“My dream was to dance in Cuba,” says Lorena Feijóo. “I didn’t want to leave my country.” It’s a lament the San Francisco Ballet principal shares with countless other members of the Cuban ballet diaspora: dancers who left their families, culture and country behind to escape economic hardship and seek artistic freedom abroad. The diaspora extends from Miami to Seattle to Oslo, where Cuban dancers’ superb classical training and refined artistry are sought after.
The problem is not a lack of appreciation at home—“The Cuban audience is absolutely insane about ballet,” Feijóo says—but subsistence wages and artistic conservatism at the National Ballet of Cuba, and rigid restrictions on guesting overseas. In Cuba, dancers earn an estimated $30 to $50 per month. However, a balletic revolution may be on the horizon.
In December 2014, after 54 years of cultural and economic blockades, President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro reestablished diplomatic relations between our two nations—the first step towards reviving free travel, trade and cultural exchange. Founded by prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso in 1948, NBC has toured the world for three generations yet has resisted American and European influences. How might an unrestricted influx of international choreographers and dancers influence Cuban technique and repertoire? And what might we learn from Cuba?
A World Apart
Separated by just over 90 miles of ocean, the United States and Cuba have been worlds apart since the early 1960s, when then-President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations in an attempt to suppress Fidel Castro’s newly established communist government. While restrictions on immigration and travel have become more flexible with each passing decade, many émigré dancers still have to defect—and leave everything behind.
“Families are broken in pieces,” says Cincinnati Ballet corps member Ana Gallardo, who immigrated legally to the U.S. with her family in 2009, after her third year of training at the Cuban National Ballet School. “I know NBC dancers who have decided in the moment, on tour, to defect. Their parents don’t find out until they’re in the U.S.”
“It is a very traumatic way of leaving your country,” says Lester Tomé, assistant professor of dance history and Latin American Studies at Smith College and a former dance critic in Havana. “What we can look forward to with these new regulations is that maybe Cuban dancers will be able to come to the U.S. with a work visa, directly from Havana, on a plane.”
Cuban émigrés can apply for a green card after residing in the U.S. for a year and a day. Although that permanent legal residency allows them to travel back and forth to Cuba at will, separation from family may last much longer due to financial hardship.
Most NBC dancers who flee Cuba also forfeit the opportunity to perform in their homeland again. Alicia Alonso, still artistic director at age 94, “makes it very clear that if you leave without her permission, you will never dance at the García Lorca Auditorium as long as she is alive,” Gallardo says.
Feijóo asked for permission to guest abroad while remaining a member of NBC. “Alicia’s exact phrase was, ‘Lorena, either you’re in or you’re out. You choose.’ Just like that. I said, ‘I’m out.’ ” The Ministry of Culture granted Feijóo a visa to leave without defecting, but she has not danced on her home stage since 1990.
While Alonso has cultivated a classical repertoire that is second to none, she has not brought in neoclassical or experimental styles, and barely any contemporary. No one we spoke to could explain why, beyond speculating that it is simply Alonso’s preference, and the government’s. “After five years, you have already done Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, Coppélia, probably 10 times each,” Gallardo says.
Still, “People say Cuba isn’t changing, but it is,” says former Silicon Valley Ballet artistic director José Manuel Carreño. As he points out, the NBC recently commissioned work from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. With Alonso’s permission, Carreño joined English National Ballet in 1990. He later danced with The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and Alonso continues to mentor him in his current role.
The Foundation of Greatness
There’s one thing that everyone agrees on: However artistically varied the company eventually becomes, the National School will remain the same—and it should. Co-founded in 1950 by Alonso and the late Fernando Alonso, her ex-husband, it is one of the world’s largest classical ballet schools.
“The school is excruciatingly good,” says Feijóo. “As a 9-year-old, you have a full day of work, starting at seven in the morning. By 11 years old, you’re performing professionally.” The eight-year education includes Spanish, French, piano and art in addition to rigorous ballet and character technique.
Feijóo believes that American ballet training would benefit from importing Cuban coaching techniques. “The best pantomime and mise-en-scène rehearsals in my life have been with Alicia,” she recalls. “You are a friend of Giselle, but which friend? The one that cares, or the one that doesn’t?”
Gallardo reports that, thanks to generous government subsidies, the school facilities are top-flight: 22 spacious studios with marley floors and audio systems, and two wood-floor studios for the limited contemporary classes offered. The main failing, she says, is in the pointe shoes, which are donated by a Chinese company and in limited supply. While touring, NBC dancers use their per diem to buy additional shoes, in brands they prefer.
The Revolution Is Coming
Ironically, the most significant catalyst for modernizing Cuban dance may be one of its own: legendary dancer Carlos Acosta. With Alonso’s blessing, Acosta began performing internationally in 1989 and later became a principal with The Royal Ballet. Recently retired from the company, he is founding his own contemporary troupe in Havana. Details are scant, but Tomé expects an emphasis on new works by Cuban and international choreographers.
“Acosta’s company has the potential to revitalize not only the NBC, but Cuban ballet as a whole,” says Tomé. “It will be competition for the NBC, for dancers and audiences.” Alonso apparently welcomes it—auditions for the 12-dancer company were held at the National School.
Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet and a first-generation Cuban American, thinks greater exposure to contemporary dancemakers could refresh the NBC style. “They’ll learn where technique and partnering have gone,” she says. “American and European dancers have a fluidity in pointework that really comes from Balanchine.”
Hope on the Horizon
Lopez hopes that openness in the arts will lead to greater change. “It will start minimally, with ‘Tell me how you train your dancers,’ ” she says, “and then move on to deeper issues like civil rights and freedom of speech.”
As for Feijóo, she wants future generations to feel proud far beyond ballet. “We are by nature a happy country,” she says. “I hope we’re able to embrace this change, and that the people find their freedom but don’t let go of what makes us Cuban.”
Claudia Bauer is a writer and critic in the San Francisco Bay Area.