Fernando Bujones, one of the greatest classical dancers of his generation and the first American to win a gold medal at the International Ballet Olympics, has died. He was 50.
Bujones announced seven weeks ago that he had lung cancer, but he died Thursday in Miami of complications from another form of cancer, melanoma.
Although he reached the pinnacle of fame inside the ballet world, greater renown was denied him by mischance.
In the summer of 1974, for instance, the great Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected at nearly the same time as Bujones won his ballet olympics medal, overshadowing the young American's triumph.
"Baryshnikov has the publicity, I have the talent," Bujones said at the time. And he was half-right: Both had the talent, but in Cold War America, a defection from the Soviet Union created instant stardom like nothing else.
Bujones had ideal physical proportions for ballet -- better than Baryshnikov's or Rudolf Nureyev's -- plus an impeccable sense of style that constantly refined his state-of-the-art virtuosity.
"Fernando will be missed as a friend and colleague by so many people," said American Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. "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."
Bujones was born March 9, 1955, in Miami to Cuban parents and received his early ballet training from Alicia Alonso in Havana and from his cousin Zaida Cecilia-Mendez. He later studied at the School of American Ballet in New York City on a Ford Foundation scholarship.
He made his professional debut with the Eglevsky Ballet in 1970 and joined American Ballet Theatre in 1972. In 1973, Arlene Croce, dance critic at the New Yorker magazine, called him "the outstanding male talent of the new generation in American ballet.... Bujones at present outdances everybody else on the stage, and lovers of classical dancing will rush to see him in anything."
He became a principal dancer at Ballet Theatre in 1974 after winning ballet's gold medal in Varna, Bulgaria. (The judges also awarded him a special medal for highest technical achievement.)
But the rivalry with Baryshnikov poisoned the air for Bujones at Ballet Theatre after the Russian joined the company, leading Bujones to make flamboyant but unwise repertory choices.
Croce 10 years later called his career a sad story "of great talent sacrificed to unworthy notions of stardom."
Bujones left Ballet Theatre in 1985 and became a popular guest artist throughout North and South America, Europe and Japan -- 60 companies in 33 countries. "My real home is still an airplane," he told the Boston Globe in 1991.
He danced at the White House for President Reagan in 1986 and the following year was the first American to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
Bujones began an ongoing relationship with the Boston Ballet in 1987, and in 1990 -- after Baryshnikov's departure -- returned to Ballet Theatre as a permanent guest artist. He gave his farewell performance for that company in 1995.
He became artistic director of Ballet Mississippi in 1993, and briefly ran companies in Mexico and Spain before he was asked in 1999 to take over the 28-dancer Orlando Ballet (formerly Southern Ballet Theatre) in Florida.
"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 ... will always be a part of us."
Bujones had been treated since September at the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Survivors include his second wife, Maria; a daughter, Alejandra; his mother, Mary Calleiro; his father, Fernando Bujones Sr.; one half brother; two half sisters; and his cousin and coach Cecilia-Mendez.
A funeral is planned for Monday in Miami.