Dancing to new frontiers

Dancing to new frontiers

Enthralling Cuban ballet dancers at a performance.

In Cuba, where dancers — especially male ones — seem to grow like weeds, ballet is a noble profession. “There every taxi driver knows the names of the dancers,” Mikhail Baryshnikov said in a recent interview. “This is unheard of. Try it in New York.”

But often at the National Ballet of Cuba, led by the indomitable Alicia Alonso, the soil isn’t rich enough to keep them there. “Most Cubans leave because we want to do something different,” Reyneris Reyes said. Now a principal with the Miami City Ballet, he trained at the National Ballet School in Havana and was a member of the national company. “Not ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘Don Q’ or ‘Giselle’ all the time,” he said. In Miami, Reyes performs ballets by George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins. “It’s wonderful to have all these styles, and I love it here,” he said. “And it’s kind of like Cuba. The weather is hot.”

Beyond political and economic reasons, for the steady stream of dancers who leave their homeland — many defect while others get permission to work abroad — ballet in Cuba is limiting, with a focus on war-horse-heavy repertory. Excerpts from several of these classics will be on display at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

What is notable is how easily Cuban dancers, curious for a taste of ballet beyond the classics, find work in North American and European companies. This speaks to the rigorous training at the National Ballet School, which is directed by Ramona de Saa. What is it about Cuban schooling that makes its dancers malleable enough to assimilate into so many companies far from home?

For its opening-night gala this month, American Ballet Theater illustrated this point in “Majisimo,” a work featuring a nearly all-Cuban cast. In the United States alone Cuban dancers are members of Boston Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, as well as smaller troupes like Cincinnati Ballet; BalletMet of Columbus, Ohio; Sarasota Ballet in Florida; and other companies.

Aspiring dancers start around the age of 10 in Cuba, late by American standards. Teachers throughout Cuba follow the same training methodology, which Lorna Feijoo, now a principal at Boston Ballet, stressed as being particularly significant. “It’s very important not to confuse the kids,” she said. “After, when you know everything, that’s when you can do whatever you want.”

While she and her husband, Nelson Madrigal, also a principal dancer at Boston Ballet, are free to travel to Cuba, she regrets not having opportunities to perform there. “I feel like the audience in Cuba misses us, and I miss them a lot,” Feijoo said. “It’s like Hollywood here. That is ballet there.”

With the exception of New York City Ballet, most major companies in the United States and Canada feature Cuban dancers. And City Ballet wanted one: Yoel Carreno, the half brother of Jose Manuel Carreno of American Ballet Theater, was meant to join in 2002 but experienced visa problems. Jose Carreno said that his brother now lived in Oslo, where he was a member of the Norwegian National Ballet. Carreno said, “I am still hoping he can come and dance with us here.”

Baryshnlkov, who famously defected from the Soviet Union to Canada in 1974, winced when Yoel Carreno’s name was brought up. “He is so beautiful,” he said. “It’s politics. Of course it’s up to Alicia to decide who is staying and who is leaving. It’s not even a government policy or something. At least in Russia it was the KGB who would decide who would go and who would not.”

The foundation of the National Ballet School began in 1931 at the cultural institution Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical de la Habana. Nikolai Yavorsky, a Russian dancer, was its first director of ballet. Alonso, now 90, began her training there.

During the next couple of decades, others took charge, including Alberto Alonso, Alonso’s brother-in-law, with the Canadian ballerina Alexandra Denisova, then his wife. In 1950, two years after the company Ballet Alicia Alonso was started, a school, annexed to the company, began. This eventually became the National Ballet School.

In the 1960s Azari Plisetsky arrived from Moscow to partner Alonso. Baryshnikov, who has observed classes in Cuba, said that Plisetsky, the brother of the Bolshoi star Maya Pliset-skaya, set Cuban training on its current path, especially in terms of male dancers. In them Baryshnikov recognises “posture, a kind of grace and a sort of innocent delivery, which I think comes from childhood.” He added with a laugh, “They are really good soldiers.”
Technical precision enables Cuban dancers to obtain positions with other companies, but thriving in them is another matter. Rolando Sarabia made waves when he defected in 2005 but so far hasn’t found sustained work with one company. As a freelancer, he recently made his debut with American Ballet Theater.

Edward Villella, the founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet, said that Cuban dancers had incredible pride. “You have to make sure that they have the same kind of work ethic,” he added. “A lot of these people leave when they are fairly young and have yet to reach maturity. Now they are suddenly out on their own in a very different world.” Tunnel vision can be a problem: classical training may be what makes the dancers hirable, but they need to be adaptable. Carlos Miguel Guerra, now a principal at Miami City Ballet, said that a dancer has to want to change. “It was really hard, let me tell you,” he said. “At 18, when I left Cuba, I thought I knew everything.”

In Chile, where Guerra danced with the Ballet Company of Santiago, he began a transformation. “I started asking myself: Why did you leave Cuba? You wanted to learn more. Don’t make it difficult. Open your mind.”

Over the years, Guerra has changed his idea of what a male dancer should be. “In Cuba, sometimes we worry about what tricks can we do,” he said. “I think we become better dancers when we get out of Cuba and learn other styles. We get the final touches.”

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