Ballerina Ursula Verduzco on Reaching Beyond the Dream
Ursula Verduzco has not had the glamorous career she dreamed of as a little girl. An artist of tremendous heart, she has nonetheless triumphed as a dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur and patron of the arts.
Ursula Verduzco trained at Ballet Austin Academy and the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City with full scholarship. Since graduating, she has danced with numerous companies including Staten Island Ballet, Benjamin Briones Ballet, New York City Opera, Eglevsky Ballet, Ajkun Ballet Theatre, Connecticut Ballet, New York Dance Theatre, Ad Hoc Ballet, and Ballet Neo among others. As the founder and director of the Latin Choreographers Festival, she has made a mission of supporting and presenting the work of talented Latin choreographers in NYC.
You are the daughter of artists, your father a singer, and mother an actress. What was it like to grow up in the rarefied atmosphere of the Performing Arts? Why did you choose to focus on dance rather than on singing or acting?
Yes, my family is a family of artists. Even my brother, who is now a pilot and English teacher, was involved in the arts when he was a child. We were a very unique family, and growing up in that environment was amazing and very fulfilling. I remember my house being always full of music, my father always playing the guitar—he is a singer but also a composer, musician and actor. Curled-up in bed beside him while he was rehearsing his work was just the most peaceful place I could find in my little world. I would fall asleep to the sound of his voice and guitar and wake up with his music in my ear… still now it moves me to tears to hear him sing and play, first because it is all just too beautiful, and second because, since he lives in Mexico, I miss him so very much.
My mom was an incredible influence on me. I believe she was the one who took me to my first ballet class when I was very little. Although I was only 4 years old, I still remember how amazing I used to feel when getting to the studio, and how much that first experience changed my life forever! My mom is a beautiful actress and I remember feeling so proud of her when I would go see her perform. She used to coach me and prepare me when I was acting and we had so much fun at it.
I have always been inclined to like music and acting, and even after acting for some years in my childhood on TV and in theatre and having a blast at it, I could not ignore the power and freedom my whole being felt when I was able to move to music. Even now after so many years of my career, I still feel this is the only thing I really want to live by doing.
You were born in Mexico and trained there from the age of four. You came to the United States for a summer course in 1993 and returned two years later to live. How has the move enabled you to grow as a dancer—and at what cost?
Living in the ‘Capital of Dance’ has just been amazing; working with so many talented people and being close to the best dance in the world makes you push for the best in yourself. The standard is just so high and even when getting to the top has to do not only with talent, but perseverance, professionalism and luck, when you are surrounded by the best and you aspire to that, your personal best will surface and it is amazing how much fulfillment you can get from it.
The cost of coming to New York for me has really just been the fact that my family is back in Mexico and I don’t see them very often. Since I arrived here I have been able to relate and mesh with this place in a way that I never really felt I wanted to go back; this is home to me now ( because what I love to do the most is here and I have a place doing it ). I miss the traditions of my country, but I miss my family the most. Sometimes I wish I could just go visit my mom, dad or brother in an instant and enjoy some dinner with them or go see a performance together. Lately, they have been able to come to visit me more often and that feels great!
In 2008 you founded the Latin Choreographers Festival, an annual event showcasing works by both veterans and newcomers. By any measure, this is an ambitious undertaking and enormous investment of time and energy. Five years on, what do you feel has been achieved through the Festival? Is such an event more necessary or less necessary in 2012 than it was when you started?
Yes, it is an ambitious undertaking and I have had an amazing time creating and growing this Festival. We have had, as of this year, about 50 choreographers and more than 80 dancers be part of the Festival. This year, the 5th Anniversary, we were able to give the opportunity to 16 choreographers and we had 2 different programs. It was a wild and exciting season. I believe the most important thing that has been achieved is the fact that now Latin choreographers have a place to go, a place to call home, a place where they know their work and their vision will be presented, respected, produced, promoted… in an environment that empowers who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go.
And hopefully as the years pass, more and more choreographers will know about it. I have had applications come from so many places: Mexico, Argentina, España, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, of course USA and so many other countries. This is very exciting to me because it says how much it was needed and how many Latin choreographers exist in this world that can potentially be a strong force in the dance world.
It is surely necessary to keep the Latin Choreographers Festival going, and growing! in that way more and more choreographers can be supported and empowered for who we are as individuals and also for our background. I am not just interested in supporting our Latin community but also the work of everybody, which is why I have also opened the Festival to any choreographer of any nationality to apply as guests. This way we can share and enjoy our cultural differences united by our common language—dance.
More recently, you co-founded the Mid Pointe Project, an initiative to help professional and retired dancers create new works and take their careers to a new level. Its slogan—United Beyond Dance—speaks volumes. What can dancers achieve as a group that they cannot do individually? How far have you come in realizing Mid Pointe’s mission?
Mid Pointe Project is a collaboration between Brian Norris, former Artistic Director of Grandiva Ballet and now Director of Men on Pointe, Benjamin Briones, Artistic Director of Benjamin Briones Ballet, and myself. We started this project wanting to help each other produce a performance where our choreography could be featured and the development of the mission of the project started growing from there.
I believe in collaboration and creating opportunities for myself and for others. That has been my commitment in the last years.
We as dancers are powerful creative beings and, unfortunately, are used to having opportunities handed to us; that is the culture of dance. Directors hire you and choreographers choose you to be a part of what we love to do, and in so many cases we could make ourselves be and feel not so powerful. I love the culture of dance in any style, I believe in the hierarchy of a company and in being selected, but I also believe we as dancers have an immense responsibility to continue creating our own future and the future of the next generations.
The perfect situation as a dancer for myself would be dance with a company or companies and at the same time have my own projects—can you imagine how fulfilling and how interesting a life that would be?
Lately, because of so many situations in my life, I have had the opportunity to experience moving in different ways and it is beautiful to see how much fuller my life is becoming because of it. We all have so much to give and so much talent; combining all those talents, the world of dance can reach farther and with more strength.
I was sorry to read that you suffered an ankle injury from which you are still recuperating. You have been quoted as saying, “It has been a challenging and an amazing experience to go through this. Believe me, at this point I am glad it happened to me.” How so?
This Sunday October 7th will be a year since my surgery, yes, it has been a challenging experience and also an amazing one. I have been very lucky to not have had any major injuries in my career until this time and also very lucky to have had an amazing group of people helping me go through it all, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries and Dr. Rose who performed my surgery and Erika Kalkan my Physical Therapist, my boyfriend, friends and family… a support group is always so important. It took me by surprise to see how hard it is to deal with your mind and your body when you are dealing with an injury that requires surgery and the recuperation time and the expectations. I am happy to say that my foot is good!!! It has taken some time but I am sure that is what my body needed—time.
Our career is so short compared with others and we concentrate so much on “achieving” and “becoming” that life passes by sometimes without our noticing and being aware of what we have already achieved and become, what we could have been enjoying already when we are still concentrating and obsessing about being better and more. There is a REALITY in dance, we have to work hard, with discipline and commitment to become first a dancer and then a successful dancer, but that should not take us away from noticing along the way our achievements and the enjoyment that our dance life gives us. I have been a very lucky lady and I consider myself successful in the sense that I live my life doing what I love! How many people in this world can say that? And on top of that I was given the opportunity to learn through hardship and cross over to the other side mentally stronger. I can’t wait to see where all of this takes me, I can’t wait to enjoy with all my attention and being present what lies ahead. There is so much to dance.
By most people’s standards you have not had a dream career, in the sense that opportunities have not come easily. Yet you, more than most dancers, have created opportunities—not only for yourself but for others. How has your life in dance turned out differently from what you might have imagined as a young ballerina in training? What advice would you give a young person who aspires to become a professional dancer?
When I was little I had the dream of becoming a beautiful ballerina, dancing for a major company and being very successful at it. This dream kept me going through so many years and through so many obstacles, and I cherish this memory because, thanks to it, I had the power and commitment to become a classical dancer. As time kept passing by and my professional career started, I made choices along the way that shaped the way my career would be. Wanting to stay in New York was a big decision that took me into the world of a freelance dancer. It is a path where there is no security since you don’t know where your next paycheck will be coming from, but it is also a life of interesting projects and so many different opportunities. That is probably where my need to create opportunities for myself and others surely was born.
The advice I would give to a young person who aspires to become professional is very simple to me: first, educate yourself. Look for the information. There is so much to learn; don’t wait for it to be given to you. Take charge of your life and future. Invest in yourself.
Be humble, listen and learn; without humility you will only get so far. Be respectful of your fellow dancers, teachers, directors, choreographers, stage crew… everybody! Because that is the best way to be and because you never know who will be your next opportunity.
Enjoy the ride. Believe in yourself, read, listen to music, go to performances to learn from the pros and meet people.
Respect your body; take care of it early so it pays you back later.
And dance your heart out every time!
I am excited to be performing again. This weekend I am performing a solo with Benjamin Briones Ballet, a new company in the making with beautiful dancers and talented choreographers on the roster. I am so thankful to Benjamin Briones, Artistic Director, for this, my comeback opportunity.
I also very recently premiered a new choreography that was commissioned by Nomad Contemporary Ballet (Kristen McGrew- Artistic Director). I am also very thankful for her belief in me and for the opportunity.
There are so many dreams still to be fulfilled and I am happy to keep dreaming. I started choreographing in 2009, am having a blast with it, and looking forward to more of that.
But mostly, as a dancer, I am so interested in feeling in my body the movement of different choreographers, their voices and their styles. I hope to have the opportunity to be transported to wherever they need me to go in their pieces; being an instrument for expression, movement and communication is my only drug of choice.
While it feels wonderful to be performing again, it is also nerve-racking in an amazing way: the energy that goes through me, the tiredness I feel after rehearsal, the soreness in my body, the unexpected in every movement, the twitches in my muscles as I sleep, the need to express myself by moving… Life is good when I dance through it.
To learn more about Ursula: http://www.ursulaverduzco.com/
More about the Latin Choreographer’s Festival: www.LatinChoreographersFestival.com
Photos courtesy of Rachel Neville.