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Defected Cuban dancers adjust to U.S., seek work

Saturday - 6/15/2013, 3:38am  ET

In this photo taken Friday, May 17, 2013, ballet dancers practice in a dance studio in Miami. These dancers could be among the young talent of any ballet company, but for the moment they are something else: Immigrants in the United States trying to land dancing opportunities while navigating cultural differences and learning English. The ballerinas fled from the Cuban National Ballet while on tour in Mexico in April, and crossed the border into Texas. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

CHRISTINE ARMARIO
Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- They practice in the back of a dance studio next to a Wendy's restaurant in a strip mall. Six ballet dancers leap across the floor, hidden from view from the mothers watching their daughters in pink leotards in a front room.

"Uno, dos, tres," ballet master Eriberto Jimenez calls out.

The dancers move in sets of two, their pointed toes and outstretched hands a hint of the grand stages where they have performed. In the background plays a recording of "La Bayadare," the French choreographed ballet they are practicing.

These dancers could be among the young talent of any ballet company, but for the moment they are something else: Immigrants in the United States trying to land dancing opportunities while navigating cultural differences and learning English. The ballerinas fled from the Cuban National Ballet while on tour in Mexico in April, and crossed the U.S. border into Texas.

Pedro Pablo Pena, himself a Cuban exiled dancer, has taken them under his wing, providing a place to stay, practice and perform. In May, they made their U.S. debut in a special performance with Pena's Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami.

Now they are trying to determine their next steps. They arrived after ballet company auditions for next season had already taken place, and arts organizations around the country are grappling with tight budgets.

Just one of the ballerinas has signed a performance contract.

"It's a tough time," said Octavio Roca, a dance critic who wrote a book about Cuban ballet.

Still, they say they have no misgivings about defecting.

"I'm going to start a new life now," said 20-year-old Arianni Martin, speaking in Spanish.

The journey of these dancers, and many ballet defectors before them, started in Havana, where each rose through the island's selective ballet schools to earn spots in the Cuban National Ballet, widely regarded as one of the best classical companies in the world.

The ballet is led by Alicia Alonso, 92, a former prima ballerina who danced well into her 70s. Alonso founded the company in 1948 and has managed to steer it forward even during periods of great economic strife. She's accomplished that in no small part with the support of the communist regime; Alonso has been closely aligned with Fidel Castro and the ballet is a source of national pride.

Despite the company's prestige, dancers defect during every international tour. The first defections occurred in 1966, when 10 dancers fled while performing in Paris. During the early years of Castro's government, dancers who defected would cite political reasons for their decision.

More recently, dancers who have defected, including the ones who arrived in April, have cited political, economic and artistic reasons for their departure: They want freedom of expression, in speech and on the dance floor, and more opportunities to support their families. Cuban ballet dancers earn no more than $30 a month.

"I would have been stuck," Martin, a pretty, petite brunette with brown eyes said.

So many Cuban ballet dancers have fled through the years that they now dance or teach at nearly every major U.S. ballet company. Their collective influence is comparable to that of the Soviets in the 1970s and 80s, Roca said. For the Russians, that influence was seemingly natural, as they hailed from a large and populous country with a long and storied history of successful ballet. But Cuba is a small and isolated Caribbean island of just over 11 million people.

"There's no reason why that tiny country should have that kind of influence, but there you are," Roca said. "Obviously, Alicia was doing something right. And even as she loses dancers."

In April, a group of 70 dancers were sent to Mexico to perform Giselle, a classic and frequently danced piece in the Cuban ballet's repertoire. Martin was selected to dance the part of Giselle's friend in the second act.

Before leaving, Martin shared her plans to defect while on tour with her family. Though difficult, they supported her decision. She wouldn't escape alone; a close friend in the ballet and both of their boyfriends, also dancers, would join.

The four ballerinas did not mention their plans to anyone in the company until after their final performance in Chetumal, Mexico. To leave, they would need their passports, which an assistant traveling with the group held.

Martin pulled the woman aside that evening and asked for hers back. The assistant told her and the others to go to her room early the next morning.

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