Defectors land on their feet
Larry Rohter, The New York Times
PHOENIX - Cuba takes special measures to hold on to one of its most precious cultural resources: ballet dancers. To discourage defections, authorities sometimes keep talented performers from touring or warn younger artists that finding a ballet job will be tough in an unappreciative capitalist world.
But that did not discourage seven members of the premier company, the National Ballet of Cuba, who arrived in the United States this spring. And in a remarkable success story, all of them have landed positions, including the all-too-perfect case of Arianni Martin: This month, she has been dancing the title role in Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” with Ballet Arizona here.
Barely six months ago, Ms. Martin, 21, and six other dancers, including her boyfriend, Randy Crespo, defected from the National Ballet while it was on tour in Mexico. The group arrived in Miami in April with no jobs, no money and no real knowledge of American life or command of colloquial English.
“We knew we were leaving everything behind, and we didn’t know what awaited us,” Ms. Martin said last week while she and her new colleagues at Ballet Arizona were on a break from rehearsals of “Cinderella,” whose last performance was Sunday. “But we had to do it.”
A dance career adds another layer of complexity to the classic Cuban defector story. Dancers are almost as highly esteemed as baseball players in Cuba, and are an elite group bolstered by the renown of the National Ballet and its 92-year-old grande dame, Alicia Alonso, who founded that company in 1948.
The defecting dancers expressed gratitude for the rigorous training they had received. But they said that to fulfill their personal and artistic aspirations, they needed to get away from a system that seemed frozen in time and subject to political favoritism.
To reach the United States, where as Cubans they could gain privileged entry, the group rode buses from the Yucatán to Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, 1,600 miles in all. In transit and while crossing the bridge over the Rio Grande, they tried not to talk, fearing that their accents might encourage thieves to steal their passports.
Once the dancers arrived in Florida, they were given shelter, support and training by the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami. The director of that company, Pedro Pablo Peña, came to the United States in 1980, in the Mariel boatlift, so he understood the disorientation and uncertainty the dancers were feeling.
“Talent-wise, it can be difficult for them at the beginning, because there’s a whole vocabulary they don’t know, that involves a radical change in style from the classical ballet they’re used to,” Mr. Peña said. “My larger concern was that initially they were somewhat reluctant to express themselves. Because they were trained in a school that is much more rigid and closed, we had to tell them they could loosen up, say what they want, dance how they want, have some fun.”
Most of the dancers had gone on international tours with the National Ballet, so they were not exactly innocents abroad. But they acknowledge they were overwhelmed by certain features of daily life in America.
“None of us had bank accounts, so Pedro Pablo had to guide us through that, and most of us didn’t have drivers’ licenses either,” said Mr. Crespo, 22, now also a member of Ballet Arizona. “And to go into a store in Miami, and see all those products within reach, that was a shock too.”
For a country with barely 11 million people, Cuba has an unusually prominent profile in the international ballet world. Xiomara Reyes, a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater since 2003, is a product of the same program as the recent defectors. That system has been particularly strong in producing male stars like Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carreño, Yat-Sen Chang Oliva, Yosvani Ramos and the brothers Daniel and Rolando Sarabia.
To discourage defections, which have plagued the National Ballet since the 1960s and have accelerated in recent years, the company’s directors have circulated horror stories of dancers who fail abroad and end up working as waiters. An unidentified official of the National Ballet told The Associated Press this spring that the situation of the group of seven could prove especially tough because they are “not yet known at the international level.”
Ramona de Saá, who as director of the National Ballet School trained six of the seven defectors, said in the same article: “We are privileged here. In the world of ballet, the situation is difficult.”
But after an impressive audition, Edward González was quickly invited to join the Sarasota Ballet in Florida, and the speed with which he was signed, the others said, negated any doubts that may have been planted in their heads by Cuban government propaganda. Annie Ruiz Díaz and Luis Victor Santana, a couple, eventually signed on with the San Juan Ballet; Alejandro Méndez ended up here in Phoenix; and Josué Justiz is now with the development company of the Washington Ballet.
“The hardest thing was the realization that there’s no turning back, that you’ve created this rupture in your life,” Mr. Justiz, 21, said by phone. “But my thinking was that I need to grow on my own, to learn to be independent and self-sufficient. There’s not just one way to dance or move your body, there are millions, and now I can learn them.”
For all its world fame, perhaps even because of it, the dancers said, the National Ballet of Cuba has a narrow focus and resists innovation. While praising the rigor of their training, the dancers used words like “stagnant” and “frozen” to describe the company’s repertory, which focuses on a handful of classical ballets, like “Giselle” and “Swan Lake,” and teaching methods.
“You feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over,” Mr. González said.
And while the ballet’s long association with Ms. Alonso is one of its chief marketing tools, the dancers described her as no longer directly involved on a daily basis in running the company. With defections a constant threat, they added, the selection of dancers to go on tours abroad is based not exclusively on talent, but also on a performer’s perceived political reliability.
“I noticed that they can pick you for an international tour, and then, for one reason or another, you’re not allowed to travel again for five years, an eternity when an artist’s career is so short,” said Mr. Méndez, 21. “So when I got picked for my first tour, to Mexico, boom, I was gone, out of there the first chance I had.”
Ib Andersen, a Balanchine protégé, who is the artistic director of Ballet Arizona, said that while the Cubans “are very well trained, with a solid foundation” and “very fast and eager to learn,” they are also “unfinished.”
“What I feel they may be lacking is putting things together, understanding that dancing is phrases, not one step after another,” he explained.
“They also do a lot of bravura ballet: how high can you jump?” he said. “Here it is something different, more subtle.”
For her part, Ms. Martin said: “To have the chance to excel, that’s why we’re here. Learning this new Balanchine style, it’s tough, but it gives me a sense of freedom. I feel like we can do anything now.”
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