Guillermo Keys Arenas 1928–2006: an appreciation

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After suffering a long illness from cancer the much loved Mexican-Australian dance personality, Guillermo Keys Arenas, died in Sydney on 31 January 2006. He is survived by his sister, Ester, brother, Eduardo, his adopted son, Angel and is remembered with great affection by a host of friends here and in many countries around the world.

He will be missed by the Mexican expatriate community in Australia as for over thirty years he volunteered for many welfare, cultural and educational projects. He has been twice honoured by his country of origin in 1988 he was granted National Homage by the Mexican Government for ‘a whole life of dance’ and in 2000 he received the Homage of the National Institute of Fine Arts from the National Council for Culture and the Arts.

Undoubtedly one of Guillermo’s greatest achievements in Australia was his enormous contribution to multi-culturalism through his involvement with the annual Folkloric Festivals, sponsored by Sydney Opera House with various partners, which he directed from 1979 until 1994. The Festivals were held only in Sydney at first but later also established in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin and Brisbane. With inexhaustible energy he directed them all making full use of his multilingual skills.

He was a hands-on director: not content just to approve groups put forward by the various ethnic communities and place them in a program in an arbitrary order, he was determined that each group should display its unique cultural heritage to its best advantage. He worked with them individually to achieve a finely honed result, encouraging them to research material beyond their immediate knowledge and goading those amateur groups towards a standard of performance and presentation to which any professional company might aspire.

A mammoth task, as the groups had to rehearse in their spare time from normal employment and consequently often needed months of preparation during which he advised them on costuming, presentation and stage discipline, also seeing some groups several times to help them reach a higher standard.

Although he could be irascible he nonetheless exercised enormous patience and tact in order not to offend the sensibilities of people donating time and effort or who in some cases had a higher regard for their abilities than was justified. The groups were carefully placed in the running order of the Festival program to ensure that each would shine by complementing or contrasting with the group preceding or following.

Portrait of Guillermo Keys Arenas, 1990s. Photo: Alan Connolly

Guillermo’s life was dance almost from the day he was born in El Ebano in the state of San Luis Potosi, Northern Mexico, in 1928. From his earliest days he was obsessed with theatre, borrowing sheets from the laundry basket to make curtains and costumes for home displays, in which not only the family but Maria, their cook, was pressed into service.

Within a few years the family moved to Mexico City where Guillermo’s mother discovered the National Dance School at the Opera House (the Palacio de Bellas Artes) and enrolled the seven year old for his first dance lessons. He later wrote, 'Thank God for my mother. She enabled me to begin my life of dance'.

His professional debut was made with the Ballet of Mexico City in 1945. His promise was soon noted and rewarded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the British Council and the French Government, enabling him to study ballet and modern dance in the USA with Vladimir Dokodovsky, Martha Graham and Jose Limon, at the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet School in Britain and in France at the Ballet School of the Paris Opera. He also journeyed to the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm to study with Mary Skeaping.

In Mexico for almost thirty years Guillermo danced and choreographed for ballet, film, musical comedy, television and opera, working for the Opera de Bellas Artes, Teatro de Los Insurgentes, Ballet Concierto de Mexico, Ballet Nacional de Mexico and many others. It was a time of extraordinary co¬operative artistic activity, consequently he frequently found himself in contact with major painters and musicians, among them Jose Orozsco, Carlos Chavez, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. One of the pianists for his ballet classes would soon embark on an international singing career, Placido Domingo.

Despite being in such demand at home Guillermo managed to fulfil many international engagements with, among others, the Rosario and Antonio Spanish Ballet, the Spanish Ballet of Roberto Iglesias, the Bat-Dor Company of Israel and Ballet Clasico de Guatemala. He is especially remembered for his eight year association with Ballet Foklorico de Mexico for whom he was both artistic co ordinator and ballet master, touring throughout the Americas, Europe and Australasia.

It was while touring with Ballet Folkorico that Guillermo fell in love with … Australia. As a result he came here to live in 1974, was naturalised in 1999. But proud of his heritage, he also retained Mexican citizenship. Guillermo’s first engagement in Australia was as ballet master and teacher for the Dance Company of NSW (now Sydney Dance Company).

In 1975 he was commissioned to stage a suite of Mexican dances for the folk dance group Dance Concert, then in 1976 he became their ballet master and in 1978 artistic director until Dance Concert disbanded four years later.

From the time he arrived until he retired there was hardly a major dance company or school in the country which did not benefit from his expertise as teacher, lecturer or choreographer. At various times he worked with the Australian Ballet School, the Australian Ballet (most recently as a guest artist in Graeme Murphy’s version of The Nutcracker) and with all the state dance companies, plus the Victorian College of the Arts, NIDA, University of Western Sydney and numerous independent dance schools.

He choreographed for Sydney Theatre Company and for five Australian Opera productions, besides engagements with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the University of Shanghai. For over a decade many Sydney theatre-goers looked forward to his annual appearance as the cheeky gnome, Santa’s Little Helper, in the Christmas show at the Sydney Opera House.

Guillermo was small in stature but huge in personality. With a gift for friendship he would speak to anyone and everyone. His dapper figure and shaven head were as well known in King’s Cross as its famous fountain. To walk down Macleay Street with him was to be greeted every few yards—often by someone recalling a TV ad in which he had extolled the tastiness of a brand of chicken.

He loved the old fashioned virtues of courtesy and respect for others. Afraid of no-one, he never hesitated to speak his mind: like a Chihuahua confronting an Alsatian, a massive lout might be asked to remove his feet from a bus seat ... and under Gui’s fierce stare would meekly comply.

He was a perfectionist not only in his demand for better dancing, but in the home, stipulating the way dishes were to be washed or the washing hung out to dry. There was only one way to do these things ... his way.

However, he could be teased about these endearing eccentricities, for he was a warm and welcoming host and great fun to be with. His cultural interests were wide. He enjoyed all types of music, theatre, film and art attending as many performances and exhibitions as his schedule would allow.

The impact of Guillermo’s presence in Australia for more than forty years has not only been felt in the stage dance community but in society generally by his untiring efforts to increase understanding and appreciation of the folk dance, music and decorative heritage of the many ethnic groups which now compose Australian society.

He gave many a vision of the deepest meaning of multi-culturalism and what riches could be drawn from it. At the same time he encouraged descendants of immigrant families to reach a more profound understanding of their own particular heritage and to take pride in its contribution and potential to enrich the lives of all of us.