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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Living it Up

"Dance is like oxygen. I can't imagine life without dance."

“Dance is like oxygen. I can’t imagine life without dance.”

Children cast as party boys in “The Nutcracker” tend to march about and play follow the leader more than dance.

An 8-year-old Michael Burfield, however, stayed on stage because, thanks to gymnastics training, he could supply a cute little flip. That left him in the wings with a clear view, rather than backstage, when Ballet Lubbock’s guest artist appeared to dance as the cavalier.

Nine years later, Burfield recalls feeling awed.

He left the Civic Center that day and told his mother he wanted to learn how to perform leaps just as graceful, and just as high, as that guest artist. He enrolled in his first ballet classes right after Christmas.

Burfield never left.

Instructors in two cities now expect this 17-year-old dancer to enjoy success in the world of professional ballet. He’s traveled light years from that moment when he asked his mom, “What’s a nutcracker?”

Edward Truitt is the former artistic director of Amarillo’s Lone Star Ballet and the director of dance at West Texas A&M University in Canyon. Having worked with Burfield for years, Truitt will feature the Lubbock dancer in his own original, neo-classical ballet called “Empty Embrace” in the spring.

He hoped that Burfield also would take university classes, but that appears unlikely. Burfield studied the past two summers on scholarship with the Joffrey Ballet in New York City and the Carolina Ballet. Much like a Kobe Bryant who could not wait to join the NBA after high school, Burfield plans to just keep dancing.

And Yvonne Racz Key, Ballet Lubbock’s artistic director, thinks betting on Burfield’s success is a sure thing.michael-burfield16-in-ballet-lubbock-nutcracker-2007

This week, she added, will be Lubbock’s final chance to see him in “The Nutcracker.” He has come a long way since his party boy introduction.

This week Burfield will dance four roles: Toy Soldier, Mouse King, Arabian Prince and Russian Dancer. Key also cast him in the male lead of the cavalier in the company’s outreach performances.

“Physically, Michael has the perfect body for ballet: long legs, developed feet, and he is flexible,” she said. “He has a gift for performance. He has excellent stage presence. He picks up choreography very quickly.

“Michael has given complete focus and dedication to ballet as long as I have known him. … What’s more, he is 100 percent dedicated. He has never allowed anything to conflict with his dance training. He pushes himself so hard that I don’t need to push him.”

Truitt agrees. He said, “Michael is dedicated to his art form, and he has a work ethic that is rare these days.

“He is the kind of dancer whom every choreographer wants to work with – not just because of his ability as a dancer, but also because of his work ethic, his selflessness, his loyalty, his passion for the art, and his ability to solve problems rather than create them.”

But Burfield tries to maintain a healthy passion and avoid obsession. “There’s more to me than dance,” he said. “I feel I have a healthy social life.” He takes time to hang out with friends. They see movies together, and he said, “We also go bowling sometimes, and I don’t mind falling on my ass and making a fool of myself.”

Such a visual would seem unlikely to those who have witnessed his graceful turns and extensions while performing in ballets.

Key noted that, at present, Burfield needs to add strength.

“He is a very good partner, but he still needs to work on building his strength so that he can be a solid partner to different types of dancers,” she said. “He needs to be working in a company where there are other male dancers his own age, who are just as talented, and some even more talented. They can push him more and make him that much better.

“He definitely will make it as a professional dancer, and I expect Michael to rise very quickly in whichever professional company he joins.”

Burfield has been home-schooled since childhood, and he said that he is ready to make the jump into the professional ranks right now. He will begin auditioning for professional companies after his spring performance. He said he’s already researched more than 30 prospective ballet companies.

Key added that there are several gifted male dancers in her company this year, including Stephen Anaya and Texas Tech students Joseph Rodriguez and Jeff Smith.

She labeled Burfield her “most advanced male dancer.”

He gives partial credit to his work with other companies. “At the Joffrey,” said Burfield, “I learned so much in terms of technique. That is their main focus. They polished me to the point where I feel nothing can hold me back.

“Then this past summer, with the Carolina Ballet, I focused on artistry. I decided what I liked best about each dancer, and tried to apply their techniques. One might be a great turner, and I’d try to figure out how he perfected his turns. Another might be a great jumper, and someone else might have beautiful extension.

“I tried to focus on that and analyze how they did it.”

Truitt said, “Many dance companies now prefer dancers with college backgrounds because of the variety of educational experiences college has to offer, and the maturity it engenders.”

But Burfield said, “My parents and I decided together that college is not the best thing for me right now, not if I want all my dreams to come true. College can take a long time to get through, and a dancer’s body ages quickly.

“I could graduate from college at 22, and have just an eight-year career. Or I can plan my career right now, and it might last for 14 or 15 years.”

The determined young dancer added, “These past summers I spent away from home have helped me a lot. Last summer, especially, has helped prepare me to be on my own.”


© 2008 The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

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