November / December 2016
By Bay Area Health & Wellness Staff
Our lives are like a perfectly choreographed dance that weaves our experiences together to create a beautiful, original ballet. Milena Leben was given the extraordinary gift of expression and creation through dance. Her passion for ballet is undeniable and is finding its way into the homes of many young, talented girls in South Houston. Her story is remarkable.
Milena was born in the city Belgrade, formerly in Yugoslavia. Belgrade is in Southeastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. Since ancient times, it has been known as ‘”the door to Central Europe.” Growing up, Milena loved to dance, and after seeing the beautiful angelic Prima Ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, she knew what she wanted for her life. At the young age of 12, and while the Royal Ballet from London was in town, director Arnold Haskel and Ballet Mistress Ninette De Vacois visited her ballet academy. So impressed by Milena, they awarded her a scholarship to the Royal Ballet in London. When she 17 years old, she received her first contract to perform in a ballet company. Over the next year, she was promoted to soloist and only two years later, to Prima Ballerina with the Croatian National Theatre. A Prima Ballerina is the most important ballerina in a company. There are very few who gain the ultimate title of a Prima.
“For me, it was easier to earn the status of a Prima Ballerina, but to keep performing at that level was very hard. You need to always be your best, because that is what the audience expects from you! Ballet is a precise form of art. It is the compliment of dancing, music, and stories that combine to form a beautiful form of expression.”
It was through dance that Milena experienced the world first hand. She traveled and danced from Europe to Lebanon to India, from Japan to the United States. She met diplomats, danced in palaces, talked with ambassadors, famous artists and writers. Her life was full of diversity, socializing with people of all races, cultures and backgrounds. Her life was also filled with love. She met her future husband, Stan, a ballet colleague from Zagrab, Croatia, and fell in love. Although they were in different cities in Europe, as she was dancing in Paris at the time, they continued their relationship through letter writing and phones calls. They were eventually married in Paris and continued dancing together throughout their lives.
In 1991, the country Milena loved so dearly was caught in a bitter civil war. Ethnic conflict plagued Yugoslavia and bloodshed seemed to be everywhere. This Yugoslav War is often described as Europe’s deadliest war since World War II. “It was terrible! I was scared! You could not trust your neighbor anymore. You did not know if people you knew your whole life would kill you. Our world was turned upside down. It was like a movie, with snipers all around. One day I had enough. I had to go and live someplace else, especially because my son was studying in United States. In a small bag, not even a suitcase, and in haste, I put together whatever I could find. I learned later that I did not even pack both pairs of shoes. I only had one shoe, and left the other. Because of the war, the banks were closed, so I grabbed all the jewelry that I owned, and packed that as well. This would be the only source of money that we would have. At this time, the border was still open, but was very dangerous. My husband and I decided to head to Vienna. As we drove one way to the boarder, tanks systematically moved the other way. It was frightening. We felt that, at any time, they could stop and open fire on us.”
Milena found her second home in the United States where she successfully works as a choreographer and ballet teacher. It was after her husband passed away that she moved from New York and South Carolina to Houston to be close to her son, Christian, and her brother. She loves living in the United States, although her heart still longs to see her native country. Every summer she visits Zagreb and enjoys the Adriatic-Croatian Cost.
Milena brings incredible strength and great depth to Kennedy Dance Theatre and her Ballet Jete Company, spending countless hours with those who have the same passion for ballet.