Lupe Serrano, ballerina of power and fire, is dead at 92

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Lupe Serrano, ballerina of power and fire, is dead at 92
Dance instructor Lupe Serrano watches her students dance during an American Ballet Theater summer school class in Manhattan, on July 18, 2001. Serrano, a former prima ballerina with American Ballet Theater who danced with Rudolf Nureyev and trained generations of dancers, died on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, in Syosset, N.Y. She was 92. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

by Claudia Bauer

NEW YORK, NY.- Lupe Serrano, a former prima ballerina with American Ballet Theater who danced with Rudolf Nureyev and trained generations of dancers, died Monday in Syosset, New York. She was 92.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her son-in-law Robert Chasanoff said.

A petite powerhouse, Serrano dazzled audiences with virtuosic technique, steely strength and an exuberant stage personality. She excelled in classical and modern choreography during her 18 years with the New York company, which she joined as a principal dancer in 1953.

At the time, American ballet was still catching up to the technical standards set by dancers in Cuba, Russia and elsewhere in Europe — Serrano’s early training was in Chile and Mexico City — and American audiences had rarely seen a female dancer achieve the soaring jumps, fleet footwork and swift turns that Serrano executed with aplomb.

“She was part of a generation that defined what ballet in America was,” Kevin McKenzie, the former artistic director of American Ballet Theater, said in an interview for this obituary last year.

Raymond Lukens, a faculty member at the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School who saw Serrano perform and later trained with her, compared her to one of today’s celebrity ballerinas. “She was the Natalia Osipova of her day,” he said in an interview, referring to the Russian dancer whose electrifying jumps and turns have pushed ballet technique to ever-higher levels. “I was in awe of her.”

The dance critics of her day were indeed impressed. “Miss Serrano can dance like a house afire,” John Martin of The New York Times wrote in his review of Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend” in 1960. And in 1968, for the premiere of Ballet Theater’s “Swan Lake,” in which Serrano danced the dual lead role of the vulnerable white swan, Odette, and the sinister black swan, Odile, Clive Barnes wrote in the Times that her Odile was “flashingly malevolent — it explodes into a nervous and very exciting brilliance.”

Frequent company tours made Serrano an international star, and she excited even the notoriously exacting Russian balletomanes. On a 1960 stop in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Russia, the audience was reported to have been so enthralled by her performance that it insisted she repeat her solo turn rather than simply take a bow.

That performance caught the attention of Nureyev, and after his defection to the West the following year, he invited Serrano to dance with him. Their brief but electrifying partnership included dancing the “Le Corsaire” duet on the television show “The Bell Telephone Hour” in 1962.

She was still receiving rave reviews on the eve of her retirement.

“The ‘Don Quixote’ pas de deux needs to be done brilliantly if at all,” Barnes wrote of a New York performance in 1970, and Serrano and Ted Kivitt, he said, “did it brilliantly.”

“Miss Serrano,” he added, “with thrilling balances and a glittering technique, was like a dark, flashing diamond.”

And in 1971, at age 40, she was “at her near best” in “Études” at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the Times.

Guadalupe Martínez Desfassiaux Serrano was born Dec. 7, 1930, in Santiago, Chile, while her father, Luis Martínez Serrano, an award-winning pianist and conductor from Barcelona, Spain, was on tour there. Her mother, Luciana Desfassiaux, was of French heritage. Serrano’s only sibling was a brother, Carlos Martínez Desfassiaux.

The family remained in Chile for several years while Luis Martínez Serrano recovered from an illness, and Lupe Serrano started her dance training there. When the family returned to Mexico City (her father had lived there in the 1920s), she trained with former Paris Opera Ballet dancer Nelsy Dambré and joined the Mexico City Ballet at 13. By 17, she was a celebrity in Mexico, but her talents far exceeded the opportunities available there.

A 1948 tour of Mexico by Ballet Alicia Alonso, a small company led by renowned Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, opened the door to elite training and an international career. Serrano took the company’s ballet class and was immediately invited to join its tour of South America.

During her three-month tenure with the troupe, she closely studied Alonso’s artistry and stagecraft: “Details — like a different perspective on how to use the toe shoe,” she said in a 2020 video tribute to Alonso.

Years later, Alonso and Serrano reprised their roles as mentor and mentee when Alonso danced the lead in “Giselle” with American Ballet Theater. “I was going to do my first Giselle,” Serrano remembered. “She came to wish me luck. She said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing, you’ve got this.’ I really appreciated her confidence.”

Serrano returned to Mexico City after the South American tour, but, she recalled, “everybody was saying, ‘You need to go to New York.’ And I did.” That move, in 1951, led to a year of touring with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and then to American Ballet Theater.

Her repertoire there included the major classical ballets and duets, as well as works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Antony Tudor, William Dollar and de Mille. She forged a famed stage partnership with her fellow principal dancer Royes Fernandez.

With appearances on TV and elsewhere in the media, Serrano achieved a kind of crossover fame, serving as the celebrity representative for the 1962 Christmas Seals charity fundraising campaign.

Her marriage in 1957 to composer and American Ballet Theater musical director Kenneth Schermerhorn ended in divorce. She is survived by their daughters, Erica Ancona and former ballet dancer Veronica Lynn, and five grandchildren. Serrano, who died in a hospital, had lived on Long Island in recent decades.

Serrano was still dancing when she started her teaching career at the University of Milwaukee in 1968, when Schermerhorn took a job with the Milwaukee Symphony. After retiring from the stage, she held a number of administrative roles before focusing exclusively on teaching: assistant director at the National Academy of Arts in Illinois; associate director, head of the apprentice program and school director at the Pennsylvania Ballet; and artistic associate for the Washington Ballet.

Teaching suited her as well as performing once did. “It was fantastic to have all of these bodies to work with instead of just my own,” Serrano told Dance Teacher magazine in 2011. “Trying to put myself into another body, and to understand how it functions as opposed to how mine functions — it is so enlightening.”

Lukens, who became her colleague at Ballet Theater’s Onassis school, said that as a teacher Serrano “was kind, polite, honest, no-nonsense,” adding, “The students were in love with her.”

She impressed them not only with her expertise but also with her enduring physical prowess: In her 50s she could still demonstrate to her men’s classes the double tour, a vertical leap with two full rotations. In her 80s she commuted from Long Island to teach in Manhattan. And into her early 90s she coached adult ballet dancers near her home.

Serrano trained so many young dancers and professionals that her five decades of teaching eventually all but eclipsed the living memory of her celebrated dancing career. “Lupe is so well known as a teacher that people forget she was one of our biggest stars,” McKenzie told Dance Teacher.

But those who saw her perform never forgot. In 1991, more than 30 years after the storied Soviet tour, Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet director Oleg Vinogradov was still overawed. “When I met her in Washington a year ago,” he told The Washington Post, “I got down on my knees.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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