to its mission of making ballet accessible to a wider audience that includes the city’s underserved populations. Every year the company distributes free tickets to area schools for its performances and invites community groups to its dress rehearsals. Last season, the company presented Ballet in the Park, a free performance at the newly renovated downtown Travis Park which Zertuche plans to make an annual event. Learning that Moves You is a program that sends the company’s professional dancers to the Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio and offers free ballet classes. In 2014, Ballet San Antonio announced that it would partner with the American Ballet Theatre’s Project Plié, which supports community outreach programs around the country.
Zertuche’s efforts to make ballet relevant to contemporary audiences is also reflected in the company’s programming selections. Last October, Ballet San Antonio presented Dracula for its first full-length production at the Tobin.
“It’s important, if we’re going to survive as an art form, that we start reaching out to a younger audience,” Zertuche said. “It’s great to see the diverse groups we have coming for something like Dracula. We have every kind of group that you can think of. I don’t want to stereotype, but we’ll have someone who comes in a tux, and maybe another who is a biker or something. You know what I mean? But it’s great. That’s something that to me is important– to provide those performances that diversify our audience.”
Zertuche, who grew up in Midland, Texas, hasn’t always found it easy to win over audiences. He began his professional training at Coleman Academy in his early teens, and performed with Midland Festival Ballet along with his mentor Susan Clark. He later trained in Chicago and Milwaukee before returning to dance in Midland. But there was a time when his family didn’t fully believe in his ability to make a career in the world of dance.
“At the time, I think parents are very protective of their children. They wanted the best for me and felt ballet wasn’t something I could make a career out of,” Zertuche said. “Were they mean about it? No, absolutely not. Did they provide for me? Absolutely. They bought me all my shoes, tights, whatever things I needed for rehearsal. Did they support it as a career? No.”
Zertuche envisions a day when Ballet San Antonio will gain national, even international, standing. He plans to build on the company’s new momentum and pursue more high-profile collaborations. “We are on the right path,” he said. “Every season we build and get stronger and stronger.”
“When people come to our performances,” Zertuche said, “I like to sit in the audience and hear what people are saying. I hear a lot of great things. And it’s nice to hear people say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had this in our city!’”
March 27- 29, Ballet San Antonio presents Balanchine, featuring new pieces choreographed by Zertuche as well as George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations.” Show information and tickets are available at tobincenter.org.
Online: Julian Ledezma’s photos of Ballet San Antonio in rehearsal.