Harold Mendez performing the Black Swan act III variation at the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School's end of year performance.

The Sarasota Cuban Ballet School (SCBS) was founded by former Sarasota Ballet principal dancers Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez to bring the technical precision and distinctly Afro-Caribbean character of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Cuban National Ballet) to the Sarasota community. Six years later, they have former students dancing with prestigious ballet companies around the world—including their own son, Francisco Serrano, a dancer with the Royal Ballet in London—and have now coached a current student, Harold Mendez, to winning a bronze medal at the 11th annual U.S.A. International Ballet Competition (USA IBC) in Jackson, Mississippi.

Mendez began his ballet career in Cuba, taking classes at the renowned Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet (Cuban National Ballet School) before he relocated to the United States with his family. The director of the Cuban National Ballet School, Ramona de Sáa, reached out to Serrano and asked if Mendez could continue training in the Cuban tradition as part of the SCBS.

Serrano said why not.

Three years later, Mendez is now on track to become one of the most promising ballet dancers in the country, with offers already pouring in for him to join dance companies throughout North America when he graduates from Sarasota High School next year. “I immediately saw his talent,” Serrano says. “He identifies with the stage; he identifies with the challenge. He’s hungry for dance, which is unique because he’s only 16 years old. He can already see his future and because of that he works hard, harder than most.”

Harold Mendez at the USA International Ballet Competition Award Ceremony. 

Mendez and Serrano prepared for the USA IBC for almost six months, scheduling extra practice time in between Mendez’s already full SCBS schedule and his schoolwork. Mendez performed six solo variations—four classical and two contemporary—during the almost two-week long competition. His classical variations included works from Paquita, Swan Lake, Flames of Paris, and Le Roi Candaule—each of which features distinct characterization and costuming. “The difficulty is in the different characters, the different emotions, that you have to show in each variation,” Serrano explains. “There were so many little things we had to do to make these minute-and-a-half works unique that it took a really long time.”

The variations Mendez performed at the US IBC will be a part of SCBS’s upcoming two-part showcase on July 28 at the Sarasota Opera House. The first show, a matinee performance at 2 p.m., will feature a mix of contemporary and classical works performed by the more than 50 young dancers who participated in SCBS’s six-week summer ballet intensive. The second performance, at 7 p.m., is a showcase of SCBS’s most promising students and alumnus, with performances by advanced students like Mendez as well as special guest performances by dancers from The Royal Ballet, The Royal Swedish Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet.

Serrano wants to give the community an opportunity to see the pieces Mendez performed at the competition as a way of thanking the Sarasota community for their support of Mendez and his participation in the USA IBC. “I think the way he [Mendez] is and the way he dances, people should know him around the world, but the most important part is that we have him here, in this community,” Serrano says. “We had great support from the community. We asked and they came through. Thanks to them we could do something like this [go to the USA IBC], because it’s very expensive and very difficult for someone like us who doesn’t have a lot of means. We only have the passion and the quality of the work.”

Despite being a “lion” on the stage, Mendez is surprisingly taciturn in real life. Displaying the shy reservation endemic to 16-year-olds everywhere, he chimes in only at the end of our almost 30-minute interview to express his gratitude to his family, to SCBS and to the Sarasota community for their support and for providing him with the dedication and passion he needs to continue pursuing a career in ballet. With dreams of competing in the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland in February 2019 before following in the footsteps of his idol, Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, and going on to join the Royal Ballet in London, Mendez’s ballet career is only just beginning. His future certainly looks bright.

For tickets and information about Sarasota Cuban Ballet School’s summer showcase performances, call (941) 328-1300, Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or visit tickets.sarasotaopera.org.

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