Robert de Warren dances with destiny

Bradenton Herald – The 76-year-old former director of the Sarasota Ballet taught master classes at the Festival of International Dance in Salt Lake City this month.

He frequently watches “So You Think You Can Dance” on TV.

Now, he’s been busy staging his popular version of “The Nutcracker” with the Sarasota Ballet and the Sarasota Ballet School and Dance — The Next Generation. The timeless holiday tale of Clara and the gift of a wooden Nutcracker that comes to life during the night will be performed Friday and Saturday at the Sarasota Opera House.

“These kids were perfect,” de Warren, who may be best remembered locally for his choreography on “Madame Butterfly,” said after rehearsals last week. “They were all in line. So I was really very pleased. It’s nice to come back and do something with the company after all these years.”

Three years have passed since de Warren left the Sarasota Ballet, which is now led by Iain Webb.

De Warren said he misses working with the ballet company and the friendships he forged with the dancers. But the time away has led him to other adventures, such as traveling and finishing a memoir he started nearly 30 years ago when he returned to England from Iran.

His fond, vivid memories of Iran are what prompted him to write “Destiny’s Waltz — In Step With Giants.” Those are memories he’d like to share with a world that has a different view of Iranians.

“I’m really concerned at the mistaken impression the West has of Iran,” de Warren said during an interview at his Sarasota home. “Because of the government and the religious fanatics, they think the country’s like that, so they throw them all in with the Arab revolutionaries, Islamists and all of that, but they are not. I don’t think that helps for peace negotiations when one doesn’t know one’s opponents’ virtues as well as their faults.”

His time in Iran is part of a life that spans from Uruguay to Sarasota.

The 400-plus pages of “Destiny’s Waltz,” released in July, begins with de Warren’s earliest memories of childhood in Uruguay. His father was Anglo/Irish and owned a large estate. His mother was British/Italian. Life growing up was filled with various struggles for the would-be international dancer, director and choreographer.

“I had many complexes and timidity and all sorts of things that just made me feel like I wasn’t suitable for anything,” said de Warren, who has worked with many star dancers and celebrities over the course of his life. “It took me years to get over that, and it was really thanks to the ballet.”

Before then, de Warren didn’t think twice about dance. He was studying to be a musician and composer while working as a banker at the Royal Bank of Canada. After his mother complained continuously about the noise he made as he practiced the violin, he switched gears and joined his sister in ballet class out of frustration, he said.

Dance became a way for him to express himself. It was also the way he met his wife, Jacqueline, who attended the same dance class. They have been inseparable ever since, he said.

After a bank promotion sent him to London, he continued attending ballet classes. Three months later he was offered a scholarship to become a professional dancer. That quickly ended his banking career. During a highly prestigious stint with the Royal Ballet in London, where he was groomed by founder Ninette de Valois, a health condition in his foot took him away from dancing full time. That’s when life offered another amazing twist.

The director of the Royal Ballet suggested he fill the job opening for director with the National Ballet of Iran. De Warren was there from 1964-1978, experiencing a country filled with culture at every turn. Part of de Warren’s job was to expose the world to that culture through dance. He traveled worldwide, showcasing the National Ballet in other countries. Through that he met more than 50 dignitaries and celebrities. He crossed paths with former U.S. President Gerald Ford, author Agatha Christie, Hollywood film director Elia Kazan, actress Elke Sommer and many others, including Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who became good friends with de Warren.

De Warren left Iran a year before the revolution began.

“I was lucky,” he said. “I saw it happening so I got out.”

Life went on with de Warren directing and choreographing at ballet companies in England, Italy and finally Sarasota.

He has especially loved choreography.

“It’s very important that (dance) has a connection with human sensitivity,” he said. “I love this new trend of American dance that is really coming from everybody. It’s not just some sort of highfalutin ballet like the classics were. It’s now for everybody. This is what I want to do, to create works that really have that acceptance.”

Which is why he loves “So You Think You Can Dance” so much.

But there’s always room for the classics.

De Warren is glad to see that Webb has brought never-before-seen traditional English ballets to America.

“I think it is risky, but it’s good,” he said.

With de Warren’s first book finished, the publishers have asked him to write another — this time with a more in-depth look on his experiences in Iran be compared to how the West viewed Iran at the time.

While working on the book, de Warren has been busy preserving the knowledge of the Persian culture and its ethnic and courtly dances that were lost during the Iranian revolution. He’s also excited to attend a performance in his honor in London’s Barbican Centre in May and he’s also working to expand the dance he choreographed for local artist Jack Dowd’s “Last Call” for a performance in Las Vegas.

“And I also want to go on doing my productions of ballet,” he said. “I can’t forget that. That’s a major part of my life.”

published Nov. 29, 2009

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