A rare dancer rises with the Miami Ballet

WASHINGTON — Washington -- Edward Villella, founder of the country's hottest ballet company, is considering the question: How did he come to hire his newest principal dancer?

"The phone rang one day, and there was Myrna," he says, shrugging in a sort of the-rest-is-history way.


It was perhaps inevitable that Myrna Kamara and the Miami City Ballet would find each other: She is a dancer steeped in the neo-classical tradition of George Balanchine, and she's black. The Miami City Ballet, similarly, has become a leading torchbearer of the late master's choreography and, not so coincidentally, one of the most ethnically diverse companies in the still white-dominated world of ballet.

The Baltimore-born Ms. Kamara, now 28, had been dancing in Europe since 1989, having tired of what she considered limited opportunities on this side of the Atlantic for black ballerinas. About five years ago, her brother, then living in Miami, called her and said, "Hey, have you heard about the Miami City Ballet?"


"I got on a flight, I auditioned, and I got in," she says simply enough. "I know what I want. I'm very good at knowing what I want."

Indeed, it is that sort of directness and drive that has fueled Ms. Kamara's rise in the competitive world of professional ballet.

As the Miami City Ballet continues to scale heights in its exciting first decade -- last night, the company danced a world premiere of a ballet commissioned by the Kennedy Center, a sure sign that it has ascended to the top tier of dance companies -- Ms. Kamara's own career is also shooting skyward. This fall, she will become a principal dancer, the highest rank in a company and one held currently by only four of the 43 dancers in the Miami troupe.

"I'm enjoying it," she says with relish, warming up yesterday before company class. "I'm very thankful to be involved in what's going on with the company, and contributing what I have to offer."

She began studying ballet at 6, following her oldest sister Sylvia first to teacher Ellen Gniazdowska in Baltimore, and several years later to Peggy Lynne in Randallstown. It was Ms. Lynne who encouraged her to head for New York.

Ms. Kamara is frank enough to admit to her hometown press that, no, she doesn't miss Baltimore. "There was nothing there for me."

She is the ideal Balanchine dancer, long and lithe, all high cheekbones and high leg extensions. You wonder, watching her grab an ankle and casually lift it to her ear or whipping off a triple pirouette, what Balanchine might have done with her had he not died in 1983, two years before she joined his company, the New York City Ballet.

She started as an apprentice and was promoted to the corps de ballet 14 months later. The corps is that hard-working and anonymous group that usually moves as one in the background as the stars do their star turns in front of them. Ms. Kamara languished at that level for longer than she wanted. She believes it was because of her race.


"You feel it, you see what happens," Ms. Kamara states. She had the occasional solo role -- the Arabian variation in "The Nutcracker," for example. "But that's one time a year," she says of the Christmas classic. "I wanted to promote myself beyond the corps."

And so she moved to Europe, where she found the spotlight that she long craved dancing for the Bonn Ballet and other companies.

Eventually, though, she came to miss her Balanchine roots and jumped at the chance to dance with the fast-rising Miami City Ballet. It was a match made in ballet heaven. Here's what one of the most respected dance critics in America, Arlene Croce of the New Yorker magazine, said in 1992:

"The most exciting dancer in 'Jewels,' the most exuberant and the wittiest, was Myrna Kamara. Other dancers may have performed both the bighearted, space-straddling showgirl of 'Rubies' and the role I think of as Melisande's in 'Emeralds,' but not usually in the same performance, and not like this. Kamara has re-created both characters; her natural energy unleashes something new on the ballet stage, and Villella is giving her chances she has never had before. She spent five years in New York City Ballet getting nowhere. Now, suddenly, she has a future."

Ms. Kamara agrees. "He just gives me everything. He did a ballet for me, 'Concerto for Summerdance.' He did the part on me," she says, her voice still full of wonder four years after receiving this most cherished gift that a choreographer can give a dancer.

"And when he brought 'Prodigal Son,' " she said of the Balanchine dramatic masterwork that Mr. Villella himself starred in, "he said it was for me."


The charismatic Mr. Villella is a hands-on director, charming the money people, orchestrating the company's rise from a small, 17-member troupe to the world-touring draw that it has become, and, most importantly, teaching and shaping the dancers to fit his vision. Ms. Kamara fits.

"She has an extraordinary physical presence, to put it mildly," he says.

This is no cookie-cutter company, where everyone has Rockette-like similar heights and styles. There are tall and short dancers, round and angular ones, every shade from white to Asian to Hispanic to black. (Ms. Kamara is one of two African-Americans.)

The company has had a mostly charmed life. Created from scratch in 1986, it rode the wave of Miami chic, as sleek as the Art Deco hotels of South Beach, as hot-cool as an episode of "Miami Vice."

It quickly became the darling of the dance press, which lauded its eclectic repertory of neoclassical Balanchine ballets and, appropriately for a Florida company, the Hispanic-inflected works by resident choreographer Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros.

Terry Teachout, associate editor of the New Dance Review, makes a provocative argument in the April issue of Mirabella magazine that the Miami company may even be surpassing the New York City Ballet as the premier Balanchine interpreter. The article also calls the "feisty" Ms. Kamara "one of Miami's most exciting younger dancers."


Ms. Kamara became a part of a slice of company history last night at the Kennedy Center when she danced one of the leading roles in the world premiere of "Mystery of the Dancing Princess," choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. The company is performing here until Sunday, and Ms. Kamara dances solo roles in both the new piece and in the "Rubies" section of the glittering, evening-length Balanchine trilogy, "Jewels."

By the time the curtain rose last night, Ms. Kamara and her fellow dancers had been going at full-bore since morning with company class, rehearsals and a pre-reception dinner for high-powered Florida and Washington figures.

"It's better to keep moving actually," Ms. Kamara said of the day's schedule that would prevent her from even a brief nap. "It keeps the momentum going."

Indeed, she is in constant motion. During class, as various groups leap and spin across the rehearsal room, she busies her off-floor time with tasks like breaking in new pointe shoes. One minute she's flying across the room, the next she is scissoring the pink satin off the toe part of the shoe to make them less slippery. Trailing bits of fabric like rose petals, she's streaking off to the center of the room again, dancing as if she never left.

The highly kinetic dancer was always like that, says her father, Ulysses Cameron. "We always tell her we think she should relax more," says Mr. Cameron, a retired librarian at the University of the District of Columbia. (His daughter altered the family name for her stage name, "Kamara," some years back.)

She married several years ago, and she and her husband, Pekka Maunuksela, who is Finnish and works as a computer specialist, now live in a suburb to the north of Miami. She teaches during her off hours and is planning to convert her garage into a ballet studio.


But ballet isn't her only life. She loves to socialize -- she and other company members take full advantage of the frenetic Miami Beach scene that surrounds them -- and travel. When her own dancing days end, she'll probably teach full time. Or not.

"I've always thought," she says, "I'd have a bar in the south of Spain."