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Lupe Serrano, ballerina who soared with strength and radiance, dies at 92

Her performances engrossed audiences. One implored her to perform her solo a second time in lieu of taking a bow.

Lupe Serrano rehearses at Ballet Theater studio in New York in 1962. She was rehearsing for a TV appearance with Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. (Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Lupe Serrano, a prima ballerina for nearly two decades with the American Ballet Theatre who dazzled audiences with flawless technique and startling power, soaring higher and turning faster than many men, died Jan. 16 at a hospital in Syosset, N.Y. She was 92.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, her daughter Veronica Lynn said.

Ms. Serrano’s performances in “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “La Fille Mal Gardée,” “Aurora’s Wedding” and other classic ballets frequently bewitched audiences. During a tour in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, one audience showered Ms. Serrano with rapturous applause during a dozen curtain calls. Another implored her to perform her solo a second time in lieu of taking a bow.

“Miss Serrano is a dancer of muscle rather than line,” New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes wrote in 1968, explaining her unique appeal. “Her physique is tightly knit, her style, although often surprisingly delicate, has a tenseness, a dynamic potential” that produces “excitement rather than unalloyed lyricism.”

Ms. Serrano joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1953, becoming the company’s first Hispanic principal dancer. Before that, she danced professionally in Mexico and toured Central America with Alicia Alonso, the founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian ballet superstar, was among the admirers of Ms. Serrano’s performances in the Soviet Union. After defecting at a Paris airport in 1961, Nureyev asked Ms. Serrano to dance with him. They performed “Le Corsaire” during an episode of “The Bell Telephone Hour” on NBC in 1962.

In 1965, Allen Hughes, another Times dance critic, pronounced her “one of the greatest ballerinas dancing today.” Reviewing Ms. Serrano’s performance in “Giselle,” Hughes wrote that “as usual, her technique was flawless, but it never became an end in itself.”

“She seemed to know,” he added, “just how much time she had in which to execute every movement, no matter how great or how small, and how to make the best use of that time to achieve an expressive result.”

Dancing with the music, rather than to it, Hughes wrote that Ms. Serrano’s exquisite timing was aided by how in sync she was with the conductor — her husband, Kenneth Schermerhorn, the music director of the American Ballet Theatre, whom she married in 1957. Schermerhorn conducted many of her performances.

“He was ready,” Hughes wrote, “with big rallentendos when they were needed for expansive lifts and with accelerandos when fleet footwork was involved.”

Guadalupe Martínez Desfassiaux Serrano was born Dec. 7, 1930, in Santiago, Chile, where her father, a Spanish musician, had been touring with her mother, whom he met in Mexico. She began dancing almost as soon as she could walk, demanding, when she turned 3, that her birthday party guests watch her perform.

Her parents signed her up for dance classes. At age 4 or 5, she was already dancing on pointe.

“The toe shoes were as big as an adult size, very stuffed with rabbit fur,” Ms. Serrano told Ballet Review in 2007.

At age 13, the family settled in Mexico and she began training with the Mexico City Ballet. The following year, she joined the company’s production of “Les Sylphides.” She quickly became a star, touring with Alonso not long after she turned 18. After briefly returning to Mexico, she moved to New York to continue her career.

Ms. Serrano retired from dancing in 1971, turning to teaching. She taught ballet at colleges and dance schools in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania while conducting master classes at companies such as the San Francisco Ballet, the Minnesota Dance Theatre, the Cleveland Ballet, and the Washington Ballet, where she was artistic associate.

She also taught at the American Ballet Theatre.

Her marriage to Schermerhorn ended in divorce. Survivors include their daughters, Veronica Lynn of Locust Valley, N.Y., and Erica Ancona of Big Sky, Mont.; and five grandchildren.

In 2009, Dance Magazine asked Ms. Serrano what qualities she valued in performers.

“I appreciate honesty and passion, a willingness to please, but also good taste,” she said. “I don’t like dancers who throw it at you. Sensitive performers can make you believe what they are trying to tell you.”

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