RUBEN MARTIN – Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

My first experience of seeing Ruben Martin was in the 2007 SF Ballet production of Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. He was very much the playful creature who has nothing better to do than arouse the gods and their entourage toward heights of orgiastic unrest – or to tweak his audience to the sweetest pangs of unrequited lust. His recent appearance in Jardin aux Lilas (Program 4) promoted a remarkable change in image. Suddenly Ruben Martin leaps from mythical jail bait to socially eligible handsome Cavalier. The energy that wafted through the Lilac Garden seemed to me the longing and desire of Anna Karenina and her fatal attraction toward the dashing young officer, Sergey Ivanovitch. The opening night performance featured Lorena Feijóo as the very glamorous and yet frustrated wife of the cold and detached diplomat (danced by Pierre-Francois Vilanoba). It was my pleasure to meet with Ruben Martin the day before his appearance as “Bernardo” in the revival of West Side Story Suite. He would prove to be extremely effective as the charismatic and murdering thug. Ruben Martin is confident and enigmatic. Ruben Martin is devoted to his art.

RUBEN MARTIN – in Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. Photo, Erik Tomasson
RUBEN MARTIN – in Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. Photo, Erik Tomasson

SEÁN: You are coming into what I perceive as being the young adult romantic Lead, and the differences are striking.

RUBEN: It has been quite a road. It all came, I think, from an injury I had about five years ago. I tore all kinds of tendons and ligaments that actually hold the toe together.

SEÁN: How long were you out of commission?

RUBEN: About ten months, a whole season altogether. My last show was the Nutcracker, I came back in with the next Nutcracker.

SEÁN: During all that therapy, what were you doing with your time?

RUBEN: I was doing intense work to find ways to recover my foot as well as ways to recover – up here. It really makes you take a grip on your life – where is your life going, what do you want to do? I had a lot of time to think. It was a big Reality check. I was a newly promoted Soloist, one year by that point. It triggered something in my head in terms of how to achieve my career from then on. You always find that – when those kind of things happen – you either want it more or realize that it’s not what you are meant to do.

SEÁN: What did you do about working-out and training during that period?

RUBEN: After the surgery, there was about three months of complete rest and healing.

SEÁN: From constant training to nothing.

RUBEN: To zero – with crutches – having a hard time just making a sandwich. After three months, when I could put weight on the foot, they started giving me exercises to go through the motions easily and softly. We have wonderful therapy, co-active care, and by strengthening the muscles around, it actually protects the area where you have been hurt. It was three to four hours of training, a lot of intensive work to get that area loosened up so there is no tension when coming back.

SEÁN: Did you do all of that work here?

RUBEN: Yes, we have a great program for this kind of therapy and health care. When I was absolutely better and could do things on my own, I traveled back home to Spain to see my family. The Company was doing a five-week tour. They were out in Paris at the Archives where they have an open-air stage. Moises, my brother, was there at the time. So, I got to visit and see them perform and take classes.

MOISES MARTIN CINTAS – in Don Giovanni. Photos, Het Nationale Ballet
MOISES MARTIN CINTAS – in Don Giovanni. Photos, Het Nationale Ballet

SEÁN: Where is Moises now?

RUBEN: He went back to Europe and is doing very well. Moises is the “handsome version” of the family. He’s been dancing with the Dutch National Ballet for a year and a half now.

SEÁN: See? After all my compliments, there you go with ‘he’s the handsome one’. That is funny. I start off with saying I saw you when you were looking like a boy – and you were 28 at the time – so, hey, wait just a minute there, Ruben.

RUBEN: I love it when people say I look much younger than what I really am.

SEÁN: And you convey that on stage.

RUBEN: It’s interesting, especially when you achieve a role like that in Jardins where you are a slightly younger lover, you find yourself working on that side of the personality – trying to find it again.

SEÁN: Right – and it comes across. Did you do something different with the make-up to enhance the features of a Gentleman, rather than as a teenager?

RUBEN: A thicker base coat. You can throw a coin at the face and completely lose it! You always try to work with your facial expressions. You open up the face so that it’s not tense, work different things for different ballets.

SEÁN: What is it like to go from an actual role, such as “Siegfried” in Swan Lake or your character in Jardins Aux Lilas, to other works set to music never intended for the ballet and two or three other members of the Company are dancing the same anonymous position? You are part of the Ensemble and it’s not about You. How does a dancer deal with that? How do you deal with it?

REUBEN MARTIN and LORENA FEIJÓO – Tudor's Les Jardins Aux Lilas. Photo, Erik Tomasson
REUBEN MARTIN and LORENA FEIJÓO – Tudor’s Les Jardins Aux Lilas. Photo, Erik Tomasson

RUBEN: When you’re part of an ensemble – I was four years in London prior to coming to San Francisco – you are always conscious of what the others are doing. So, you can find this unison kind of feeling – a harmonious feeling about the piece and also with the orchestra. You can make yourself shine in a way. Most importantly, it’s about achieving a harmony with what you are doing. The body lines, the technique – that shows you the way you are achieving your corps de ballet work. That is what is used when casting you in different things or giving you a little bit of opportunity. When you are in a solo role, then you really have to make your own version in terms of musicality, style, the steps, as well as expression. It’s very challenging, depending on the role, finding things here and there that are more in accord with what you are doing. I much enjoy what I’m doing right now – getting featured parts for the work that comes along. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it – the visualizing, the correcting of yourself in the mirror for things that don’t look right. Sometimes you have to have “outside eyes”. You can record yourself and watch from a different perspective. You can’t be looking at yourself all the time, you have to be focused on what you are doing. Also, you can feel a lot from the one-to-one with the Ballet Masters.

SEÁN: During a typical day – how much time is spent in the work-out before you get to the actual choreography?

RUBEN: We have a 6-hour day. The class is very important – it prepares you for the whole rehearsal day. It’s completely physical – learning steps, executing steps without any “meaning”, finding your center. We start at 10:00, six days a week – usually one day off during performance periods, sometimes two.

SEÁN: What do you do on those days?

RUBEN: Right now there’s no time but to do laundry, grocery shopping, a massage, something to relieve the stress.

SEÁN: Do you do any other kind of physical work-out?

RUBEN: I like to go the gym. I like to do some cardio first because it’s very important to keep oxygen flowing through all the muscles which then prepares you really well for the rest of your workout. I do some upper body weights. I find the balance between the upper body and the legs – especially for the dancer – can get a little off.

SEÁN: For some, it’s a bit too top-heavy.

RUBEN: Or lower-heavy. Some people get very developed muscles in the legs, but then the top is a little bit thinner.

Hansuke Yamamoto and Ruben Martin – Tomasson's Prism. Photo, Erik Tomasson
Hansuke Yamamoto and Ruben Martin – Tomasson’s Prism. Photo, Erik Tomasson

SEÁN: Do you go to a particular gym?

RUBEN: The Jewish Community Center, they have a great pool as well. I’ve found what exercises work best for me through our physical therapist, our massage therapist – what kind of exercises will promote certain muscles. We have enough help with that. I like to do some upper body work and, depending on the ballet that we’re doing, to focus on certain muscle groups. For the very Classical ballets, I’ll do some legs and calf work to keep the muscles kind of pumped to be ready for all the jumping and turning.

SEÁN: Last season, because Lorena was not able to dance Giselle, I did not see you as “Albrecht”. Who were you partnered with?

RUBEN: I danced with Vanessa Zahorian.

SEÁN: What did you learn from the preparation and the actual performance? When you have another opportunity to dance “Albrecht” – in addition to the choreography – what is it about for you?

RUBEN: There are things from life that you can take on. Giselle, for example, is very particular. I had very little time with it because our season was crazy with the 75th Anniversary and all that. We had to put a lot of ballets together. So, I wish I’d had more time to develop the character. I felt easier and more comfortable with Swan Lake. We had plenty of time and very good people helping us with the rehearsals. We had Lola De Avila (Associate Director) from the school and Bruce Samson coming from the UK. I did one performance of Swan Lake, again with Vanessa. I can actually tell you more about this process because it was a little bit more comfortable. Last year, it was a bit frantic and I would have liked to have had about two more weeks to really get it into my body. But this year I felt very prepared for the performance and it went wonderfully. Just the fact that we had six casts was amazing. The downside to that is that we only got to do one performance. But, it was a new production and we were there from the beginning. Step by step – Helgi was giving us feedback, and we started rehearsals before Nutcracker. It sinks into your system. Coming back, it felt easier, technically as well as approaching the role. It was a lot of work, but I was very happy with how it went.

SEÁN: Have you performed Swan Lake before?

RUBEN: This is my fifth production.

SEÁN: What was different about this one for you?

RUBEN: The sets and costumes and the whole projection idea was very avant garde and impressive. But the elements that remain (the original choreography of Petipa) are sacred and you cannot change, like the second Act. You have a vision of that and you cannot imagine anything else. Unless, for example, the Matthew Bourne production – which is a completely different idea from what we’re having right here.

SEÁN: With the well-established demands that come with Swan Lake and Giselle – what is it like for you to rise to this display of virtuosity? Do you work harder?

RUBEN: Yes, concentrating on parts such as the White Swan pas de deux. For me, the technical aspect is very important, if not the top priority. I end up investing more time on that aspect. I want the emotional and technical aspect at the same level. I don’t want an unevenness.

SEÁN: How about with the grand turns that come in Act III? You can’t just be leaping in circles all day long.

RUBEN: Yes! You work on it as much as you can. The variations in the third act are quite challenging, so you spend a lot of time in your head and in the studio working on those things. When you get to the stage – at that moment with the audience and everything – it’s a completely different story. Who knows what that next moment is going to be like? Who knows how your body is going to feel – in this space around you – and what your attention skills are going to be at that moment? Sometimes – depending on how tired you are, depending on things that may distract you – you find a lot of things in the equation that make your ideal or what you thought it would be completely different. Obviously, the more you practice the more secure you are going to feel.

VANESSA ZAHORIAN and RUBEN MARTIN. Photos, David Allen
VANESSA ZAHORIAN and RUBEN MARTIN. Photos, David Allen

SEÁN: Throughout your career, has there been an occasion where “The Worst” happened?

RUBEN: During those specific turns in a different type of ballet, a variation with two guys, when I was with the English National Ballet. We went on this little tour around the UK – where you find all kinds of stages, hard, and raked. So, we ended up in one of them. I had some of those turns, at the end of the variations, I’m tired, I pull in to go for the last pirouette – I ended up losing my front. I fell down on the floor, rolling back, and then standing like in a big finish.

SEÁN: And the reaction from the audience?

RUBEN: At that moment you lose track of what’s going on around you.

SEÁN: What was the ballet?

RUBEN: “Country Gardens”.

SEÁN: Does the memory of it all rear up and haunt you?

RUBEN: We have it on video! I love the perspective of me actually falling down.

SEÁN: What are you looking forward to during the rest of the season?

RUBEN: We have the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (PROGRAM 6) by Balanchine, which I love. It was one of the first opportunities I got when I joined the Company. It made me move up through the ranks. With every piece of Stravinsky that we’ve done, I’ve found myself studying the music with a much deeper aspect than any other composer. We are doing Jewels. I’m looking forward to doing “Diamonds” once again, and “Emeralds” which I’ve never done. Also, Double Evil and Fusion. I love doing the kind of movement that Yuri Possokhov incorporates into his choreography. Then a new piece called “Russian Season”. You will be seeing me as “Bernardo” in WEST SIDE STORY. As you were saying before about the “romantic young Lead”, this is the completely different side.

SEÁN: When you were a kid – what happened to make you realize that Ballet was what you wanted to do, that your life was going to be about this?

RUBEN: It wasn’t something that came as a revelation. It’s a funny story. We are four brothers. I was 12, Moises was 10, and the other two who are twins were 8. She found out there was a ballet school nearby and, with four boys, they might give a scholarship to us and they really wanted to have males in the school. In Spain, there’s nothing special to be a ballet dancer. You can see that by the number of companies. And it was really interesting. We were going to class with about five other boys, playing soccer, and warming-up like that. Then we got moved into a different school because my mom saw that we had potential. The teachers kept saying we had really nice qualities and that we should be in a more professional school so that we can get somewhere. That’s how we found Maria De Avila who is the mother of Lola, the Director of the school here. It came progressively. It came from having three other brothers who were actually more talented than I was.

SEÁN: What are the twins doing these days?

RUBEN: You know, you have to have an experience to tell you whether you want to pursue this or not. When they were around 17, they got this opportunity to study at a school in Stuttgart – to try it out, to study in a different environment. That was a turning point on the negative side. They had very rough teachers. It was something they had been thinking about, but had never expressed. They both finished Law School.

SEÁN: Well, now they can take care of all that stuff for you. What is your ideal role or have you already done it?

RUBEN: I like the dramatic side of ballet in terms of roles. I’m excited for Romeo and Juliet next year – because I’m hoping I’ll be dancing “Romeo”. Repertoire that I would like to have in the future would be Onegin, also Manon. After the season is over here, I will be dancing “Albrecht” with the National Ballet of Canada. I’ll be flying right away to Toronto where I’ll be staying for three weeks, working on Giselle. After that, I’m planning on a nice long vacation in Hawaii. Then we start work again on the 6th of July.

SEÁN: What do you do in your free time?

RUBEN: Since this injury that we talked about before, a different passion came up. I’ve enjoyed doing some painting for the last three years. When we’re deep into the season, it’s very hard because you put all your creative energy into dancing. We have to be concentrated on learning choreography, executing choreography, and finding the character in the roles that we do.

SEÁN: What do you paint?

RUBEN: I’ve been learning some classical style painting, so I’ve been doing portraits. I finished a portrait of Sarah Van Patten for her birthday a couple of years ago. I enjoy finding the challenges. I love doing figures and, of course, landscapes. It takes a lot of patience and I like to take my time with it. It’s a hobby and I really splurge.

Sarah Van Patten, by Ruben Martin
SARAH VAN PATTEN, by Ruben Martin

SEÁN: One last shot, OK? What do you want my readers to really know about you?

RUBEN: That’s an interesting question. I’ve not thought about what I want people to know about me. I’m a passionate dancer. I want to give all of myself to every performance I dance. I’m very knowledgeable about what the roles in dancing are and how much energy I invest into them.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin – Balanchine's Diamonds, Photo, Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin – Balanchine’s Diamonds. Photo, Erik Tomasson

For more information on Program 7, JEWELS, which includes Emeralds, Rubies, and Dianmonds, Click here: JEWELS

Visit Seán on YouTube:
Lorena Feijóo – A Look at “Giselle” with Seán Martinfield
SAMSON & DELILAH – Meet Seán Martinfield
CA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES – A Preview Look with Seán Martinfield

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