ballet

Persistence pays off for new Miami City Ballet dancer Christina Spigner

 

If you go

Miami City Ballet’s Program IV: Broadway and Ballet will be performed April 26-28 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and May 2-5 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Ziff Ballet Opera House. $20 -$175;

305-929-7010; miamicityballet.org


Special to The Miami Herald

Christina Spigner starts her day feasting on egg whites and oatmeal.

Then, she prepares her meal for her time away from her Miami Beach apartment: generally, a turkey sandwich, green salad, protein shakes and dried fruit.

Before walking the 1½ blocks to Miami City Ballet studios, she takes time out for a daily devotional spiritual moment.

That routine keeps her grounded day after day as she pushes her body to become the best.

Her love, talent and dedication to the dance genre that dates back to Renaissance, Italy has paid off. Come May 6, she will join the company’s corps de ballet for the 2013-2014 dance season – one of four new dancers to the company for the upcoming season, and the only African American ballerina for this season.

She blushes at a question about dating and hanging out, as most 19-year-olds would be doing.

For her it’s about discipline and dedication, not partying on South Beach.

“ It takes a lot of self-motivation,” said Christina, about being a ballerina. “It is very hard on your body. You have to be in love with it.”

Landing a performing arts job with the Miami City Ballet is no small feat. As with many dancers, her is a story of overcoming major odds to follow her passion – leaving her family home and friends in a small Arizona town at age 15 to live in a strange city, overcoming what could have been a career-ending injury and choosing an extremely competitive genre that not only requires an extraordinary level of commitment but have very few roles for a young black ballerina.

Experienced ballet dancers say performing is more of calling than a job. But it is job, classified under Sports and Entertainment by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it is among one of the most injury prone occupations. Ballet dancing combines athleticism, technical detail and grace to create an art form that is grueling on the body.

Careers are generally short.

“Your body is your instrument so when that goes, it’s over,” said Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez, who noticed Christina’s promise and promoted her. “You start early and you may end early.’’

Geneva and Bruce Spigner exposed their three daughters to everything, including gymnastics, classical piano, jazz,  tap, jazz, ballet and contemporary dance.

Christina started at age 3. She focused her studies at Master Ballet Academy and Ballet Arizona. It was at Ballet Arizona that Christina’s path crossed with ballet instructor Kim Sonderegger, who quickly recognized what she described as a “a big talent.”

In 2008, Sonderegger left Arizona and joined the Miami City Ballet School as an instructor. She did not forget her young charge back home. She alerted Edward Villela about the young lady who showed so much promise.

Within a year, a 15-year-old Christina and her mother had packed up for Miami, leaving the rest of the family behind in Paradise Valley, AZ.

“I thought the former director Edward Villella would like her, and he did,” said Sonderegger, who left Miami City Ballet School last June. “You never know if the child will continue, if her interest changes or priorities change or injuries but she had the talent and desire.”

Christina was soon promoted as a student apprentice. Then, the unthinkable happened. About a year or so into her apprenticeship, excruciating pain took over her life. That led to a diagnosis that surgery was needed – a hip arthroscopy, and other medical procedures to alleviate the pain.

As Geneva Spigner rolled her daughter’s wheelchair out of the hospital in 2011, she had one major concern: whether she her daughter would ever walk again, let alone dance.

“Christina was in a wheelchair!” said her mother, now back in Arizona with the rest of the family. “It was unbelievable to see.”

A year later, with faith, determination, and much physical therapy, Christina was back dancing, this time as Miami City Ballet’s only company apprentice for the 2012-2013 season.

 This season, Christina’s stage time included performances in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and most recently in Program III: The Master’s La Valse ballets.

She is an understudy in Program IV: Broadway and Ballet, which opens at the Broward Center April 26-28; and culminates at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami May 2-5.   

The final program of the Miami City Ballet's 2012-2013 season, Program IV features Dances at a Gathering, a ballet that celebrates dance and dancers and Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which gives a nod to Broadway-style performances.

Lopez, who appointed Christina, mulled over the question of why dancers choose ballet.

“It is a calling,’’ she said. “It is at a level that I don’t understand. It may be cultural, something you read or odd circumstances. Other interests didn’t call them.”

 For those who do commit to ballet, of the 5,000 or so who graduate annually from ballet schools around the country, very few make it into professional companies, said Virginia Johnson, founding member and artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which closed in 2004 because of financial difficulties, but the company is performing again this season.

“I commend Lourdes Lopez for finding space for this young dancer,” said Johnson. She has 18 dancers in the Dance Theatre of Harlem training school founded 44 years ago by dancer extraordinaire Arthur Mitchell.

When the school closed, it lost a generation of African American dancers, Johnson said. But, “soon there will be an outstanding pipeline of dancers. It takes a long time to develop a dancer to a professional level.”

 There are other barriers for any aspiring dancer, including a huge financial outlay, for tuition, living expenses, travel, medical insurance. Tuition scholarships are available from some schools, including Miami City ballet.

Spigner’s parents paid for her first year at Miami City Ballet School,.

The Spigners didn’t hesitate to allow their daughter to follow her dream.

Besides the financial commitment, family support is crucial, said Karina Felix Fedele, publisher and editor of Dance Magazine Florida.

“The family needs to understand the student will spend most of her time in a studio and that being on a constant diet is a requirement. This could be very trying for a dancer.”

And positive role models are not so prevalent for black ballet dancers.

Christina said Misty Copeland, 30, a black soloist ballerina in the American Ballet Theater, is her inspiration. She is well aware that there are few people in ballet who look like her, but that may be changing.

“I get so many calls looking for black dancers,’’ Johnson said. “Things are changing for the better.”

While diversifying the ballet and broadening the audience pool are goals of Lopez, who was named artistic director a year ago, she was attracted to Christina’s talent, commitment, stage presence and teachability.

Meanwhile, Geneva Spigner left her daughter in Miami a year ago, when she turned 18. Now, Christina considers herself a South Floridian and the dancers who she spends most of her time with each day are her family members away from home.

“It’s beautiful, the weather is gorgeous all the time and I like to hear people speaking Spanish, Portuguese, French, Creole. It is so cool. I like the culture here.”

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