La Rusa: A Russian Ballerina in Ajijic

by Judy King 27. June 2010 10:16

It takes a spirit of adventure, the ability to adjust and adapt and a certain lack of fear to move to a foreign country—even to Lakeside with all of its north of the border amenities—even today. Think then of what it must have been like to move here in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s when the villages of lakeside were not served by surfaced roads, when water was carried from communal wells strategically located about town and the trip from Chapala to Ajijic was made by boat.

Even more amazing is that some of Ajijic's most memorable pioneers were women who came alone, or remained here alone long past the deaths of their "men folk."

As you read the stories of the Lakeside pioneers, compare their journeys and their lives here to your own. These thoughts have given me great helpings of courage and gratitude for some time now.

Zara Alexeyewa, La Rusa (The Russian ballerina)
When travel writer Neill James came to Lakeside in 1943, the one-lane road connecting Chapala and Ajijic was so bad that a boat was the only reasonable transportation between the two tiny towns. When she reached the Ajijic shore, there were only 14 foreigners living in the village, and not many more in the larger town of Chapala, even though it had been "discovered" about 40 years earlier by European artists, dancers and authors.

Among those 14 foreign residents in Ajijic were three members of a single household—the Russian ballerina Ayenara Zara Alexeyewa, her mother and her dance partner/foster brother, Hoger Mehner. They'd arrived at Lakeside in the 1920s with gold fever. They bought the gold mine in the hills above Ajijic/Villa Nova/Rancho del Oro, hoping to fulfill their dreams to produce and present great Russian ballets here in Mexico.

It was true that the mountains had numerous veins of gold and that miners were finding gold. The community mill even quit grinding each household's daily corn for tortillas to crush rock instead, so that miners could pick the flakes of gold from the smaller rocks. But the short-lived gold rush at Lakeside ended when the miners found no heavy veins of easy-to-harvest gold. They soon realized that the work required to garner the small amounts of gold far outweighed the rewards.

(Left:) Ask local residents of a certain age if they remember "La Rusa" and they will tell of her riding her black horse, wearing her distinctive flat-crowned hat as she is shown in this painting.

This unlikely trio of residents in a miniscule Mexican town found Ajijic on a sightseeing trip after they completed a ballet performance at the Degollado Theater. They purchased a plot of lakefront land and built the home at Independencia #26, where they lived out their lives.

By the 1970's the ballerina's mother and Hoger were both dead and Zara had been in voluntary retirement for over 40 years. Then she decided to return to the stage once more. Unfortunately, Zara was not known for decisions based on logic or reason, and the production she planned was unusual, at best. She chose 15-year-old Sergio Lasso to be her partner in a performance of two ballets, Princess of the Moon and The Red Terror.

Sergio, who still works with the Guadalajara Cultural Commission, wrote about the production for the May-June 2001 issue of a Mexican magazine, La Pirouette Danza. There, he tells of Zara's months of frantic activity as she prepared for the production. She resurrected costumes from long-packed trunks, found people to arrange publicity, hired a chorus, orchestra, and dance corps and rented the Degollado Theater.

Zara planned to feature an exploding volcano in the final scene. She imagined that the volcano would kill all of the other dancers, leaving only the octogenarian Zara and teenaged Sergio in their roles of the Princess of the Moon and Prince of the Sun. Her notes revealed that they would be protected from the volcano by their love. Zara was years beyond being able to dance, or even move reasonably well, so during the ballet, she was placed into scenes where she would move her arms with "a certain grace" and then charming, attractive Sergio, who had studied contemporary dance—not ballet—would move her to another place on stage.

 
(Left:) This painting of Zara hangs on the west wall of La Nueva Posada's restaurant  La Rusa which is named for the dancer.

Curiosity about the performance, affection for the former great star, or just plan excitement at something  to do created a demand for chartered busses to take several hundred Lakeside residents to the city for the ballerina's last hurrah. They got more than they bargained for. It was a melodramatic performance peppered with accidents, illogical moves, confusing music and themes, but it had a finale that nearly brought down the house.

When the love-discerning volcano exploded, the flames caught the stage sets and curtains on fire. Clouds of real smoke forced the delicate dancing swans off stage, much to Zara's distress, for she had planned that they would gracefully die, one by one. The fire was quickly extinguished, but the orchestra had to be evacuated due to water in the pit.

The audience, which had largely come out of curiosity or kindness to the ballerina, had been bored through much of the unusual performance, but the finale was spectacular. The ovation that followed was probably due, in part, to the stress of the fire; but for Zara, it was the crown of her triumphant career and the finale of her life as well.

By the way if you would like to know more about Zara and Hoger, when you are in the restaurant named in her honor (Restaurant La Rusa in La Nueva Posada), take a good look at the art work mounted on the walls. There you'll find portraits and photographs of the ballerina and her partner, as well some of her performance posters.

Over the years since her death, the Eager family has purchased this memorabilia from the ballerina's caretaker/gardener.


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Comments

6/27/2010 2:57:40 PM #

That is absolutely fascinating, Judy! The historical detail you somehow unearth is incredible. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.

Eileen Mexico |

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About Judy King

Judy King

Hi There — Welcome to my little corner of the world. I'm Judy King and I live in the centuries-old village of Ajijic on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest natural lake.

I've lived here full time since 1990, and... [ more ]

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