The ‘Royal’ Dancer

Fernando Montaño of the Royal Ballet in London.
Fernando Montaño of the Royal Ballet in London.

After three nights inaugurating Bogotá’s iconic Colón Theatre, Fernando Montaño’s hours are counted. For this country’s  most important ballet dancer London calls, the arcade of Covent Garden to be more precise, and rehearsals at the Royal Opera House, home to The Royal Ballet.

Promoted to Soloist by a company considered to be the most prestigious in the world, Fernando Montaño also recently picked up the Personality of the Year prize from the Latin-UK Awards (LUKAS) which celebrate the Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese communities in the United Kingdom. In many regards, Montaño may be better known on stages around the world, than in his native land, where audiences in the capital were dazzled last month by a unique, and once in a lifetime performance, of a ballerino heralded in the media as Colombia’s ‘Billy Elliot.’

With Montaño’s name in the spotlight due to the Colón’s gala re-opening, the dancer helped organize the Bogotá trip, which included bringing nine dancers from the English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet for an exclusive all-ballet performance. “It was very rewarding,” states Montaño of dancing in the “jewel of South America.”

Born in Buenaventura in 1985, Montaño’s only regret when we meet, is that his visit to Colombia was too pressured to include a visit to the port city, which in recent years has also made headlines – extremely negative ones – due to the alarming levels of drug violence and poverty. Fernando’s idea of heading to the Pacific is to promote Children of the Andes (COTA), an NGO founded in 1991 which works with vulnerable youth across Colombia, and of which he is both a spokesperson and patron. Every year in London, Montaño also organizes a gala fundraising event for this charity, the largest in Europe dedicated to providing education and healthcare to Colombia’s youth. When not on the stage, the dancer remains committed to helping other UK charities, such as the Amy Winehouse Foundation and Friends of Colombia for Social Aid (FOCSA). “Even though I grew up in a poor household in Buenaventura, my family always helped out those who were poorer than us,” states a softly-spoken Fernando, of the motivation behind his charity work. Enter punk fashion dame, Vivienne Westwood.

In 2008, after only a few years in London, Montaño had one of those chance encounters which helped consolidate the art of giving and social responsibility. Westwood had seen Montaño perform in Sleeping Beauty and invited him to her studio in Battersea. “I see her as my ‘mentor’” states Fernando of a friendship which blossomed off stage. Montaño ended up performing a ballet sequence within one of Westwood’s fashion shows and together they became a creative force for future col- laborations. And through the designer’s commitment to saving rainforests, Montaño began to champion issues close to his own heart, especially those which touch the lives of Colombian children. “I really like to help anyway I can.”

Fernando took his first steps as a dancer at age five, when his family moved from the humid port city of Buenaventura to nearby Cali and Colombia’s capital of salsa. Thrust into a tough neighborhood on the other side of the Río Cali, and a sprawling shanty called Aguablanca, Fernando recalls the experience of growing up in a place surrounded by “mud.” But despite the difficult setting, the crime and a precarious existence when it came to paying bills, Fernando’s parents had identified in their son an “artistic side” which they felt necessary to nurture; so they enrolled him in football and a dance academy. While Fernando’s father – Juan Carlos Rodriguéz- held on a dream that his son might become a footballer, tango and the Spanish pasodoble were the steps he was busy learning. At age 12, the young dancer earned a scholarship at the dance academy which quickly convinced his parents that he had “talent” and could continue on at the academy without the monthly enrollment fee. His football days came to a sudden end.

“I was quite late to start ballet,” states Fernando of his age, when he was taken in by the country’s official ballet training institute, InColBallet. Josefina Méndez, regarded as one of the “Four Jewels of Cuban Ballet,” happened to be supervising the 12-year old’s audition and quickly remarked to the aspiring dancer, that if Cali didn’t take him, she would, to Cuba. He stayed with InColBallet for two years, and worked intensively to catch up for lost time. When Fernando earned second place in the International Ballet Contest in Havana, he was promised another scholarship, this time with National Ballet School of Cuba. At age 14, he left home for Havana.

The scholarship to Cuba covered Fernando’s education, but none of his living expenses. His parents had to mortgage their home, so that their teenager son could eat. “The Cubans have a very strong technique,” recalls Fernando of his first days in Cuba. “But they also like to show off.” Watching the rehearsals, he felt at a disadvantage. But then his ankles did the talking. “I could arch my feet all the way to the floor. That is quite unusual for male dancers.” When his classmates saw this, they took him in as one for their own.

The end of the millennium was a critical time for the island. The protests in Havana over the custody case involving the Cuban boy Elián González who had survived the perilous waters between Cuba and the United States, were heating up and Fernando along with classmates had to join in the pro-Castro marches. Sleeping on the floor of a Havana family’s home, Fernando realized that this “hosts” were swindling his parents out of his allowance. “At first they started cooking for me, then that ended.” Bad real estate “investments” in Cali resulted in his parents having to relinquish their home. In essence, they were bankrupt. “They had nothing left.”

But Venus looked kindly on Fernando. While practicing for an internation- al ballet competition with the aspiring Italian Cuban dancer Venus Villa, Fernando’s fortunes began to look up, as she found her male counterpart, a suitable home with her grandmother, in Havana. Venus began dancing at age nine at the professional ballet school founded by Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso.

While Venus moved to Italy, Fernando stayed on in Cuba where he finished his scholarship and was hired by the Cuban National Ballet. On a salary of US$20 dollars a month, Fernando could live in capital with the basics, but not much more. Then, an offer from Europe, when Venus asked the Colombian to join her in the prestigious Rieti Ballet Competition. She needed a partner, he needed travel papers. “When you have a Colombian passport you need to have a large bank account to travel,” remembers Fernando after he was denied a visa to travel from Colombia to Italy. But the media got a hold of the story and that Fernando was going to “represent Colombia” at the competition. A visa finally came through three months later, but the festival was long over. In a strange twist of fate, Fernando that same year was offered contracts with La Scala, Milan, and the Teatro Nuovo di Torino where he was eventually spotted by Jane Hucker, Director of the English Ballet School. In 2006, the Colombian auditioned with the Royal Ballet and joined the company that same year as an artist. “I have been lucky to have good people around me to guide me,” states Fernando of his rise to the top of the dancing profession.

Settling into a Londoners’ life proved somewhat more accommodating, than those years as a student of ballet in Havana; even though he missed his first show with The Royal Ballet in Covent Garden because he didn’t understand – literally – the writing on the wall. The performance times were written in English. After eight years in England and surrounded by sirs, dames and dansels, Fernando Rodríguez Montaño, became Fernando Montaño so that his name could fit on the Royal Ballet’s list of artists. The rebaptizing was suggested by Dame Monica Mason, artistic director of the Royal Ballet from 2002 to 2012.

In an extensive family of dancers, this ‘Billy Eliot’ of Buenaventura now lives very much on the road, performing in prestigious theatres from Toronto to Berlin, Vienna and Beijing. Even though the recent Bogotá trip was a homecoming of sorts, the artist regrets he couldn’t find time for Buenaventura, a place in the world, that is as close to home as London. And one memory which will remain with him a lifetime was seeing his father cry with pride with his performance at the Colón. Evidence that football and ballet can bring a family together, despite the odds.



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