In Memoriam: Rodolfo Mendez
Remembering the founder of Ballet East Dance Theatre
By Robert Faires,
6:20PM, Tue. May 7, 2019
A man who devoted four decades of his life to bringing dance to students on Austin's Eastside, changing countless lives in the process, has left us. Rodolfo Méndez, founder of Ballet East Dance Theatre and its guiding light since 1978, died Sunday evening, May 5. He was 74.
An Austin native, Méndez – known universally as Rudy – began his dance career learning folklorico at the Pan American Recreation Center. Though he would go on to win a statewide competition in high school, study at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City, and study flamenco dance and culture in Spain through a Fulbright scholarship, it was a three-year stint in the Peace Corps that had the most powerful effect on the direction of Méndez's life. His time in Costa Rica and Chile developing dance and theatre programs for students in primary and secondary schools gave him a sense of purpose that he wanted to bring back to his hometown.
"Dance opened all doors for me," he said, "and I wanted other young people to have the same opportunities."
In Ballet East, Méndez created a community arts organization in the truest sense of the term: its work being as much about the community as the art, the two inextricably intertwined. He began teaching classes and training students in the gym of Martin Middle School, giving young dancers and choreographers a place where they could develop their skills and flourish, working in a variety of modern styles with guest artists ranging from local choreographers with Ballet Austin and the UT Department of Theatre & Dance to national dance makers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance School, Joyce Trisler Danscompany, and Philadanco. One of Méndez's young charges started with the company at age 14, and now Melissa Villarrealis Ballet East's artistic director. Since 1989, Méndez also reached thousands of young Austinites through Dare to Dance, a theatre/dance program that uses performance to enhance a child's self-assurance and critical thinking skills and has been repeatedly recognized by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as an outstanding arts education program. In 2009, with a six-figure grant from Impact Austin, Méndez established the Eastside Dance Academy, a transformative dance program at Eastside Memorial High School.
His decades of dedicated effort did not go unnoticed by the community. In 2006, the Austin Critics Table inducted Méndez into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. In 2014, the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center presented him with the Award of Excellence. The Austin History Center recognized Méndez as one of Austin's Trailblazers. And People in the Defense of the Earth and Her Resources (PODER) presented him with the Cesar E. Chavez "Si Se Puede!" Award for his commitment and dedication to the community. Austin shall not see his like again.
Memorial services are pending. Memorial donations may be made at balleteast.org.