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ORLANDO, Fla. - Fernando Bujones, artistic director of the Orlando Ballet and a Cuban-American ballet prodigy who earned a place among the great classical dancers of the late 20th century, died early Thursday morning in Miami. He was 50.
"Fernando came to Orlando Ballet and took an average local company and made it into a world-class organization," said Tricia Earl, past president of the ballet board. "He was an exceptional gift to the world of dance - not only as a performer but with the legacy he leaves."
Bujones, who had announced seven weeks ago that he had lung cancer, succumbed to complications from malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, Orlando Ballet executive director Russell Allen said. "It was a very brief and unexpected battle with melanoma, because they really thought they were battling lung cancer."
Bujones' wife, Maria, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Alejandra Kubitschek Bujones, were with him at a Miami hospital when he died.
Bujones, who had a globe-circling, 28-year performing career before he became a choreographer and company director, was regarded as one of the top male dancers in the world.
He was "the greatest American classical dancer of his generation," wrote New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff on the occasion of Bujones' 1995 farewell performance with American Ballet Theatre, a company with which he had a more than two-decade association.
"Fernando will be missed as a friend and colleague by so many people," said American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie, a fellow principal dancer with Bujones in the 1980s. "With his stellar career as a performer behind him, he was claiming another stellar career as a teacher and director that he leaves behind too soon. We are all poorer for it."
In his five years as director of the Orlando Ballet, he refashioned the 28-member company in his image, turning it into a team of highly individual dancers with bravura abilities and expanding its repertory.
Both Bujones' name and his exacting standards helped to raise the Orlando Ballet's image with audiences in general and Hispanic audiences in particular. Young dancers from the company and its associated school won medals at recent national and international ballet competitions.
It was just such a medal that vaulted Bujones to fame in 1974. At age 19, he won the gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, - the first American to do so. The judges also sent him home with a special award for highest technical achievement.
His near-flawless technique, described by the New York Times' Kisselgoff as "an awe-inspiring combination of power and purity," was the hallmark of a long performing career in which he danced all of the major classical and many contemporary roles. He performed with more than 60 companies in 33 countries and danced with many of the era's great ballerinas, among them Margot Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland.
Bujones performed at the White House in 1986 for President Reagan, and in 1987 was the first American to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. He was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2002.
The latter was a point of special pride to him in the state he called home. His Web-site biography termed it "the highest honor in his career."
Bujones was born March 9, 1955, during a visit by his Cuban mother to relatives in Miami. Mother and son returned to Cuba, and Bujones began studying ballet there at age 7.
His mother had been taking ballet classes, he said in a 1999 interview, and when a pediatrician suggested an exercise program to improve her son's poor appetite, she began taking Bujones along.
At age 9, Bujones, his mother and cousin Zeida Cecilia-Mendez - his lifelong ballet coach - left Cuba for Miami. Two years later Bujones received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York City, and the trio relocated again.
After graduating in 1972, he joined American Ballet Theatre, and at age 19 became the youngest principal dancer in ABT's history.
A naturally endowed dancer, he was noted for his classic line, his elevation in jumps and, especially, his entrechats, or beats in the air.
"He set an example of what you could do as an original dancer," said Kisselgoff in a 2004 interview. "Amid all the buzz about the Russian defectors, he represented an American model."
Bujones' career was driven by passion for his art, an unyielding work ethic and ambition. But some accused him of self-aggrandizement.
In 1990, when Bujones was a freelance artist trekking his talents around the globe, New Yorker critic Arlene Croce faulted him for surrendering "his gifts" to "marketability" and offering "sure-fire routines in place of a performance."
But the artist saw it differently.
"I know what I can do and it's a very exhilarating feeling, so I just let myself go," he told Dance Magazine in 1976. "I don't think that's arrogance."
One long, bitter note in Bujones' career was his rivalry with the great Russian emigre Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The arrival of the stunning Russian dancer in the West - Baryshnikov defected in the summer of 1974, at nearly the same time as Bujones' victory at Varna - affected Bujones from the start.
"Baryshnikov has the publicity, I have the talent," the young dancer brashly told the press after his Varna win. It was a dare heard `round the ballet world.
Baryshnikov joined ABT in 1974, and the two competed for the best roles. Their rivalry continued off and on until 1985 when Bujones left to take his talent on the road. He returned frequently as a guest artist after 1990, and his final performance with the company was in 1995.
The close of Bujones' performing career opened a new chapter of teaching, choreographing, staging classical ballets and directing.
He became artistic director of Ballet Mississippi in 1993, but the company went bust after a year. Some blamed him for the company's demise, but Bujones said the Jackson, Miss., ensemble had been in dire financial straits before he arrived. He later credited his difficulties there as a painful period of lessons and personal growth that helped him succeed in Orlando.
He also headed companies in Mexico and Spain, and was exploring the possibility of a company in Miami when he was tapped for the Orlando Ballet, formerly Southern Ballet Theatre, in 1999.
"Fernando Bujones' gift to all of us was his passion for dance and teaching and the way in which he inspired all with whom he worked," said Orlando Ballet board president Linda Landman-Gonzalez. "His inspiration to so many across the world, and most importantly to all of us here at Orlando Ballet, will always be a part of us."
Bujones was married twice. His first wife was Marcia Kubitschek, daughter of former Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek. They had a daughter, Alejandra.
After their divorce, Bujones married Peruvian dancer Maria Arnillas, whom he met in 1991. The two danced together at the Boston Ballet, and she has served as his assistant at the companies he directed, including Orlando Ballet.
Bujones had been treated at the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center since September.
Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by his mother, Mary Calleiro, father Fernando Bujones Sr., half-brother Manny Bujones, half-sisters Susi and Annette Bujones and cousin Zeida Cecilia-Mendez.
A funeral will be held in Miami on Monday. The family ask that instead of flowers, contributions be made to the Orlando Ballet's Fernando Bujones Endowment Fund.
Asked in 2000 what he hoped his legacy might be, Bujones said, speaking of himself in the third person:
"He can dramatically alter the artistic standards of a company by the outstanding knowledge and experience his career has enriched him with. Moreover, his humane, caring qualities place him in a class of his own. Every dancer who has worked with him has only the best to say about him."
The 28 dancers of the Orlando Ballet might say he got it right. In a statement issued soon after Bujones was diagnosed with cancer in September, they said:
"He has taught us to strive for perfection, and has infused into us his iron will and strength of mind. It is time for us to show him we have learned from his example."
(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.