Mobile must have powerful allure. A new artistic denizen left the most permanent home she’s ever had for the Azalea City.
“We were downtown, sitting outdoors having lunch yesterday and said ‘we think we’re going to like this.’ We really like this downtown area,” Mobile Ballet Artistic Director Katia Garza said.
Garza and husband Israel Rodriguez relocated from Orlando in early May where Garza has worked for the last 18 years. For dancers, that kind of permanence is an exception.
“We’re super, super happy for the opportunity. It’s something of a goal for this year, to come and make everything better and to be our best,” Garza said.
Rodriguez boasts his own dance chops, hence his role as Mobile Ballet’s ballet master. The Cuba native has more than a quarter century of experience performing, teaching and choreographing.
For Garza, the dancer’s life came naturally. Her mother taught ballet, with Katia taking her first lessons at age 3. By age 10 she was in professional ballet school.
There was movement offstage, too. Garza said her parents moved to 13 different states in Mexico before settling in urban Monterrey where her career began. The youngest of three daughters, constant adaptation could explain Katia’s ebullient personality.
The family’s creative seeds blossomed in the cultural opportunities of big-city life. Garza described her oldest sister as a Mexico City architect, actress, producer, opera singer and “into arts” but not a dancer.
“She’s just like a critic, kinda,” Garza groaned playfully.
The middle sister was a principal dancer with the Monterrey Ballet. Katia cited her as inspirational.
The youngest Garza girl’s path was a little harder. She described a dehumanizing process, where school officials would measure young dancers’ bodies — leg size, torso proportions, parents’ builds — to weed out those who varied from willowy norms.
“I’m not a teeny, classic-style ballet dancer. Everybody asks if I work with weights and I never have. My body is just strong naturally,” Garza said.
Her athletic physique prompted discouragement from most teachers but she ignored them. At 16, she became an apprentice at Monterrey Ballet. At 18, she was hired and six months later became a principal dancer.
“My husband and I say we don’t have any power to tell anybody they are not going to succeed in this career. I believe it depends on the fire in the student and the support they get from families and teachers,” Garza said.
The professional experience also ushered in romance, despite sibling rivalry. A principal dancer at Monterrey Ballet, Rodriguez paired with Katia’s older sister. He noticed a young apprentice who looked like his partner.
Katia mimicked the response: “Ugh, that’s my younger sister.”
Rodriguez frequently visited the Garza home as one of the middle daughter’s pals.
“I really hated him a lot because I was so jealous of her,” Katia sneered in jest.
The middle sister moved on and the youngest ascended to principal. She began to dance with Rodriguez. Familiarity became friendship, then something more intense.
Their wedding ceremony was in a theater. Invitations were patterned after event posters and guests had tickets for entrance. Television crews were present.
“We did it onstage, in tutus and costumes, a ballet performance,” Garza said. July marks 18 years since that event.
They chose Orlando as their base for new professional and personal voyages. Both were principals with Orlando Ballet — Garza became a U.S. citizen in 2007 — yet traveled extensively across the South and internationally. Garza was chosen one of Mexico’s most successful choreographers and invited to return for guest work.
The documentary film “My Life in Dance” detailed her struggles and triumphs.
“There’s a thousand stories like mine but we wanted to let other generations know they can do it,” Garza said.
She’s already at work. Plans for the upcoming season include “Ovation,” a November show highlighting various master composers along with Gershwin and Louis Armstrong.
“It will be sort of jazzy, more dedicated to people in Mobile and will bring in all the history in their music,” Garza said.
There’s the customary “Nutcracker” in December and the spring brings “The Little Mermaid,” based not on Disney but Hans Christian Andersen. Garza said a special designer will be needed for costumes and sets.
Meanwhile they’re enjoying the charm of their new town. Rodriguez finds it reminiscent of his time in Louisville, Kentucky.
“We discovered a lot of things in downtown, the area and the houses. It’s such a pretty place, very beautiful,” Garza said.