When I think about what it was like to visit Quito, memories come in flashes: smooth, brown faces of the people contrasted against the vibrant colors of textiles, brighter and bolder than any I’d seen elsewhere. Elfin children staring with wise, dark eyes.
Although Quito did not have the bloody, golden past of neighboring Peru you wouldn’t know it walking into the Church of the Society of Jesus (La Compañía de Jesús). Every square inch of the altar’s interior, from floor to ceiling, is richly coated with gold leaf.
The church is one of many colonial churches, chapels, convents and picturesque plazas within the historic center of Quito, one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978. Quito derives its name from the Quitus, a tribe from the Quechua civilization who inhabited the region eons before Spanish conquest. It had been a capital of the Seyris and the Incas before it became a Spanish city in 1541.
A stroll through the area leads down narrow streets dotted with colorful homes. Another popular stop is the Presidential Palace. There we took photos with the uniformed guards who stand at attention outside the front entrance, much like their English counterparts.
Back out on the streets local artisans set up stalls full of blankets, sweaters and other woven goods in a kaleidoscope of colors. We learned that many of them live high in the surrounding hills; they trek up and down these hills each day with their wares strapped to their backs.
Overlooking it all with outstretched arms is one of the most iconic structures of Quito – a giant (135 ft.) aluminum Madonna located atop El Panecillo, a hill in the middle west of the city. She was built in 1976 by the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras. Although she is visible from most of the city of Quito her size is best appreciated up close.
Quito was well worth the journey. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see a country that is so different from ours. I hope to return one day to see it as it is now. Minus the oxygen tanks.
The pre-travel pep talk they gave us before we left for Ecuador was full of warnings: don’t brush your teeth with tap water (use bottled), don’t eat any uncooked fruits or vegetables and for God’s sake keep your mouth closed when you take a shower. This was the first visit to a third world country for many of us and the company needed us to stay healthy.
Still, who wouldn’t want an all-expenses-paid trip to Ecuador? That’s what I thought until they informed us that we were going to have to take malaria pills to prepare for our trip to Ecuador. As I gulped down the first pill I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.
I soon forgot all about it. Nothing beats the excitement of going on tour with your very own shiny, new tour case with your name boldly emblazoned on its pristine surface… it’s the dancer’s equivalent of having your name in lights (off-off-off Broadway, of course).
But Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, located at an altitude of 10,000 feet (far above the sea level we were used to in Miami) presented an entirely new challenge. The simple formula of higher altitude=less oxygen meant trouble – and we were performing Concerto Barocco, one of George Balanchine’s most strenuous and aerobic ballets. Oh yes. During this ballet the corps dancers never once leave the stage.
In the spirit of proactive thinking, oxygen tanks were installed in the wings on either side of the stage. Even though they told us not to worry, knowing that there were oxygen tanks waiting in the wings did little to reassure anyone. Nor was it ever explained how we were supposed to get oxygen if we really did need it. Instead they remained a troubling reminder of all that could go wrong.
Though we all did our best to be careful, many dancers ended up with digestive issues – and all those desperate runs to the bathroom made performing logistically complicated and frequently interrupted rehearsals. Some dancers were forced to sit them out altogether, waiting until the stomach cramps passed.
The night of our first performance finally arrived… along with heightened anxiety. We did what dancers always do – went through the motions as if it were any other night: warm up, put on makeup and costumes, warm up again backstage, practice tricky moves onstage until final curtain call, breathe, pray.
The music started and so did we. Somehow things always work out once the music starts. Some primal part of the brain takes over and you begin. One count at a time. This move and then the next. The music for Concerto Barocco (J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins) is particularly beautiful and inspires full-out dancing with abandon. I’ve always felt like it brings out any dancer’s beauty.
Halfway through the first movement, the corps dancers move in patterns around the stage, striking bold piqué arabesques as they circle one another. Music mimics movement, reaching to a crescendo with each arabesque. It is our one moment during the ballet to shine, front and center.
A flurry of notes announced my moment had arrived. My feet swept me into my place, front and center. I struck out into my bold arabesque. This was my moment to shine center stage.
The Universe had other plans. In the middle of my bold strike, my supporting foot slipped. Like I had piquéd onto a banana peel. In a split second I ended up on my hands and knees. Front and center.
My shining moment.
The heat of shame and humiliation flooded my body as I quickly picked myself up. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I swept back into place and continued dancing, my limbs shaky from shock, willing myself to finish while stifling the urge to cry.
The 2nd movement was my chance to recuperate a little; in this section the corps creates a series of tableaus, each dancer striking a pose and holding it for long periods. I caught my breath enough to calm down completely before the 3rd and final movement, an all-out no-holds-barred aerobic section with no less than a million hops on pointe, jumps and turns. And it’s fast – so fast it’s almost hard to whip your body around quickly enough to keep up.
But keep up we did and finished with a flourish, drenched in sweat to the point that our white leotards were transparent in multiple places. My chest felt cold, so cold. I am sure this was due to oxygen depletion. It was the only time I ever wished the audience would stop clapping, for Pete’s sake.
Immediately after the curtain went down, Edward Villella, our Artistic Director, came backstage to talk to me. He gently reminded me that falling happens, even to the best dancers, which I found heartening. His support meant a lot in that very humbling moment.
I am happy to report that my love for Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins was not in any way diminished.