By: Lexi Winship
If people were infrastructure, Lizette Valarino would, undoubtedly, be a bridge.
There can be no proper thanks or sufficient explanation of all that Lizette has done for Orlando Ballet. She has bridged gaps that the organization didn’t even know existed. When I ask her what continues to draw her back to Orlando Ballet after all these years, Lizette says simply:
“You know, they always say that what you put into the community is what you will get out of it,” Lizette says. In her case, she reflects that the oft-recited adage actually worked in reverse. “They have given me so much that as a result I have to give back.”
Born in Puerto Rico and spending her childhood bouncing between there, the continental United States and Venezuela, Lizette is a self-proclaimed gypsy who came from more gypsies.
Orlando was only meant to be a stepping stone to somewhere further north. But somehow it became home to Lizette, her husband Fremio and their two children. And now, 32 years after first touching down on Orlando soil, she’s still here.
Over an espresso macchiato with almond milk (“I take my sugar with coffee,” she jokes) Lizette tells me about how welcoming Orlando felt when she first arrived—which is why her gypsy family stuck around.
Little did she know that she would one day be on the frontlines of the unofficial Orlando welcoming committee herself—and that she would become a champion and a rallying force in this community that she did not yet know much about, other than that it felt friendly and warm, “like a nice place to belong.”
In 1991, just a few years after moving to Orlando, Lizette read Edward Villella’s autobiography, Prodigal Son: Dancing for Ballanchine in a World of Pain and Magic. Villella was a former New York City Ballet dancer who, after suffering from a debilitating hip injury that ended his dance career, went on to become founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet.
While the allure of a peek behind the dance world’s curtain is what initially drew her to the book, Lizette ended up being particularly moved by a portion in which Eddie (as she calls him) puts a pause on his dance studies to pursue a college education. His pursuit of other interests and disciplines, he explains, were a large part of why he was able to transition so seamlessly into more of the logistical side of the ballet world following his injury.
After finishing his book, Lizette was so inspired that she decided to write to Edward. She wrote of her persisting fascination with ballet and her brief foray into its world herself before a doctor told her mother that Lizette should refrain from dancing because of her asthma. Even from a young age, she had always had a nagging feeling that her interests in dance were impractical, anyway—that dance was merely a hobby and that she should pour her attention into becoming a doctor or a teacher, something that made more logical sense.
On the note of logic, what didn’t really make sense was that this acclaimed dancer and now very busy artistic director and author wrote her back.
Pursue your passion in whichever way you can, he told her. There is a ballet in your city and there is something that you can do to help it.
After reading Eddie’s response, Lizette and her daughter went to see Orlando Ballet’s The Nutcracker. They loved it, so Lizette promptly signed her daughter up for dance classes at Orlando Ballet, where Lizette would sit and watch in awe.
Lizette’s daughter’s interest in ballet was not as strong as her mother’s, and it wasn’t long before she traded in her pointe shoes to take a stab at another form of creative expression: singing, which stuck (she eventually went on to become a professional opera singer and now is the Director of Programs and Partnerships at Seattle Opera). But Lizette continued to seek out ways to stay connected to the ballet.
When her skills in typing (her husband had taught her how to work on one of the very first IBM desktop computers) and her bilingualism made her an asset to a local Hispanic newspaper, Lizette was asked to come on as an assistant editor. Here, she realized an opportunity to put Eddie’s advice into practice.
Through her research and general support of the ballet, she had become aware of the fact that two current Orlando Ballet Company dancers were from Venezuela. She decided to schedule interviews with the dancers to highlight them in the newspaper to raise awareness in the local Hispanic community about the ballet. Because, as she puts it, if you’re never exposed, how will you know?
“I don’t know when or where, but somehow I saw it and it grabbed me,” she says. “I want everyone to have the chance to experience it, because it will stir something inside of you.”
From then on, Lizette became a friend of Orlando Ballet like few others. She wrote dozens of reviews and dancer spotlights in the newspaper. She was an active member of the community and constantly bringing new friend after friend to performances with her. Eventually, when she transitioned into the political sphere, acting as an aid to consecutive mayors Mel Martinez and Richard Crotty, she continued to serve as a rallying force in the Hispanic community and an advocate for the arts, with the ballet being near and dear to her heart every step of the way.
Shortly after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, plane after plane of displaced families began arriving in Orlando seeking refuge from the devastation that Maria had left in her wake.
As Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs began working with United Way and local organizations/business leaders to provide assistance to these individuals, the level of need became quite clear. Hurricane Maria had taken their infrastructure, their livelihoods, even some of their family members. These displaced refugees from Puerto Rico needed more than just the basic necessities—they needed someone who understood them and could make them feel like things were going to be okay—like they could belong here. They needed a bridge. Lizette was hired on to be a liaison between the displaced families, the non-profits that were providing aid to them, and the Orange County government.
When members of Orlando Ballet’s leadership came up with a plan to offer complementary tickets to the upcoming production of Bailamos! to these displaced families but didn’t know how to make this dream a reality, Lizette was the first person who came to mind. She connected Orlando Ballet to several organizations who had served or were still serving the needs of the displaced community (while many of these displaced families have since returned to Puerto Rico and elsewhere, many have also begun building a new home here in central Florida).
Every solid community is built upon a series of smaller connections between its members, and it is in these connections that true belonging is built. Bridges like Lizette have helped Orlando Ballet in its journey to offer a taste of this sense of belonging in anyone who finds themselves in this community—whether it be just for a short time or forever.
“I am passionate about ballet and I am passionate about Orlando Ballet because it is the ballet in my community,” Lizette says. “This is a really beautiful community that I have seen do some really incredible things, and I think that is where art thrives.”