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Ballet Provides Cuban Defectors A New Start In Miami

Gregory Castillo/Miami Herald

The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami operates out of an old, white mansion in Little Havana. Just like any company, the dancers start 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 company five years ago.

“Every dancer coming from Cuba, this is their space,” explained Pena. “We welcome them with open arms and we cater to their particular situations.”


Today’s class includes six dancers—all in their early 20s— whose journey here started in April and more than 2,000 miles away in Mexico. They had just finished the last leg of a tour with the National Ballet of Cuba.

Luis Victor Santana Gonzalez and his girlfriend Annie Ruiz Diaz were among the small group of dancers who decided to defect and will be performing this Saturday, May 25, in Miami Beach.

Santana Gonzalez remembers spending up to 16 hours on a bus, worrying about getting caught and trying to hide their distinctive Cuban accents.

“We had to ride the buses in silence, without talking too much to not call attention to ourselves,” explained Santana Gonzalez. “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 can make it in.

Double Edged Sword

Touring internationally is a double-edged sword for the National Ballet of Cuba-- they lose dancers almost every time they perform abroad. On the 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, or store of dances, is heavily classical. Add to that, its founder and leader, world famous ballerina Alicia Alonso, is nearly blind.

Annie Ruiz Diaz says she got tired of dancing the same versions of the same classical ballets, like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, over and over again.

“I always wanted to try different styles of ballet,” said Ruiz Diaz. “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 says the economic situation in Cuba and at the ballet company played into their decision to leave.

Santana Gonzalez and Ruiz Diaz are part of a long line of ballet dancers who have defected over the last several decades from communist countries in search of artistic opportunity. The most famous, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, came from the Soviet Union.

A Whole New Ballet World

But getting to the US is only half 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.

Credit Arianna Prothero/WLRN
The Cuban Classical Ballet is run out of the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center in Little Havana.

  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,” said Santana Gonzalez.

Most companies hold auditions between January and March and the dancers may have to wait almost a year before they get a shot at getting into a company. Plus -- unlike in the U.S. -- in Cuba, once dancers enter the feeder school system for the National Ballet of Cuba, it’s basically a straight path to a career in the company.

Among a group of dancers who defected while in Canada two years ago was Nieser Zambrana Reyes, who said it was tough finding auditions and not having a strict dancing schedule. It took him about six months to finally land a job with Orlando Ballet.

Technique And Passion

However, being from Cuba also works in favor of many dancers. The country is known for producing some of the world’s best.

  Eriberto Jimenez, the 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,” said Jimenez, “and the passion that they dance with, the Latin blood. They have good technique but they love what they do and that comes across.”

Zambrana Reyes is becoming one of those success stories. Earlier this month he was hired by Miami City Ballet, one of the top troupes in the U.S. and also the company his uncle, Reyneris Reyes, dances for as a principal.

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,” said Ruiz Diaz. “So, for us, what’s important is to dance well, and that the crowds see us happy.”

Both say they would like to stay in Miami but they will go wherever they must to find work.

El Nuevo Herald reporter Melissa Sanchez and Miami Herald reporter Gregory Castillo contributed to this story. The dancers who defected perform Saturday at 8:00 PM at the Fillmore Miami Beach.

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