SANTA FE, N.M. — His voice is lower, the words more measured and he moves with a feline grace.
Fresh from the barre at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Velarde’s Ruben Rascon bears the confident poise of experience. No longer possessed by a teenager’s fidgety energy, he folded himself into a chair off a rehearsal hall in one of the barns at Santa Fe’s National Dance Institute recently.
When Rascon left New Mexico for Russia in September 2011, his American teachers warned him.
‘They said (the Russians) were hard and cold. They said everybody drinks,” the 20-year-old dancer said. “They said I would be shunned as a foreigner.”
Intimidated at first, Rascon landed in Moscow speaking no Russian and knowing no one. It was his first trip out of the country. “I was very frustrated for a couple of months,” he said.
Rascon will give a benefit performance at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7, at the James A. Little Theatre to raise money for the same program that funded his own Russian journey. Afterward, he’ll fly to New York, where he has accepted an apprenticeship with the New Jersey Ballet.
Rascon’s journey from Velarde to one of the most famous companies in the world is as unlikely as one of Baryshnikov’s famous leaps. Removed from his birth mother when he was 4, he was bounced between foster homes like unwanted mail, finally landing in the arms of Velarde’s Rudy and Gayle Rascon when he was 7. The Rascons already had six adopted children, putting their boys in karate class while their girls studied dance. Diagnosed with ADHD, Rascon was too busy kicking and jumping around to concentrate on self-defense, so his new mother stuck him in ballet class.
He hated it. “I was just scared,” he said. “Everybody was watching me.”
His mother pushed him to try it again. This time, he focused more on having fun than on pleasing an audience.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It was, ‘Oh, cool, they’re looking at me.’ ”
He leapt from jazz to tap to modern to ballet, juggling multiple classes every week. His curly dark hair and high-altitude cheekbones meshed with an emerging technique, transforming him into an audience magnet. He studied in summer programs in New York, Philadelphia, Texas and Boston, most of it on scholarships. He moved east during high school to attend the University of North Carolina School for the Arts and the Boston Ballet School.
Last year, fund-raisers netted the $20,000 he needed for nine months of Russian tuition and expenses.
The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, founded in 1773 by Catherine II, is grounded in the fundamentals of strict technique.
For Rascon, the schedule was brutal.
He took daily Russian language lessons on top of full days of dance with additional nighttime practice. It took him three months before he could comfortably converse. The teachers were strict. But, he said, “Behind the intense criticism is a huge passion for them wanting you to succeed. Immediately after praising you, they criticize you on another level.”
Russian ballet is famous for its precision. Rascon once spent 3-1/2 hours working solely on head movements.
“American ballet, I’ve learned, is more expressive,” he said. “You find more freedom within the movement.”
When he wasn’t practicing his pirouettes and plies, Rascon played tourist, visiting Red Square and the Kremlin. He bought his mother some Russian nesting dolls and saw the Bolshoi perform for less than $1. As his grasp of the Russian language deepened, he started to make friends.
“They enjoyed making fun of a foreigner who didn’t speak their language,” he said with a laugh.
But, in turn, his fellow students asked for help with their English.
The trip shaped Rascon into a more mature adult, said Roger Montoya of Moving Arts Española, who taught him for two years.
“I see such a more refined quality” in his dance, Montoya said. “He’s trying to wear it.”
The dancer acknowledged a touch of homesickness, specifically for his family. But mostly he missed New Mexico’s clean, fresh air. Everybody smoked, even the dancers taking breaks from class.
This summer, six of his Russian classmates flew to New York, where it was Rascon’s turn to play tour guide. He took them to Times Square, where they were awed by the lights, the sounds, and the people. He admits to a bit of gloating; none of them spoke English.
“It was fun to see the shoe on the other foot,” he said.
Rascon keeps in touch with his Russian colleagues through Facebook. He wants to return to the land where ballet inspires the kind of reverence Americans reserve for football, he said.