The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami operates out of an old white mansion in Little Havana. Just like any company, the dancers are starting their day with ballet class. But what makes this company different is that it’s a holding station for dancers who defect from Cuba, a place where they can stay in shape and get help finding permanent jobs.
Pedro Pablo Pena, himself a Cuban dancer who defected in the ’80s, founded the Cuban Classical Ballet five years ago.
“Every dancer coming from Cuba, this is their space,” Pena says. “We welcome them with open arms, and we cater to their particular situations.”
Today’s class — which performs Saturday night at the Fillmore Theater in Miami Beach — includes six dancers in their early 20s whose journey started in April, more than 2,000 miles away in Mexico. They had just finished the last leg of a tour with their company, the National Ballet of Cuba.
Luis Victor Santana Gonzalez and his girlfriend, Ania Ruiz Diaz, were part of the group. Santana Gonzalez remembers spending 16 hours on a bus, worrying about getting caught and trying to hide distinctive Cuban accents.
“We had to ride the buses in silence,” he says. “We’d heard rumors that there were people in Mexico, along the border, who wanted to steal Cubans’ papers.”
Unlike other immigrant groups, Cubans are automatically allowed to stay in the United States if they make it in.
Touring internationally is a double-edged sword for the National Ballet of Cuba — they lose dancers almost every time they perform abroad. On one hand, touring allows the world to see Cuba’s renowned ballet company. On the other, it allows the company’s dancers to see the world, and for some of those dancers, a brief look isn’t enough.
The National Ballet of Cuba’s repertoire is heavily classical. And its founder and leader, world famous ballerina Alicia Alonso, is nearly blind.
Ruiz Diaz says she got tired of dancing the same versions of the same classical ballets, like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.
“I always wanted to try different styles of ballet,” she says. “Neoclassical. Contemporary. Anything else. Not just classical. I love classical. But it’s not all that I need or want.”
Santana Gonzalez echoes his girlfriend: “It’s in the variety of dances you try in your life that you learn.” The pair also say the economic situations of Cuba and the ballet company played into their decisions to leave.
Santana Gonzalez and Ruiz Diaz are part of a long line of ballet dancers who have defected from Communist countries in search of artistic opportunity. The most famous, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, came from the Soviet Union.
But getting to the United States is only part of the battle. Now that they’ve reached Miami, Ruiz Diaz and Santana Gonzalez still have to find jobs within an unfamiliar system that receives far less state and public support.
Santana Gonzalez says it wasn’t until after they arrived here that they learned April was not a good time to start looking for work.
“Unfortunately, we got here at a time when practically all of the companies had already finished their auditions,” he said.
Most companies hold auditions between January and March, so the dancers may have to wait almost a year before they get a shot at getting into a company. Plus — unlike in the United States — in Cuba, once you’re selected to join the National Ballet of Cuba’s affiliate school, it’s basically a straight path to a career in the company.
Among a group of dancers who defected in Canada two years ago was Nieser Zambrana Reyes, who said it was tough finding auditions and not having the strict dancing schedule he was used to with the National Ballet of Cuba. It took him about six months to land a job with Orlando Ballet.
However, being from Cuba works in the favor of many because of the strong reputation of the country’s dancers. Eriberto Jimenez, ballet master with the Miami-based Cuban Classical Ballet, says many major U.S. companies have Cubans dancing in their upper ranks.
“Everywhere in the world, Cubans are wanted because of their technique,” Jimenez said. “And the passion that they dance with ... they love what they do and that comes across.”
Zambrana Reyes is becoming one of those success stories. Last month he was hired by Miami City Ballet, for whom his uncle, Reyneris Reyes, is a principal dancer.
As for Santana Gonzalez and Ruiz Diaz, they hope Saturday’s performance will be their big break.
“We’re very happy because the performance we’re having could open many doors for us,” Ruiz Diaz says. “What’s important is to dance well, and that the crowds see us happy.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer reporter Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.