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Leading Classical Ballet Dancer Fernando Bujones, 50, Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2005

Fernando Bujones, 50, a prodigy who became one of the leading male classical dancers in international ballet and who once declared, "Baryshnikov has the publicity, I have the talent," died Nov. 10 at a hospital in Miami. He had melanoma.

Trained initially by talented relatives, Mr. Bujones was soon scooped up by one of the finest dance schools in New York. At 17, he became the youngest principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre. Not long after, he danced the romantic work "Les Sylphides" with Royal Ballet prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, becoming one of her youngest partners.

In 1974, Mr. Bujones received the gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, considered the top contest in the field. He danced variations from "Swan Lake," "La Fille Mal Garde," "Le Corsaire," "Les Sylphides" and "Fancy Free," the last a rare break from the classical works with which he was so identified.

Head judge Yuri Grigorovich, artistic director of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, crowned him the first American winner of the competition. Mr. Bujones also received an additional citation for "highest technical achievement."

Critics noted his dazzling precociousness, peerless grace and clean jumps. New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote that Mr. Bujones was "the greatest American classical dancer of his generation." In time, he danced with some of the finest ballerinas of the period, including Natalia Makarova, Carla Fracci, Cynthia Gregory, Gelsey Kirkland, Marcia Hayde and Yoko Morishita.

The same year he won at Varna, he was eclipsed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Kirov Ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union and joined American Ballet Theatre. A celebrity by virtue of his talent, political status and charisma -- he briefly was a film star -- Baryshnikov overshadowed Mr. Bujones as the leading personality of the ballet company.

In anger, Mr. Bujones let his famous line slip, also noting that he was seven years younger than his rival and that "I am in that fact better than him."

Baryshnikov became artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, furthering tensions that led Mr. Bujones to quit in 1985. After Baryshnikov left the post, Mr. Bujones had an acclaimed return as a guest artist. He also freelanced with companies from Boston to Brazil.

Mr. Bujones was born March 9, 1955, in Miami, the son of Cuban immigrants. His parents divorced when he was 5, and he moved with his mother, a former dancer, to Havana.

She took direction of his career, at first by enrolling the frail and sickly youth in ballet classes led by the formidable Alicia Alonso. Later, after returning to Miami, he trained with his cousin, Zeida Cecilia-Mendez, a seasoned dancer.

Mr. Bujones's mother arranged for him to audition for a New York City Ballet star, Jacques d'Amboise, who was then passing through Miami in a touring dance extravaganza. The audition impressed d'Amboise, who recommended that Mr. Bujones, then 11, take summer classes with the School of American Ballet in New York. He supported himself on fellowships and scholarships while studying relentlessly under two key mentors, Stanley Williams and Andre Eglevsky.

Dance impresario George Balanchine offered Mr. Bujones a spot in the New York City Ballet at age 14, but he turned it down because he feared he was too young to execute the varied repertoire well.

The next year, he debuted at Carnegie Hall, dancing a pas de deux from "Don Quixote" with Kirkland. For his graduation appearance, he danced the role of Siegfried in Act One of "Swan Lake." Once more, he refused Balanchine's entreaty to join his company.

He signed on with American Ballet Theatre, saying, "While I admire Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins, I felt that I really needed the classics. I did want to do the Prince roles."

He went on to charm many critics in a series of solos, and he was proclaimed an "18-year-old superstar" at the London Palladium when he teamed with Eleanor D'Antuono for a pas de deux in "Don Quixote" and "Diana and Acteon."

Baryshnikov's arrival at American Ballet Theatre changed everything. When his rival became artistic director, Mr. Bujones felt increasingly resentful of the lack of new parts tailored for him. He reportedly refused to replace an injured Baryshnikov in a special two-week season unless the company got French choreographer Maurice Bejart to write him a ballet.

Company officials likened this to blackmail, and Mr. Bujones countered: "I simply demanded a new work for myself like Mr. Baryshnikov has repeatedly done for himself in the past. I believe he has three new works for himself in this coming season. Unfortunately, Ballet Theatre's management is not as generous towards other artists' needs."

After resigning, he was a guest artist with the Joffrey Ballet, performed in many high-profile engagements in European capitals and had a long run as guest artist with the Boston Ballet. He made the transition to artistic director in the early 1990s, accepting short-lived and unhappy stints in Tampa and Jackson, Miss., before settling into a career at the Orlando Ballet in 2000. He was credited with greatly improving the quality of offerings and creating innovative choreography in classical and modern styles.

His marriage to Marcia Kubitschek Bujones, daughter of former Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Peruvian dancer Maria Arnillas Bujones of Fort Lauderdale and Orlando; a daughter from his first marriage; his parents; a half brother; and two half sisters.

Asked about his legacy in 2000, he responded in the third person: "He can dramatically alter the artistic standards of a company by the outstanding knowledge and experience his career has enriched him with. Moreover, his humane, caring qualities place him in a class of his own. Every dancer who has worked with him has only the best to say about him."

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