Luz San Miguel Lighting Up the Stage

August 21, 2007

Luz San Miguel opens the door, welcoming me into her home with a sweeping gesture that might be called a domesticated port de bras. Her strikingly petite body seems to almost hum with energy—a human lightning rod. It’s one week after the close of San Miguel’s second season with Milwaukee Ballet, a season she ended to standing ovations as Juliet. Which is not surprising. Watching her dance is like watching a gazelle leap or a leopard hunt, as if she is merely fulfilling the intrinsic nature of a body designed for exquisite movement.


But San Miguel might disagree. She would tell you that anything she has achieved is solely the effect of good training. And that despite it, her turnout isn’t perfect, her extensions aren’t high enough, and her leaps could be better. By all accounts, San Miguel, 31, is her own worst critic and one she has had to consistently silence to grow as a dancer.


This self-criticism seems largely the fate of all dancers, but San Miguel’s perfectionism combined with early exposure to some less-than-supportive professional environments has been challenging. However, she also had a very positive experience through her formative years.


From age 8 through 17, San Miguel studied at the Carmina Ocana Ballet School in her hometown, Madrid. “Carmina is like my second mother,” she says. “Everything I am, I owe to her. She supported me all the way through, even when my own family was giving me a hard time about being a dancer and leaving Spain.”


Leave she did, to the Municipal Institute of Ballet in Antwerp, Belgium, on full scholarship. After a year of study, she began her professional life in Germany, first at Leipziger Ballet for a year and then at Dresdner Ballet for four years. It was at Dresdner that she met her husband, fellow dancer Ryan Martin. They were first partnered in The Nutcracker. In the midst of an intimate pas de deux they fell in love, recalling it now as one of their most sacred dance memories. Born in California, Martin was ready to return to the U.S., and San Miguel was ready to explore them.


Despite the difficulty of finding companies that were in a position to take them both, they’ve managed to stay together through four. They began with a three-year stint at the Tulsa Ballet in Oklahoma, followed by one-year residencies at Charleston Ballet Theater in South Carolina and BalletMet Columbus.


The next stop was Milwaukee Ballet, which they joined in September 2005. With San Miguel’s arrival, artistic director Michael Pink has found one of its gems. While her physicality is nearly pitch-perfect, she has a rare quality that is particularly suited to Pink’s highly theatrical choreography. As he puts it, “She is a heartbreaker. She’s a star. She connects. It’s devastating and utterly real when she takes on a character.”


San Miguel’s flare for acting distinguishes her from many of her peers. In Milwaukee, she has danced leads in Dracula, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. In previous companies, she has performed key roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Carmen, Don Quixote, and Giselle.


“I like acting a lot—I’m a drama queen. That’s why I love Romeo and Juliet,” says San Miguel. “I love the dancing and the technical parts, but I find the acting roles juicier—more rewarding.”


Pink paired San Miguel with Armenian dancer David Hovhannisyan, a (very) tall, dark, and handsome Romeo. They were seamless, as if they had been partnering forever. But this was a first—a partnership only five weeks old. “It took a lot of rehearsal,” says San Miguel. “The emotional part was really awkward at first. But ultimately, we got comfortable. We lost the barrier and connected.”


That the emotional aspect was the biggest challenge is a testament to the pair’s strength and technical skill, because Pink’s choreography can be brutally demanding. And San Miguel did pay for it in head-to-toe bruises, particularly when rehearsing Pink’s bedroom pas de deux. “We got wrapped in the bed sheets; I nearly knocked myself out on the headboard,” she recalls, laughing. “David fell on me many times. We were thinking we’d never get it right—at least not before we killed each other.”


In Pink’s ballet the story is crystallized through three pas de deux that reflect the evolution of the doomed lovers. The tug and pull of the balcony scene gives way to the yielding of the bedroom scene, which in turn foreshadows the tragedy of the crypt scene. In each, San Miguel let Juliet submit a fraction more, revealing her surrender with ultra-subtle movements—a release in the neck, a tilt of the head, an extension that lingers a second too long.


But it is the “corpse” pas de deux that saturates the senses. Though technically just in a deep slumber, Juliet appears lifeless, and San Miguel had the difficult task of walking that line without injuring herself or her partner. Says Hovhannisyan, “It doesn’t look like it, but she was actually helping me quite a bit by not allowing herself to be totally loose—by supporting herself. And she’s tiny. It was easy to throw her around.”


The combination of San Miguel’s witty physicality, fearlessness, and strength of will have made her a favorite with other choreographers as well. During her short time at Milwaukee Ballet, she’s worked with Trey McIntyre, Lila York, and Viktor Plotnikov. In her previous jobs, she’s danced for Stanton Welch (who created The Firebird for BalletMet with San Miguel in the lead role), Val Canaparoli, Mauricio Wainrot, John Neumeier, Glen Tetley, and Uwe Scholz.


And last February, Margo Sappington choreographed Common People for Milwaukee Ballet with San Miguel in the lead. The choreography for a section entitled “Ideal Woman” called for a running leap into an aerial somersault, the latter performed with the assistance of two male partners, one on each arm. Gripping her under the shoulders, her partners let her body rotate within a loosened hold, but one mistakenly thought she was about to fall and tightened his grip to catch her. The outcome was a nearly dislocated right shoulder.


“They had to call emergency rehearsals for my understudy, and I felt like a failure, but I just couldn’t do it,” says San Miguel. “You have to be smart and listen to your brain and realize that if you keep doing it, you’re going to be out much longer. I know it was the smart thing to do, but it broke my heart.” Her doctor told her that she would have risked full dislocation, a three-month recovery, and possible surgery if she had continued in the role for the full run of performances.


As it was, she performed in Common People opening night, a day after the injury, but could not perform “Ideal Woman” during the rest of the run. She fulfilled her role in all other assigned parts through closing night—despite the fact that she could barely lift a fork to her mouth. She did it with will power, a massive tape job, and a lot of humor.


San Miguel recovered fully about three weeks later, thanks to physical therapy, ultrasound, and massage. In the off-season, she keeps herself healthy with an organic diet and a nearly religious devotion to Pilates. This summer she taught at Milwaukee Ballet School’s summer intensive.


San Miguel and Martin had another big focus this summer: their new house. In the midst of turning it into a home, the couple has clearly put down roots in Milwaukee. While long-term plans are far in the future, Milwaukee Ballet will likely be their last home before retirement. Then it’s back to San Miguel’s beloved Spain—probably with kids in tow.


Regardless of when and how, San Miguel will surely bring light to whatever she does, as the Spanish translation of her first name implies. Says Pink, “She’s very generous towards everyone she’s with. She’s very humble. She’s very real and vulnerable, but she’s tough as nails.” A combination that will serve her, and those who have the pleasure of working with her, very well as she continues to make her mark in the dance world.

Stefanie Ramp is a freelance arts writer based in Madison, WI.