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Defectors Land on Their Feet
Published: November 4, 2013

From left, Arianni Martin, Jorge Gonzalez and Randy Crespo practice
English with Robert Vagi at his home in Phoenix; Ms. Martin and Mr.
Crespo recently joined Ballet Arizona after defecting from Cuba, along
with five colleagues.
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 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 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 . I feel like we can do anything now.”

Source: “Defectors Land on Their Feet – NYTimes.com” –
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/arts/dance/defectors-from-cubas-national-ballet-land-on-their-feet.html?_r=0

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