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Raising the barre

The bay area's dance scene gets a lift as Haydee Gutierrez launches the Classical Ballet Training Program for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

By MARINA BROWN, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


TAMPA -- "You're shaking. Why are you shaking?" Haydee Gutierrez gently asks a tiny girl whose pink-tight-clad leg is stretched as high as her ear.

Like a master in the famous imperial ballet schools of old Russia, Gutierrez is inspecting scores of eager children for qualities that could mean greatness: musicality, energy and athleticism, and the unique body type suited to ballet's unnatural movements.

With wide eyes fixed on the teacher, the children, some as young as 7, solemnly submit to having their spines examined, their flexibility tested, their arches assessed.

"The rest I can teach them," says Gutierrez, director of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's new Classical Ballet Training Program. Famous for her exacting standards and tough -- some say too tough -- style of teaching, Gutierrez is a former University of South Florida dance professor and longtime Tampa studio owner recently back in town after several years with the school of the Oregon Ballet Theater. In classes that may range from twice a week to every day, she promises to turn those who gain entrance and work very hard into dancers.

More than that, she tells the nearly 200 children gathered for auditions last Sunday, her students become confident individuals who take pride in accomplishment.

"This is not going to be a recreational program," she says in a high-pitched voice that carries the tones of her native Cuba. "We are here to turn you into dancers of excellence."

Children who enter this new program, she warns their parents, must be prepared to work. Parents must be prepared to let go.

Before the auditions, parents were politely but firmly escorted to nearby Jaeb Hall to watch a ballet video. Gutierrez delivered a short speech: "Trust me with your children. I will teach them to dance, but I will also teach them personal discipline, punctuality, and responsibility. I am not flexible on my rules."

Half the children in the room, she said, wouldn't get into the school (notifications will be mailed shortly). "Rejection, too, is a good lesson to learn for the rest of your life," she concluded before leaving the parents to the video.

If the program Gutierrez plans sounds rigorous and intense, that's just the way she wants it. "I'm a hard, hard teacher. My standards are tough -- but there are big rewards."

As proof of her expert teaching, Gutierrez points to scores of students who have entered professional ballet companies, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Joffrey Ballet.

Recently, Angela Snow, her student at the School of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, was the sole U.S. recipient of the Princess Grace Award for promising young dancers, and at 17 has just joined American Ballet Theatre.

Gutierrez came to TBPAC from Oregon only recently but has taught dance in Tampa for many years.

Born in Cuba, she emigrated first to South America, then settled in Miami. Her original training was at Havana's Academia Nacional Alicia Alonso, but she found her balletic coach and mentor in American Ballet Theatre's principal dancer, Royes Fernandez. Though Gutierrez describes herself as a "character dancer," her dream came true when, with the encouragement of Fernandez, she performed the role of Giselle, the epitome of classical dance. But her future lay on the other side of the footlights -- in the classroom.

She was professor of dance at the University of South Florida for six years and taught throughout the country, as well as in Turkey and Japan. In 1975, Gutierrez opened her own studio, the Classical Ballet Center of Tampa. For the next two decades, she developed students who won scholarships to all of the major professional company schools.

But in 1993, "I thought I was going to finally retire to the Keys and go fishing," says Gutierrez, who is now 52. "And then along came James Canfield, the director of the Oregon Ballet, who talked me into taking over the School of the Oregon Ballet and allowed me to build it just the way I wanted."

With more than 300 students, Gutierrez taught two to three classes a day six days a week as she worked to focus the school on training professional dancers.

Her teaching style drew fame -- and controversy.

Over her nine-year tenure, the school gained a national reputation as students made their way into the professional ranks. Gutierrez also gained a reputation for toughness that -- although considered standard fare in the famously stringent world of dance -- crossed the line into abuse for some.

The Portland Oregonian reported that in 1998, "a small group of angry parents tried to derail a $1-million grant to the ballet company from the city of Portland, alleging that instructors at the school "engaged in physical and emotional abuse of children,' including a charge that a student's mouth was taped shut in an attempt to keep her from sticking her tongue out while she danced."

The grant was issued, and although child welfare authorities reviewed the charges, they declined to investigate further.

"Many other parents spoke out in the school's defense, several of them noting the compassion they believed Gutierrez displayed along with her strictness," the newspaper reported.

The dispute made its way into Dance magazine, which is widely read in the ballet world. The 1998 taping, Gutierrez told the magazine, "was done twice, and sure enough, she didn't bite her tongue any more." Both Canfield and Gutierrez say the school rallied around the teacher and that complaints about her harsh treatment of students were brought on by "parental jealousy."

By 2000, Gutierrez decided to return to Tampa when her partner, Henry Adams, was offered a job as director of communications at TBPAC. She figured it would be an ideal time to take up deep-sea fishing.

George Thompson, vice president and general manager at TBPAC, had other ideas. He wanted to develop a ballet training program at the center to help develop the community's interest in dance and knew Gutierrez was the person to get the program running.

Thompson, a dancer with American Ballet Theatre in his early years, had been a devoted student of Gutierrez's mentor, Royes Fernandez. That bond only reinforced Thompson's desire to keep Gutierrez at the barre.

By fall, TBPAC will have renovated an old warehouse in the Channelside district that is currently used for set storage. Planned as a multipurpose space, the room will have full-length mirrors, a springy new floor and barres in place.

Gutierrez, still filled with energy after Sunday's three-hour audition, is certain the school will succeed.

"I would love to do here what I did at Oregon," she says with excitement. "Flamenco dance, Russian dance, French, dance history, music theory and great dances from the classical repertoire -- I could just go on and on."

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