Movin' on Up

Melissa Villarreal's life was changed by Ballet East

Melissa Villarreal (l) and Ballet East dancer J.P. Flores
Melissa Villarreal (l) and Ballet East dancer J.P. Flores (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Melissa Villarreal is darting around the gymnasium at Martin Middle School, desperately seeking someone who can help her. It's summer 1987 and the Eastside teenager, fresh out of eighth grade, has just seen Ballet East Dance Company perform an experimental piece called The Vagrant. With an Austin-skyline backdrop to produce an urban atmosphere and soap-opera-style background music to set the mood, the show alternated spoken-word segments with modern dance to comment on city life and poverty in the community. Most of the patrons had paid just $3 to see the show, but Villarreal, who had recently begun taking free dance classes through a Ballet East outreach program at Montopolis Recreation Center, had scored a free ticket from her teacher. She had come out of curiosity, thinking it might be interesting to see a performance live rather than on television, but sitting on the crowded bleachers, she had experienced a revelation that shook her all the way down to her jelly shoes.

"I was just blown away," she remembers. "I had never seen anything, I had never been to a live theatre or dance performance before, and I remember just watching the dancers and thinking, 'Wow, that is so beautiful.' I remember seeing Rudy," – that would be Rodolfo Mendez, Ballet East director and founder – "and that's what motivated me more than anything, that I could identify with this Hispanic man who was just fierce and moving. And after the performance, I was just so focused that this was what I wanted to do."

Short for her age but with hair teased up inches above her head, the 14-year-old raced among the performers and patrons, asking questions for which everyone had the same answer: "You have to talk to Rudy." Eventually she cornered Mendez, introduced herself, and cut to the chase: "Can you teach me how to do that?" They discussed her dance experience, which took just seconds since it consisted only of breakdancing and a newly awarded place on Del Valle High School's drill team. Mendez told her to come to company class. "We'll see what happens," she remembers him saying.

What happened was that after the first class, Villarreal became the youngest member of Ballet East. The requirements to qualify back then were pretty basic: "If you could move and you danced, you were in," says Mendez. Not only could Villarreal move, but she could count music. She performed only small roles, but Mendez encouraged her, driving her in his maroon Mustang to and from rehearsals and classes when her parents could not. Realizing that she must have some potential if the teacher was spending his own gas money to get her to practice, Villarreal worked hard, graduated from high school, and committed herself to dance as a life – albeit one that is often relegated to evenings and weekends by the necessity of a day job. (She is the cultural arts and enrichment programs coordinator at the nonprofit Southwest Key.)

Villarreal became both disciple and assistant to Mendez. At first, he used her as a demonstrator to get his points across to the other dancers; later, even though he is a self-described control freak, Mendez began entrusting her with rehearsals. Now 35, Villarreal is in her 12th year, officially, as assistant artistic director, a post with a job description that's always evolving. In addition to running rehearsals and coordinating choreographers and dancers of diverse backgrounds who, collectively, weave a pretty colorful tapestry of contemporary dance, she's continually developing her own choreographic work.

Ballet East rehearsal for <i>Pushing Boundaries</i>
Ballet East rehearsal for Pushing Boundaries (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Seated in his living room in mid-November, Mendez and Villarreal discussed the history of the company while taking turns bragging about each other. Villarreal on Mendez: "There have been times when Rudy won't even pay himself because it's so important to him to pay the dancers and choreographers." Mendez on Villarreal: "She won't tell you this, but she was singled out by [renowned dancer and teacher] Carmen de Lavallade." Mendez, who will tell you that he dislikes the nickname "Rudy" even though that's what everyone calls him, launched Ballet East in 1978 as a folklorico company. In the early 1980s, he shifted the artistic focus to modern dance, but traditional forms are still taught – sometimes with a twist, says Mendez – in outreach classes. The company's decades-old mission is twofold: Bring dance to the community, and bring the community to dance. With very little overhead – the company is granted space in the girls' gym at Martin Middle School and performs at the smallish, city-run Dougherty Arts Center – the organization pretty much works off grant money. Even adult open classes are, at maximum, $5 – one-third to one-fourth the industry standard. Mendez regards charging people as "a hassle."

At age 62, he says he now prefers to work with kids, especially those lacking exposure to dance and theatre. (Ballet East's Dare to Dance program, recognized as "one of the top afterschool ... programs in the country," reaches 250-350 youth per year.) "I don't think an artistic director or founder ever goes away – until he kaputs," he says, but he's delegated much of the artistic say to Villarreal, whose directorial skills impress him. "Since I've given her the leeway, I think she's rougher than I am. In a way, I trained her well."

True, Villarreal is Mendez's ultimate success story. "She meets the whole mission of what I was trying to do. She wasn't the only one – we brought in several people from the neighborhood who eventually went on and got married or did other things. But she was the one who followed up with it," he says. "I saw a spark in her, and I knew she could choreograph."

That's something Villarreal has been doing since grade school. Home alone for an hour after school before her parents finished work, she would create routines for herself and her two sisters to songs from Studio 54 albums. "We would put on our little dresses, and I would tell my sisters, 'OK, when this woman sings this, you do this move,'" Villarreal remembers. The television dance show Solid Gold also informed her early taste. "There was this African-American woman who was the lead dancer, and I would put my little headband on and imitate her," she says. Though costly extracurricular activities like dance classes were out of the question, her parents were always a receptive audience at home.

When Villarreal was born, her mother and father were just 16 and 17. Villarreal was a toddler when they moved from Corpus Christi to Austin, leaving the support of the extended family behind. "Even though my dad was only a teenager," Villarreal says, "he was just set on wanting to make a life for his family. He wanted to have the American dream and a house for his kids." After he landed a job as an equipment operator for the city, the family was able to buy a house on the Eastside. Once Villarreal and her two sisters were in school (the youngest sibling, a brother, was born several years later), her mother passed the GED and worked various jobs to supplement the family's income.

"You know, I was a young Hispanic girl in the barrio, being raised by teenage parents who couldn't afford very much, who, and I mean this respectfully, but who were not very thoroughly educated. They didn't know what it was that I had a talent in," says Villarreal. Now, though, after having attended all of her performances, her family probably understands what's what in dance. They only missed one show, when her father, who gave her the name "Li'l Magic," was in the hospital. He died last year after struggling with illness and a work-related disability.

Rodolfo Rudy Mendez
Rodolfo "Rudy" Mendez (Photo by Sandy Carson)

By the 1980s, breakdancing had trickled down from New York to Austin, and Villarreal's stage transitioned from the living room to the neighborhood, where she earned the name "Breakin' Bones." At first, she and her friends danced on cardboard atop the driveway of the vacant house next door; later, they scored some linoleum from someone's dad's flooring business. Villarreal compares breakdancers in the 1980s to kids today who do krump, a newer form of street dance. "Our parents are not equipped financially enough to send us to go take classes," she explains, "but yet there's talent there, so we just kind of find our own talent."

To be a good breakdancer, you have to create unexpected things on the fly, and spontaneity is still important in Villarreal's choreographic process. "We just did whatever we felt through the music and just poured it out," says Villarreal, "and you were just doing whatever you could, doing your best, especially if you were competing." Yet, she says, the same conditions that allowed breakdancing fostered gangs. "You know, you were young, and you were kind of foolish, and you just took it a notch higher," she says, "and I can honestly say that going into Ballet East kept me out of that, because a lot of my friends ended up in those areas."

Nothing in the driveway or living room prepared Villarreal for structured dance classes. She remembers the first time she attended a lesson at Montopolis Rec: "The teacher was giving a classical barre, and when she said, 'Let's go into first position and plié,' I was like, 'What in the world is this?'" Once she joined the company of seasoned adults, she was insecure about her lack of experience and skill as well as her body type: Reaching only 4 feet, 11 inches and lacking the svelteness often associated with dancers, she was going against all odds physically. But a stubborn streak didn't allow her to quit, and she credits the support of some sympathetic older dancers, her family, and Mendez. (She calls him her mentor; her mom calls him her "other mom.")

Villarreal also didn't quit the drill team, serving as captain her junior and senior years and sometimes even choreographing routines. She won awards at drill team camps and competitions and was invited twice to perform in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, though her family could not afford to send her.

After graduation, Villarreal worked part-time and began some college courses, but when her father became injured and unable to work, she quit school in favor of a 9-to-5 income that would help support the family. Without the commitments of studying or drill team, she spent more time in Ballet East classes and was cast in more pieces, including one by Regina Larkin, a guest choreographer from New York, where she is artistic director of the Joyce Trisler Danscompany. As Villarreal worked with Larkin, her technique and artistry developed. "I remember just watching her move," Villarreal says. "She's an excellent teacher, and I absorbed everything that she had to give."

She was shocked when Larkin invited her to a two-week summer session of master classes in New York. And when Larkin offered up her apartment and Mendez came up with the plane fare, Villarreal obtained leave at her day job and, for the first time, crossed the Texas state line. Though New York City was initially intimidating, the influential teachers and talented classmates challenged and inspired her. She returned home ready to create her own work, and her first piece, "And God Created Woman," premiered on Ballet East in 1997.

Villarreal describes her choreographic process as nonacademic and instigated by music. "It goes back to breakdancing," she says. "Whatever the music started to do, you just found the rhythm and started moving." For her new piece, "The Accused," one of eight ballets in Ballet East's program Pushing Boundaries this week, she began with music by Tool as arranged for a string quartet. "The music sounded so wicked that it made me think of witchery," she explains. So she began researching the history and psychology of the Salem witch trials. She considers herself a storyteller type of choreographer: "I like to have a beginning, a climax, and an end." The new piece is her longest ever (16 minutes) and incorporates more dancers than she's used before (14).

Mendez no longer creates new work – "It's too stressful when you have an imagery and it doesn't come out the way you want it" – but he sees Villarreal's new piece as part of some serious choreographic talent that is necessary for the company's progress. Mendez recalls a conversation he had with black dance icon Alvin Ailey some 20 years ago: "He told me: 'You can never stop choreographing. Once you stop, you're not going back.'" It's apparent that the future of the company largely belongs to Villarreal and the dance community that Mendez has created. Villarreal has a plan: "I'm going to win the lottery," she fantasizes, "and create a studio and have a statue of Rudy in front. I'll call it the Mendez School of Modern Dance." Someone buy her a ticket.

Ballet East's Pushing Boundaries runs Dec. 4-7, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm, at Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd. For more information, call 474-8497 or visit

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Ballet East, Melissa Villarreal, Rodolfo Mendez, Regina Larkin

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