A few years after Mary Carmen Catoya began dancing with Miami City Ballet in 1999, then-artistic director Edward Villella mounted two George Balanchine ballets he’d never done before. One was Ballo Della Regina, a devilishly difficult ballerina showcase; the other was Ballet Imperial, a grand, sweeping classical gem.
“Edward said he never had the dancer to do these ballets before,” Catoya says. “And now he did.”
In her 16 years as one of the leading lights of Miami City Ballet, Catoya has danced everything from gleaming classical roles to virtuoso pas de deux to thundering modern dance and even comedy. She has been an integral part of the troupe for over half its history.
On Sunday afternoon, Catoya gave her last performance with MCB, leading Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations with the kind of beautifully polished, warmly radiant dancing that has made her one of the company’s most beloved performers. The full house at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts applauded each of her solos, giving her a long standing ovation at the finish.
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Afterward, Catoya wept onstage behind the curtain as company members crowded around to offer their congratulations.
“I felt so many emotions,” Catoya said the next day, sitting in a café in Coral Gables with her husband, Wilman Gamero. She praised the other dancers, her frequent partner Renato Penteado, and the people working backstage. A sleekly bound book of photos of her many performances, given to her as a farewell gift at a post-show party organized by the dancers, was filled with notes from company members saying that she had been an inspiration and would be missed.
“I am very sad to leave my family,” Catoya said. “At the same time, I felt very happy to have had such a beautiful family … There’s an endless number of people to thank.”
Miami City Ballet did not renew Catoya’s contract for next season. At 41, she has reached an age when most ballet dancers, worn down by the extraordinary physical demands of their art form, have retired to teaching or character roles. Catoya is also the mother of a 20-month-old son, Alexander.
But she remains lean as a whippet, and she dances with almost the same speed, poise, extension, balance and athleticism as a decade ago. Even for a ballet dancer, she is extraordinarily disciplined, taking two to three classes a day during the company’s summer breaks, and she has been one of its strongest, most technically accomplished members.
“To me, she looked just like the first time I saw her,” Sally Ann Kennedy, a fellow principal dancer at MCB during Catoya’s first seasons, said at Sunday’s matinee. “She’s just amazing — her technique. She and I did a lot of the same roles, and I always watched her to see how to do things.”
Mike Eidson, a longtime ballet supporter who has served as president and chairman of the group’s board, was also there to see one of his favorite ballerinas for the last time.
“She’s wonderful in every way, as a person and as a dancer,” Eidson said. “She’s not a diva in any way. All the younger dancers look up to her.”
A review in the Ottawa Citizen of Catoya in Tschaikovsky pas de deux during MCB’s recent tour of Canada said that she and Penteado “made the piece’s formidable challenges seem effortless” and called the two “as adorable as they are brilliant.”
A company spokesperson declined to say why Catoya’s contract was not being renewed. A press release announcing her departure praised her talents and contributions to the company, and it included this statement from artistic director Lourdes Lopez: “Mary Carmen has thrilled, entertained and enchanted not only our South Florida audiences, but also our audiences all over the U.S. and abroad. She will now share her artistry with new audiences.”
Asked why she would no longer continue with the troupe, Catoya shrugged.
“I have to be grateful for my career and to Miami City Ballet for allowing me to construct my career,” she said.
Catoya was a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Venezuela when Villella hired her — in part because, at 4-foot-11, she was small enough to be a partner for Luis Serrano, a short and dynamic Cuban principal dancer he had just taken on, and in part because her superb technique would be an asset to the 19th century ballets and major Balanchine works he was starting to add to MCB’s repertoire.
“Working with you was a pure delight,” Villella wrote in a letter printed in Catoya’s photo book. “I was overwhelmed by your unbelievable passion, dedication, love of dance and your amazing work ethic. What your presence did for Miami City Ballet and more importantly, for our audience, was unparalleled.”
Her first major role at MCB, however, was not one of the virtuoso classical parts Catoya had been dancing since her early teens. Instead, Villella cast Catoya in the lead of Emeralds, the dreamlike, swooningly lyrical first section of Jewels, which the company was taking on tour to New Jersey. Catoya’s performance earned raves from critics around the Northeast. But that wasn’t why Catoya found Emeralds so satisfying.
“What I like is to have the kind of part where things are not that easy,” Catoya says. “The challenge, the passion of working, and saying to myself, I earned this with my work and my power, when no one saw that I could do this. Edward knew how to find the things in me that others couldn’t. He always gave me the opportunity to grow.”
One of MCB’s purest classical dancers, Catoya often danced bravura roles: Diamonds in Jewels, the Sugarplum Fairy in Nutcracker, Swan Lake (both the Balanchine and the Petipa versions), Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes and Tschaikovsky pas de deux, and his grand, classical works like Symphony in Three Movements. She helped MCB open its first season at the Adrienne Arsht Center in 2006 as Kitri, the flying, fan-snapping minx at the center of Don Quixote, which became a kind of signature part for her. Her gift for comedy was also showcased in Coppelia. She was the sultry lead in the quickstep section of Villella’s The Neighborhood Ballroom. But she also did modern pieces, like the darting ballerina role in Twyla Tharp’s thundering In the Upper Room, and the choreographer’s swoony ballroom extravaganza Nine Sinatra Songs. Catoya’s exquisite musicality and ability to delicately sculpt the rhythm and shape of classical steps were ideal for Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and Raymonda Variations.
The Brazilian Penteado, 34, has been Catoya’s most regular partner for 13 years. They joined the company at the same time, and used to live across the hall from each other in the same apartment building, rehearsing in a mix of Spanish and Portuguese.
“She had way more experience — so she taught me how to turn her, lift her,” Penteado says. “Nowadays, we don’t need to talk much because it comes so naturally.”
Praising the discipline that has kept her technique honed to a bright edge, Penteado says, “To be 41 and still so strong technically is amazing. She can do things even younger dancers can’t do. She’s a workaholic … People who don’t know her might think she’s shy. But she’s just very concentrated on her job. She’s obsessed with dance.”
Catoya says the two were like brother and sister.
“Renato was one of the most complete partners that a ballerina could dream of,” she says. “It was my privilege to dance with him.”
Catoya plans to continue performing. On May 16, she’ll dance Sleeping Beauty with the Gulfshore Ballet in Fort Myers, a school run by former MCB principal dancers Iliana Lopez and Franklin Gamero, her brother-in-law. In July, she will perform in a gala program of Latin American and European dancers organized by American Ballet Theater dancer Hernan Cornejo in Los Angeles.
“You always have to take the best from every situation,” she says. “I’m happy for the work, the love, the passion I’ve had. I don’t think I’ve reached the end of my career.”