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Borderlands: Ingeborg Heuser Brought Professional Ballet to City 29 (2011-2012)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Ingeborg Heuser Brought Professional Ballet to City

Article first published in Vol. 29 (2011-2012)

By Iriana Fogle and Kathryn Guerra

Ballet, which began as a Renaissance Italian court entertainment, was further developed by French courts, particularly by Louis XIV in the 17th century. It evolved into a popular European and Russian form of dance and was established in the United States by Russian dancers in the 1930s.   In El Paso, the art of ballet arrived with German native Ingeborg Heuser, who came to the desert in 1954 and made it her home. True to the Southwest spirit, she pioneered local ballet, opening schools and entertaining locals, helping El Pasoans to learn and love ballet.


Image caption: Ingeborg Heuser has devoted her life to performing, choreographing and teaching ballet. (Photo courtesy of Ingeborg Heuser.)

Heuser was born in Berlin, Germany, and her mother, a student of modern dance instructor Rudolf Von Laben, encouraged her daughter to love the arts, as did her grandmother, a concert singer.

Heuser told El Paso Times reporter Ed Kimble in 1977 that her earliest ambition was to dance. “When you want to be a dancer,” Heuser stated, “it’s just in you.” From a very young age, she choreographed impromptu dances for her playmates and it was one such dance that began Heuser’s career. After she entertained a group of people at the Berlin Zoo, one of the spectators convinced Heuser’s mother that her daughter should be in dance school.

At the age of seven, Heuser auditioned at the Children’s Ballet School of Deutsche Oper, Berlin (The German State Opera in Berlin). According to the Times, however, it was Heuser’s comedy routine that got her accepted. “It seems I was fearful that the examiners wouldn’t notice me, so I decided to make them laugh,” Heuser said.

After a year of receiving dance education in the classroom, Heuser made her stage debut as a little Moor in the opera “Aida.” Most of Heuser’s early stage appearances were walkons, for which she earned the equivalent of $2.50 each performance. If she danced, she received $3.

Although dance training took up a great deal of her time, Heuser still had to complete her academic education, and as a result, her daily routine began early in the morning. “My mother woke me up, dressed me and poured coffee down me,” Heuser explained in the Times. Then it was off to school. Between stage calls, she read and studied and made it home about 1 a.m.

Although to many this type of childhood might seem difficult, for Heuser it was wonderful to grow up playing in the theater. She said, “How many children get to play with live elephants? How many get to play with knights in shining armor? Who gets to live in such a fantasy world? ... It was a life of great, great richness.”

Heuser was accepted as an apprentice at age 12 for the Deutsche Oper Corps de Ballet, from which she received her dancer’s diploma at age 14. At 15, Heuser was accepted as a dancer in the company and she began her solo career. Among her teachers were Victor and Tatjana Gsovsky, the latter being “one of the most important influences on German ballet in the 20th century and the leading German choreographer of the 1940s and 1950s,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Dance.

Between rehearsals and productions, Heuser found time to attend the Berlin Academy of Drama, where she studied under Johannes Guenther, a well-known drama critic. In 14 years with the ballet company, Heuser toured throughout Europe, performing in more than 1,500 theatrical productions, and appeared on the silver screen, dancing in six German films.

Heuser told Kimble that she wanted to see America, and so on a lark, she went to San Francisco in 1951. She was employed by the San Francisco Ballet, earning $5 a week. Being required to take a class for $2.50 a week left her unable to afford to stay with the company. “I had no idea the artists over here were starving to death,” she told the Times. She had quickly learned that this country did not support the fine arts as did her homeland.

While still in San Francisco, Heuser and a few friends were at a coffee house complaining about the low pay for those in the fine arts when Heuser asked why the government didn’t do something to help. “They said I was a communist,” Heuser recalled.

Realizing that employers were more interested in where she got her degree than her dancing experience, Heuser decided to get a college education. After not being able to afford the tuition at the University of California at Los Angeles, she was accepted as a special student at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

After only one week in Arizona, Heuser obtained a job teaching ballet, but she told the Times students didn’t return after the first class. “I didn’t know how to teach,” Heuser explained. “I think I scared them off.”

It was during her time in Tucson that Heuser met her first husband, Joe Weissmiller. Drafted by the Army shortly after their marriage, Weissmiller was sent to basic training in El Paso. Alone and pregnant with their first child, Heuser set off to meet her husband only to find that he had been transferred to Fort Leavenworth, KA.

Soon after her arrival in El Paso, Heuser found a job teaching ballet at the YWCA. On the way to work one day, Heuser fell asleep on the bus. When she awoke, she found herself at Magoffin Auditorium on the campus of Texas Western College, today’s University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Heuser told the Times that she remembered thinking how she would love to put on a production in such a wonderful theater, but it was a trip to Scenic Drive that sold Heuser on the city. Heuser told the Times that the view of three states and two countries impressed her. “I decided I wanted to bring dance to El Paso.”

Heuser began teaching in Virginia Weaver’s dance studio, and within two years, she opened her Ballet Centre Guild of El Paso at 929 Reynolds St. for students four years of age and older. In 1958, the Ballet Centre had its first performance in Magoffin Auditorium.

It was during one of the Ballet Centre’s early performances that Heuser’s long-standing career at UTEP began. In a 2006 UTEP online news article, Laura Ruelas wrote that in 1959, then-chairman of UTEP’s Music Department, E. A. Thormodsgaard, was so impressed with Heuser that he established the Texas Western Civic Ballet and hired her to run it. The dance company later became the University Civic Ballet and then Ballet El Paso in 1977. In 1960, ballet classes officially began at UTEP, the first university in the UT System to even offer ballet. For many years, UTEP offered a major in ballet.

Heuser eventually turned over her Ballet Centre to a longtime student, David Duran, so she could dedicate more time to the university. Over a 47-year tenure at UTEP, Heuser produced more than 35 ballets. Some of her original choreographed works include “The Red Shoes,” “Firebird,” “Carmen,” “Peter and the Wolf,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and of course, her best known and long-standing holiday production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

Not only did Heuser teach and choreograph for UTEP, but she has also had many guest instructor assignments in Berlin, Rome, Mexico City, Houston and Los Angeles. She has been a guest choreographer in Alabama, California, Utah and Italy. Heuser also directed three tours of Northern Mexico, all highly successful.

Heuser’s passion for ballet can also be seen in the success of her students, many of whom have gained national and international acclaim and have been accepted by major ballet companies all over the world. According to the personnel page of El Paso Conservatory of Dance, Heuser can boast of five gold and bronze medal winners in national and international competitions among her former students.

According to a 1964 El Paso Times article, Heuser’s former student Barbara Begany joined the San Francisco Ballet after graduation from Burges High School. On a visit to El Paso in 1964, the ballerina emphasized that Heuser demanded “hard work and dedication as a prerequisite of perfection.” In an interview for the article, Heuser said of Begany, “Many people have talent but that is not it. Many will work but do not have the energy. Ballet takes tremendous energy, and she has it.”

Besides dance, Heuser taught Begany other skills: knitting and costuming. With the money she made from her knitting, Begany paid for dance lessons for eight  years at Heuser’s Ballet Centre. She made the costumes for two ballets of the San Francisco company with the second skill. Heuser herself designed many costumes for her own productions and those of various operas.

Other students of Heuser’s have gone on to become exceptional dancers and instructors. Renee Segapeli danced professionally for Ballet El Paso for many years, after becoming its youngest apprentice at age 11 and winning several national competitions. In 1988, she and her husband Peter Fairweather, a dancer with Britain’s Royal Ballet, acquired the Cranford School of Ballet in England, changing its name to Southwest Ballet Arts. She and her husband, a former teacher at Ballet El Paso and UTEP, continue to run the school successfully.

Andree Harper, another of Heuser’s star pupils, teaches ballet at UTEP and privately at Champion Studio. In 1974, she was the first to receive a degree in ballet from UTEP. Her first view of Heuser was that she held “a big stick in her hand.” When she got to know her teacher, however, Harper realized that Heuser was tiny and [would] “quietly bat her eyelashes.” In a 2008 UTEP Prospector article, Harper called Heuser a “classical icon” and said she did “great, great things for the ballet program.”

Heuser’s dedication to her craft and her students did not come without a price. Her first marriage ended in divorce. After the birth of her second son, Christian, her second marriage also ended in divorce, but personal struggles were not the only battles to be fought.

In 1997, Ballet El Paso folded due to financial trouble. “That really affected me,” Heuser told Maribel Villalva of the Times on Dec. 2, 2006. “After that I even broke my arm [while dancing].”

In a personal interview with EPCC student, Iriana Fogle, who also was Heuser’s student, Heuser said that although there are struggles, all will be well in the end. “There is a God of Theatre, and as long as you worship him, you will be taken care of.”

In 2006, Heuser directed her last “Nutcracker,” the highlight of the holiday season for generations of El Pasoans. She directed the “Nutcracker” ballet for 45 years. Heuser’s last performances of the Christmas favorite were held at the Plaza Theater in downtown El Paso.

Ingeborg Heuser retired from UTEP in 2007, a few years after UTEP quit offering a ballet major. The ballet program was moved to the Theater Department from the Music Department, where it had been for decades, and placed under the aegis of UTEP’s Dinner Theater.

Retirement did not mean Heuser stopped teaching, however. She still teaches ballet at The El Paso Conservatory of Dance, established by a member of Heuser’s ballet company, Marta Katz.

Over her career, Heuser has received numerous awards from her adopted city, including the “Star of the Mountain” Lifetime Achievement Award from the City Council in 2005 and the YWCA’s REACH Award in 2006. The El Paso Association for the Performing Arts honored her with their Image Award, and Heuser was inducted into the El Paso Women’s Commision Hall of Fame in 2009.

For almost half a century, Heuser has entertained El Pasoans at the theater with her beautiful stage sets, elaborately made costumes and exquisite choreography. Through her dedication and passion, thousands of El Pasoans have been caught up in fanciful stories told with music and dance. Although she had to overcome struggles and make sacrifices, Heuser’s love for ballet and sharing that with El Paso has been paramount because, as she told the Times, “When you’re caught in the dance, you can’t get away.”

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