Unlike many previous winners of the TDF Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award — Theoni V. Aldredge, Jane Greenwood, Freddy Wittop, to name a few — Jose Varona's success has come in the international fields of ballet and opera and not on the Broadway stage. In fact, the closest he's come to the Great White Way — indeed the only legit musical he's ever worked on — was an ill-fated musical version of Lolita that closed out-of-town decades ago.
“I feel very honored to receive this award but I did not expect it because I am abroad so much,” he says. “I have not worked steadily in the US in years. I am considered a gypsy! That's why it's very important for me. It brings me home.”
Since his debut in his native Argentina in 1953, Varona has collaborated with everyone from Beverly Sills to Joseph Papp to George Balanchine to Margot Fonteyn. The sketches on this page represent a small sampling of his work, clockwise from top right: the pages de caraboose in a 1974 Paris Opera production of Sleeping Beauty (where he got to work with Cuban dancer/choreographer Alicia Alonso, a personal high point); the tongue-in-cheek “Spanish ballerina” for Natalia Makarova's Paquita at the National Ballet of Canada; an unproduced musical called The Nile Revisited, that was to have been a joint venture between the opera houses in Buenos Aires and Madrid (“It was interesting because it shows a side of Spanish spectacle that's different from the usual flamenco thing,” Varona says); a production of Verdi's Attila from 1970; and a toy seller Varona invented specifically for the San Francisco Ballet production of The Nutcracker.
Varona, who's done five Nutcrackers over the years, says children's work is easily his favorite genre. “I actually got a call from Korea to do a children's ballet, Peter and the Wolf, and I couldn't do it because I'm receiving the award,” he says. “That's how important this is to me.”