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Dance Museum director envisions facility presenting other art forms

Dance Museum director envisions facility presenting other art forms

Raul Martinez didn’t plan to live in the United States. A native of Mexico, he imagined he would liv
Dance Museum director envisions facility presenting other art forms
Raul Martinez at the new Mr. and Mrs. Ronald A. Riggi Theater at the National Museum of Dance.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

Raul Martinez didn’t plan to live in the United States.

A native of Mexico, he imagined he would live in Europe after he retired as a professional ballet dancer.

But when he moved to Saratoga Springs more than a decade ago, he found a new career at the National Museum of Dance.

Martinez developed the museum’s School of the Arts, which teaches ballet and other forms of dance, and became the school’s director. This past summer, after museum director Donna Skiff retired, Martinez stepped into that role, too.

In late June, under his direction, the museum unveiled “Dancers in Film,” a new multi-media room featuring the movie moves of John Travolta, Ann-Margret and other stars.

This month, three events are scheduled in the new Riggi Theater, a black box theater with a 20-by-12-foot stage, 48 bright red seats and room for 40 extra chairs.

And last week, the School of the Arts began rehearsals for its first-ever performance of “The Nutcracker,” set for Dec. 20 and Dec. 21.

Riggi Theater

WHERE: National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs

EVENTS: 8 p.m. Friday, Mop & Bucket Company, $20; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, “The Taming of the Shrew,” Adirondack Shakespeare Company, $22, $20 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and under; 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, Opera at the Dance Museum, open bar and appetizers, $80.

MORE INFO: www.dancemuseum.org, 584-2225, Facebook. (From November to May, the museum will be open on Saturdays only)

Martinez grew up in Mexico City, and is a graduate of the National School of Dance at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City.

His performances in Latin America, the United States and Europe include roles with the Vienna State Opera Ballet and Mexico’s Neoclassical Ballet of Latin America.

When he retired from dancing at age 31, Martinez earned a degree in sociology and studied website technology.

He has taught dance at private academies, high schools and colleges in Mexico and the United States.

Before he came to Saratoga Springs, Martinez was living in Texas. He moved to this area with his wife when she got a job at Empire State College.

Now divorced, Martinez lives in Saratoga Springs with his girlfriend, fashion designer Kim Vanyo.

When The Gazette interviewed Martinez, his dog Shrek, a white Maltese, walked beside him during a museum tour and then took a snooze on a couch in his office.

“He’s the mascot of the school and the mascot of the museum,” Martinez says.

Q: When did you start working here?

A: I’ve been here for around 12 years. I offered my services to update the website when I moved to Saratoga, and to teach and get involved in ballet. I assumed there was a school here but there was nothing. The studios were used just in the summer for NYSSSA, the New York State summer program. So I started updating the website in exchange for using the studios for classes.

Q: Why did the museum build the Riggi Theater?

A: We needed a space, a forum, to be able to get into different art forms other than just dance, like music, drama, lectures and film. It’s going to be limited to certain kind of dances, like flamenco dance, tango dance, that we can do in small spaces. And we can have all kinds of performances. Opera, piano, jazz, open mic. The possibilities are endless. And of course, we have top-notch technology. We can control the lights and sound system with an iPad.

Q: The new exhibit, “Dancers in Film,” is high-tech, with five screens of moving images. Is the museum changing its approach to exhibits?

A: We’re trying to do everything more interactive. We’re ready to embrace technology and apply it to exhibits. Eventually I’d like to add interactive projection.

Q: How does that work?

A: For example, you are in an opera house stage, and you have a ballet master or a dancer. And he’s going to instruct you on how to do some steps. And then you try to mimic that, and you can see yourself in there. When you stop, your body or your silhouette will keep going. You can put your whole body or your whole image in, an avatar, it can keep looping and going and going and going. In a way, you are making art and dance yourself. We don’t want a static museum. We want a moving museum.

Q: What kind of exhibits are you thinking about?

A: One of the exhibits that we’re planning, it’s about how dance improves the performance of professional athletes. If you think about Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he used to take ballet classes. I want people that are into sports to realize that dancers have powerful bodies.

Q: How has the school evolved?

A: The school is the most important program of the dance museum, and we’re in our eighth year. We have it going on all year, and we have students from 3-year-olds to 92. It took time to build up numbers and then to be able to attract good instructors. We try to be a real school, teaching technique, not a recital school focusing on performances and costumes and things like that.

Q: What is the school’s focus?

A: Our mission is completely educational. Ultimately, we have 500 students, and maybe two will become professional dancers. But it would be great if 450 loved it and eventually they become our sponsors and supporters of the performing arts. That’s the most important aspect, that we are creating a great experience for families and parents, to keep coming. And of course now we’re attracting hard-core kids who love ballet and dance. So now we have the recreational kids that want to be here once a week, but also we have kids that are here every day.

Q: Do your instructors have professional training?

A: They performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem or the PHILADANCO! dance company. Our latest instructor is a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Miranda Weese. She started last year. And this year, because I’m teaching less, she’s teaching more. I teach three classes per week.

Q: And your first “Nutcracker”?

A: Yes, it’s our first production. Every year, for the last seven years, people have asked me: Are we doing ‘Nutcracker?’ Are we doing ‘Nutcracker’? And I always refused to do it. And that is because if you do ‘Nutcracker,’ from the very beginning you have to start working that production. That sacrifices technique time. Not to mention all the logistics. I thought it wasn’t the right time to do it. This time I decided to do it. We’re not doing the whole thing, we’re doing the second act. It’s going to be here in our studios.

Q: How many performers will there be?

A: Around 53. We opened auditions to our students and students from other schools.

I’m going to be Mother Ginger. The kids, they want to do my makeup, my nails and the wigs. [He laughs] I said, ‘OK, all right, yes.’

Q: Saratoga City Ballet closed this year. Saratoga Ballet Academy also closed this year. How have these changes impacted your school?

A: Saratoga City Ballet and Saratoga Academy were the most serious schools in town. And they were in the business for a long, long time. They attracted kids that really wanted to dance, because they were mainly ballet schools. Our school is a ballet school but also offers modern, jazz, step dance and belly dancing. We have to offer all that because we represent the dance museum as a whole, although ballet is our strength. We have kids that come from not only the schools that closed, but from Albany. We have five, six kids that drive from Vermont.

Q: How is the school connected to the museum?

A: We’re part of openings and events. All of our students are going to get a membership card, so officially they know that they belong to the whole institution. They have free access to the museum any time they want. The parents and the students have to commit to do volunteer work, 12 hours per month, in the museums or studios.

Q: How did you get interested in dance?

A: My parents. Especially my father, he was always fond of classical music. They took me to ‘The Nutcracker’ once. I was 8 or 9, and I just loved it. I started taking dance classes when I was 11. There was this ballet school two blocks from my parents’ house. I saw the dancers jumping and doing the spins. All the manly stuff. And my mother took me, thinking I wouldn’t like it. And I did like it. One of the instructors saw an ability in me. Within a few months, she recommended to my mom to take me to the School of Fine Arts to see if I could get a scholarship. So she took me there, and I was accepted. And then with six years of intense training, I was already dancing professionally when I was 17.

Q: Did you deal with male ballet dancer stereotypes?

Q: Yes. If you are a boy involved in fine arts, that makes you weak or feminine. Or there is the assumption that you are gay. Because you have a different kind of soul, a different way of expressing yourself. And in Mexico, you encounter that. But no worse than kids bullying each other here. I was never bullied by anybody. I could do the spins. I could get the cutest girls. [He laughs] My friends in the neighborhood, they envied me because I was always surrounded by beautiful ballerinas.

Q: What were your favorite roles?

A: They were called character roles. And for the kind of body that I have or had — big thighs and muscle — to jump and spin. Not a principal-looking kind. A “corsair,” which is a slave, it’s savage and very powerful. When I was a dancer, I wasn’t really a soloist, with the main role. However, when I had some gigs with small companies, I used to dance whatever I wanted to dance. One of my favorites was called ‘Le Spectre de la Rose.’ It’s the Spirit of the Rose, but it’s a male. This girl falls in love and falls asleep with a rose in her hand. And all of a sudden, the Spirit of the Rose shows up in the window and starts dancing. And she’s asleep and they start dancing together. He’s dressed in pink. It’s beautiful because he is so powerful but also so delicate. And so masculine and tender.

Q: Do have family in Mexico?

A: Yes, I do. I have my father, my mother and a sister and a brother and two nephews.

Q: Do you visit often?

A: I try to go every winter.

Q: What do you like to do when you are not at the dance museum?

A: I love to travel. I like to spend time with friends. I’m always fascinated by technology. And I’m a big fan of The New York Times and Atlantic magazine.

Q: Your middle name is Paniagua?

A: It means bread and water. It’s my mom’s last name. It’s not super-common. That name was for the peasants, for the people that carried the water and bread for the noblemen.

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]

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