For a man who almost died, dancer Isanusi García Rodríguez looks extraordinarily alive — arms reaching into the air as he demonstrates the inspiration for one of his paintings on the wall of the Hispanic Cultural Center in Little Havana on a recent Saturday night. An animated crowd gathered for the annual opening celebration of the International Ballet Festival of Miami, featuring a show of Rodriguez’s paintings and the unveiling of a poster for which he did the artwork.
On Sept. 10, he will dance at one of the festival’s gala performances, at Miami Dade County Auditorium.
It all represents a miraculous return for Rodríguez, a former leading dancer with Miami City Ballet and member of the Cuban National Ballet hit by a brain aneurysm nearly four years ago, leaving him speechless and paralyzed on his right side, with his ability to walk or talk, much less dance again, in doubt.
But two qualities that were essential to Rodríguez as an artist proved crucial as he fought his way back. One was the discipline from a lifetime of dance training, which helped him persist with tedious physical and speech therapy despite frequent frustration and physical pain. The other was his drive to express himself, which he poured out in painting when he could not dance. Several of his bright-colored pictures show Harlequin-like dancers with drooping extra limbs. One features a tree and tiny dancers floating up the right side of a massive, reaching figure - a metaphor for life and movement trapped in his right side.
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“Painting helped me a lot,” Rodríguez, 39, says at the Center a few days later. “I could paint with my left because I didn’t have my right. When I couldn’t talk or do anything, I was painting and painting.” Speaking can still be difficult for him, and he often mixes up Spanish and English or struggles to express himself. Now he gestures at the left side of his head, as if pulling something out, and makes a kind of ripping sound. “It was like ‘come, come.’ Everything that came from inside, in this head, that went away from me.”
Also key to his recovery were the two women in Rodríguez’s life. His wife, Christie García, who dances with MCB and stood by him as he fought to get better, had the idea that art might help.
“Especially at the beginning of his recovery, he could barely talk,” García says. “He was frustrated because he couldn’t dance.”
Rodríguez had long painted as a hobby, and one day García came home with paint, canvas and an easel.
“I remember thinking what a great thing it would be to take his mind off everything,” she says. “They sat in the corner a few weeks, and one day I came home and he’d started painting. He just kept going and going. I can’t tell you how important it’s been.”
He owes his spot at the festival to his mother, Perla Rodriguez, a former dancer with a leading Cuban modern dance company. She has lived with the couple for five months and brought her son and his paintings to Pedro Pablo Peña, the director of the festival and the Hispanic Cultural Center, in July.
Peña has long fostered Cuban dancers, whether they be exiles in Miami or those defecting from the island, who often make their U.S. debut with his Cuban Classical Ballet company. Rodríguez had danced with Peña’s troupe during a hiatus from MCB. The director was thrilled to see how he’d recovered and not only offered to use one of Rodríguez’ paintings for the poster, but proposed that he and his mother perform in the festival. (The event features shows by contemporary troupes and medalists from the Youth America Grand Prix this weekend, as well as dancers from 12 international companies on Sept. 10 and 11.)
“It was something magical,” Peña says in his office at the Center. “To see how Isa had recuperated, to see him and his mother was so powerful. We all got so emotional. I told him ‘I want you and your mother to dance,’ and they were both weeping.”
“It was something that had to happen. That he can dance again is absolutely fantastic, something miraculous. He has so much inside to give. And I thought you have to grab this artistic opportunity.”
Rodríguez, who trained and danced with the National Ballet of Cuba in his native Havana, grew up immersed in dance and art. His father was a folkloric dancer, and the renowned Afro-Cuban artist Manuel Mendive used Rodríguez in performances with dancers Mendive covered in body paint. He defected while on tour with the National Ballet in the late ’90s to dance with a troupe in North Carolina. Carlos Guerra, a close friend and fellow dancer from Cuba with Miami City Ballet, helped persuade then-artistic director Edward Villella to bring Rodríguez on board in 2003. He was an exceptional dancer, with a riveting, panther-like combination of power and smoothness. But he could also be irresponsible and something of a party boy, which led to his being dismissed from MCB for a time. His relationship with Christie, which began in 2009, steadied him, and he rejoined the company. The couple had just spent Christmas of 2012 in Michigan with her family when a neighbor heard Rodríguez, who came home a few days early, screaming wordlessly and pounding at his apartment door. When he woke up from a coma in Mt. Sinai Hospital five days later, he didn’t know who or where he was.
“It was like I was a little kid in Cuba, and I want to dance but I can’t,” Rodríguez told the Miami Herald six months after the incident. “I’d say, ‘Where’s my Mom?’ I didn’t know where I was.”
Now his mother, who rushed to Miami after his stroke, is not only ecstatic over his recovery, but profoundly grateful to have the chance to dance with her son — whom she never saw perform after he left Cuba.
“By expressing himself painting, he’s come to express everything,” she says. “It’s set him on fire to enrich himself and give him life; it’s given him the strength to keep going and conquer everything.
“For me, the greatest thing is that Isanusi can be on stage again. This is the greatest gift that life has given me, that he can move, but that we’re also going to be together.”
Also overjoyed at Rodríguez’s recovery is Guerra, his “brother” who encouraged him to dance again. He and wife Jennifer Kronenberg, also a former MCB principal dancer (the couple left the troupe last spring) brought their daughter Eva, 3, to celebrate “Uncle Isa” at the reception.
“He inspires me every day,” said Guerra, who with Kronenberg is launching a new troupe, Dimensions Dance Theater, in November. “He went through all this, and look at what he’s doing. I have no words to say how proud I am of him. It’s so wonderful to see my brother like this.”
Rodríguez’s odyssey has attracted other cultural patrons. Gallery owner Clare Vickery plans to present his paintings at an outsider art show in December at her Fort Lauderdale Grace Arts Center and hopes to have him co-choreograph an urban production of “Romeo and Juliet” early next year. (Rodríguez danced a leading role in MCB’s production of the ballet in 2011.)
As he rehearses with his mother in one of the Center’s studios, Rodríguez often seems like his old, dynamic self. He is still lean and taut with energy; he ripples his torso, gestures commandingly at Perla, his long limbs gracefully carving the air. Although his right side can still betray him, he remains a vibrant, compelling figure. He has choreographed a kind of narrative, aiming to show his struggle to dance again, the joy at reconnecting with his mother. Even when his words are jumbled, he moves with confidence.
“I like to dance,” he says. “I’d like to do everything.”
If you go
What: Etoiles Classical Gala Performance with Isanusi Garcia Rodriguez and Perla Rodriguez and performers from 12 South American and European ballet companies.
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 10
Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 Flagler St., Miami, 305-547-5414