Every spring, NDI New Mexico has end-of-year shows starring hundreds of public-school kids in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Española, where Hugo Pizano once participated with his fourth-grade classmates from James H. Rodriguez Elementary School. For many of the kids, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience in dance. Not Hugo. He’s now seventeen, a student at New Mexico School for the Arts, auditioning for the School of American Ballet summer program in New York, and focused on a career in ballet.
“Hugo is precious. I met him as a nine-year-old,” said Leslie Stamper, who runs the NDI North program in Española and taught Hugo’s class. “He oozed with joy, and his enthusiasm was contagious. He had so much natural talent. I admire his kind heart, his work ethic, and his commitment to being the best he can be.”
“When I was a kid, and Ms. Stamper taught us the ‘Core 4,’ I listened. It really did make me feel better about myself,” he said. The Core 4 — work hard, do your best, never give up, and be healthy — is a cornerstone of the NDI philosophy and is taught to the fourth-graders at the beginning of their first day. Dancing is only part of the organization’s mission, but the teachers are always looking for talent at the same time — kids who stand in the front row, who smile bigger and jump higher and have so much fun dancing that it wears off on the more reluctant children. That enthusiasm describes Hugo, according to Stamper. He has continued to train at NDI’s Dance Barns in Santa Fe, where kids study tap, jazz, ballet, acting, and singing and have plenty of opportunities to perform.
Along the way, Hugo said, his father consistently opposed his dancing. “He doesn’t care much for it. He tells me I’m never going to make enough money. But my mom told him I was going to go to NMSA, and that was that. He’s getting used to the idea I’m going to be a dancer.”
Hugo commutes to Santa Fe for school and after-school rehearsals and dance classes. “I leave home at 7 a.m. and usually get home at 8:45 p.m.,” he said. “NMSA was difficult at first. It’s a ballet-centric program, and I hadn’t done that much ballet. But NDI prepared me a lot. It taught me how to use my energy. My goal is to be a better, well-rounded dancer. I’m trying to let the technique come into me for the future.”
“Hugo demonstrates pure and utter passion for dance,” said Adam McKinney, the dance department head at NMSA, and one of the teen’s teachers. “His performing and technical development over the past three years, in my opinion, puts him on track for a career in the performing arts. Come see him in our Winter Dances performances Jan. 22 through 24.”
Last summer, Hugo won a full scholarship to attend an intensive program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, outside Boston. The students danced eight hours a day, six days a week. The curriculum included strength training using a TRX suspension regimen and conditioning in the swimming pool. “They were having us do leaps in the water, ski jumps, different ballet steps. The water density makes it really hard,” he said. Plus, Hugo didn’t know how to swim. “I had to learn fast,” he said. “It was OK in the shallow end, but they would have us leaping all the way across the pool, and it was 12 feet deep in one end.”
This summer, he’s auditioning for programs with ballet companies in Houston and Atlanta, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet in San Francisco, as well as the School of American Ballet. His goal is to join a ballet company after graduating from high school.
“Last winter we did a funny excerpt of The Nutcracker, and I got to play Fritz, the bratty little brother. I had never been given a theatrical role before, and it was really cool. The whole idea of using facial expression was new. I might want to branch out and take acting. I’d love to be in story ballets. But I also love contemporary ballet, because the choreography is so challenging.”