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By Nancy Wozny
Houston Ballet’s Karina González lights up the stage.
Karina González stamped her foot, hung upside down on a wooden horse, and transformed from a temper tantrum– throwing girl to an elegant woman before our eyes. Houston audiences got a taste of Venezuelan verve when González took the stage as Kate in Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew, her first major role since joining Houston Ballet last season. “Shrew was so hard, it was my first stab at Cranko. I had to stop being pretty to be mean with my whole body,” says González, 25. “Comedy is tough; I had to build the character from the beginning. After dancing Kate, I knew I had officially arrived.” So did Houston.
González proved equally at home on the contemporary landscape. Despite it being her first go at the Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s odd shapes, she looked natural, adding a lightness and delicate whimsy to his signature quirkiness. “I didn’t see that coming,” read her body language when she suddenly tipped upside down in Jorma Elo’s frisky ONE/end/ONE. Elo’s swerving, air-candy dives come out of nowhere with González’s unstudied brand of dancing. “Dancing Jorma is like entering another world,” she says. “One movement will be so soft, then the next sharp, followed by some hip hop steps. I had to work hard to get it right.”
She brought the same unfussy innocence to Wheeldon’s pristine sculptural shapes in Rush. She knows when to turn down the flourishes to highlight Wheeldon’s kinetic architecture.
Petite, with a wide-eyed expressive face, González brings on the wonder, whether it’s a contemporary or classic ballet. Effortless technique and an alluring stage presence made her the new girl to watch last season.
For artistic director Stanton Welch, González was the missing ingredient in the company mix. “We needed younger women to partner men like Connor Walsh, Ian Casady, and Joe Walsh,” says Welch. “She’s strong, feminine, and full of that Spanish fire. It’s so great to have a Latina dancer of her caliber.” Welch noticed her right away while setting Maninyas on Tulsa Ballet in 2009. “It’s rare that you find a dancer with beautiful legs and feet who can also jump and turn. I have yet to find her restriction,” he says. “She brought out a ferocious quality in the Elo. In my piece The Core, she was all urban New York sass. She looked terrific in that blonde wig, too.”
For González, it was love at first Welch-ian off-kilter head tilt. Although she had already danced Welch’s sporty Bruiser, it was his more lyrical opus Maninyas that set her hopes on Houston. “I knew instantly, this is me, this is what I want to be doing,” says González about learning Welch’s work. “He loves power, pushing me to the limit in terms of stamina. He gives us the same steps as the men. He sees how strong you can be so you can give everything. It’s really tiring and challenging.” In 2010, she sent in her DVDs and encouraged her then boyfriend, Rupert Edwards, to do so as well. When they both got offers, she knew there was no turning back. “I never expected to be a soloist, I would have been happy to be in the corps,” she recalls. “But when Rupert was offered a contract I thought, This is a sign. I have to go to Houston.”
Born into a family of teachers, including her three brothers and one sister, González is the only artist to come out of her household in Caracas. She started dancing at age 7, when her mother thought she would enjoy folk dance class. On the way there, they heard about ballet classes. Her mother’s choice that day to take her to ballet instead determined the path of the rest of her life. As a teen she considered stopping. “But my mother said I must finish what I started,” she remembers. “After that, I realized I really love dancing.” She trained and performed with Ballet Nacional de Caracas, then joined Tulsa Ballet, where she rose to the rank of principal in two years. There she danced lead roles in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella and Andre Prokovsky’s The Great Gatsby, as well as Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and The Sleeping Beauty.
Leaving Venezuela at age 17 wasn’t easy. She had never been away from home and did not speak English. “My father didn’t believe that an American company actually offered me a job until I sent pictures,” recalls González. “Being away from my family is still the hardest thing for me about dancing. We are so close. We talk once a week; I spend a lot on phone bills.”
González credits her time at Tulsa Ballet for making her the artist she is now. “Tulsa changed my life. I would not be here in Houston without that experience,” she says. “I am thankful for every single day I spent there. Marcello Angelini and Daniela Buson believed in me.” Still, after five years she wondered what was next for her. “I was ready to try something new. I need to push myself, dance new work, and have fresh corrections,” she says.
Now settled into downtown Houston, González enjoys the life in a booming metropolis. During her off hours, you can find her Skyping her family or trying the newest Cuban restaurant. “I love the Spanish culture here, the food, and the people,” she says. “The company was so welcoming. It’s only been a year, but I feel as if I have been here longer.”
She felt an instant kinship with principal Connor Walsh, who has partnered her in several ballets. “His partnering skills are so mature,” she says. “I could close my eyes and he would be there to catch me.” The feeling was mutual. “I noticed her strong work ethic and eagerness to improve right away. She also has this non-judgmental and easygoing attitude that makes working with her a real pleasure. On the stage she is full of energy and trust,” says Walsh. “Karina also has been blessed with facial features that reach every seat in the house without any strain. I want to surround myself with people who push me to be a better person and dancer. Karina is definitely one of them.” Last summer, the two toured Argentina, guesting with the Teatro Colon.
She still stays in touch with her mentor Zane Wilson, with whom she studied in Caracas. (Wilson carries on the work of choreographer Vicente Nebrada, who had directed Ballet Nacional de Caracas.) “He’s my American father. He taught me to dance for the last person in the balcony.” Dancing Giselle has been a dream of hers. “It’s not just about technique, but you have to be an excellent actor. You become a ballerina in that role.”
Her first year at Houston Ballet was a whirlwind of new people, places, and ballets. As a soloist, she’s done some principal roles, including Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. She takes the stage this year with her usual appetite for new challenges, including Ashton’s Les Patineurs, MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, and Robbins’ In the Night.
“Just about everything this season is new, yet I don’t feel like the new girl anymore. I’m more confident; I have found my space,” says González. “There’s so much trust here. Stanton and the company really help me become the dancer I want to be here.”
Nancy Wozny writes about dance and the other arts at Culturemap in Houston.
From top: Karina González in costume for Jorma Elo’s ONE/end/ONE. Tutu designed by Holly Hynes; With characteristic flair, González adapted to NYC streets after her cover shoot; In Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, with Simon Ball. Photo by Nerio Photography, Courtesy HB. All other photos by Matthew Karas.