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Dancer in the dark

How a dance student turned the tragedy that left him blind into a haunting and beautiful ballet performance.

October 30, 2017

By Daniel J Vaccaro

Alex Mena remembers the darkness.

He was not quite 20 years old when he was injured in an accident that left him blind. At the time, he was doing classified work for the U.S. government as a civilian contractor.

He spent 18 months in total darkness and didn’t expect to see again. Multiple surgeries would ultimately bring limited vision back in one eye, but the fear he felt during that trying time haunts him to this day.

“The dark was terrifying,” he says. “It was a bit of a wake-up call for me. I learned that anything can be taken away in a second.”

Now, almost 20 years later, Mena has turned that feeling into a haunting and beautiful ballet performance. He choreographed the routine as a member of a Dance Composition class at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

MSU Denver psychology major and dance minor, Alex Mena, practices with Abby Bural for their Nov. 2 performance at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre in a studio at Auraria Campus. Photo by Alyson McClaran

The piece will debut this week, one of several created and performed by students in MSU Denver’s dance program and part of its fall show titled “All We Need Is …” The event will be held Thursday at 7 p.m. at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre. It is open to the public, and a donation is suggested.

The performance combines the talents of students from two classes – Dance Production and Dance Composition. As part of their classwork, they create, market, produce and perform in the show in the legendary CPRD Theatre.

MSU Denver's Alex Mena (second from the left) practices with his classmates in the Dance Composition course for their upcoming show titled,

Mena, a psychology major and dance minor, will perform in his own work. He is one of two principals among eight dancers in his portion of the show.

The thematic underpinning of the routine is one he understands well: fear as an oppressive force.

“The character of fear literally keeps the corps dancers down,” he says. “The other principal dancer represents faith. She reassures the dancers that they don’t need to be afraid.”

Mena finds similar solace in the art of dance. He’s been immersed in the craft since he was 11 years old and at one time was on the fast track to becoming a professional. While he hasn’t taken that route, he says dancing will always be a part of his life.

MSU Denver's Alex Mena is set to graduate in fall of 2018. His ultimate goal: to help people. Photo by Alyson McClaran

“No matter where I go, or what I’ve gone through, as soon as I step into a ballet class, it feels like home,” he says.

That is not to say it’s easy. In fact, choreographing and dancing have presented unique challenges for Mena. The limitations of his eyesight make certain dance moves almost impossible. He says he also tends to cater to his sighted eye, which can make him structure things in a very limited way. But recognizing these complications has forced him to think creatively.

When Mena graduates in fall 2018, he’ll be the first person in his family to have earned a college degree. He plans to continue in his psychology studies with the aim of getting a doctorate.

His ultimate goal is simple: to help people. He certainly has some valuable experience to share.

“I’m afraid a lot. I think a lot of blind people feel that way,” he says. “But I’d rather get up and do something, despite the fear, than let it hold me back.”