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Orlando Ballet leader Fernando Bujones faces lung-cancer battle

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Fernando Bujones, the international ballet star who has re-energized the Orlando Ballet in five years as the company's artistic director, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, the organization announced Tuesday.

A biopsy will determine the best treatment, said Russell Allen, Orlando Ballet executive director. Doctors at Florida Hospital Orlando also removed a tumor from Bujones' skull Saturday, Allen said, but he had no details about that surgery.

"We have absolute faith in Fernando's ability to focus and be at his best to overcome this and recover," ballet-board President Linda Landman-Gonzalez said Tuesday.

Bujones said in a statement that he is inspired by Lance Armstrong's successful battle back from cancer and expects to get well and return to Orlando Ballet.

Bujones, 50, is a Cuban-American ballet prodigy who soared to fame in 1974 as the first American to win a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition. Since 2000, he has directed Orlando's 28-member professional ballet company. He also has been instrumental in reaching out to the area's Hispanic community and increasing the ballet's Hispanic audiences.

Bujones' diagnosis comes on the heels of two other prominent lung-cancer cases. ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, 67, died of lung cancer Aug. 7. Two days later, Dana Reeve, the 44-year-old widow of actor Christopher Reeve and chairwoman of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, announced she is undergoing treatment for lung cancer.

Jennings was a longtime smoker, but Reeve had never smoked. Bujones is not a smoker. About 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women who get lung cancer are nonsmokers, health experts say.

Statistically, about 172,000 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. When cancer is limited to the lung, the survival rate after five years is 49 percent, but only 2 percent of patients live five years if the cancer spreads.

Bujones was overseeing rehearsals for the Orlando company's Oct. 7 season-opener until just over a week ago. He entered Florida Hospital on Sept. 20 to determine the cause of a persistent cough and bronchial problems, Allen said.

Bujones and his wife, Maria, who works as his assistant, have taken a three-month leave of absence. They may go to Miami, Bujones' birthplace and the city he calls home, for his cancer treatment.

Landman-Gonzalez said she and Maria Bujones told the company's dancers of his illness Tuesday morning.

"There was sadness and surprise - every emotion you can imagine. It came out of the blue for everyone," Landman-Gonzalez said.

"But this group is so focused on Fernando and everything he has given them. They are absolutely dedicated to that, and they are rehearsing as we speak."

In the 1970s and `80s, Bujones had an illustrious career with American Ballet Theatre in New York City and as a guest soloist with ballet companies around the world. Along with Russian emigres Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, he helped set a higher standard for male ballet dancers.

Bujones' leadership at the Orlando Ballet has helped attract accomplished dancers and has won the company a reputation for polished, virtuoso performances.

"He is a great talent," says Ramon Ojeda, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, who knew of Bujones' reputation in his native Venezuela before he arrived in Central Florida in 2002. "We as a community have been able to benefit from his talent."


(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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