While on tour in Spain in November 2013, dancers from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) sent a letter to the company's long-time director, Alicia Alonso, complaining of poor working conditions and demanding to be paid the portion of the company's profits they'd been promised. The dancers had been skipping meals in order to live on their small daily stipends. "What huge damage could it cause the company to set aside 4 or 5 thousand euros to give us a tiny gift after a three-month tour where we made our country and, most importantly, our company proud?" If Alonso responded to the demands of her dancers, this went unreported in the press. The company packed up two weeks later and headed back to Havana.
Political expression is not foreign to the BNC; the company was designed to be one of Cuba's premiere outlets for self-representation abroad. But in recent years its international trips have become opportunities for dancers to express their grievances and defect from their home country. Earlier in 2013 while on tour in Mexico, six BNC dancers crossed the US border in order to seek asylum; they almost immediately found work at companies in Florida. In 2003 alone, defections caused the company's ranks to be reduced by a fifth. The announcement made on December 17 last year that the United States would ease diplomatic relations with Cuba has thus posed an existential challenge to the BNC. How will the company operate now that it's not one of the country's only cultural exports? And how will Cuban dancers respond to their country's improved standing in the West?
"Cuba is one of the leaders in world ballet. The dancers are very distinctive and very strong."
The BNC, which Fidel Castro established in 1960 just a year after he took power, started touring abroad in 1964 and immediately earned rave reviews. The revolutionary initiative was entrusted to Alonso and her then-husband Fernando, two Cuban dancers recently returned from successful runs on Broadway and with American Ballet Theater in New York. Castro added one stipulation: "The company has to be good." The international tours were meant to show that Cuba could be a cultural leader even while abstaining for the global capitalist economy. While working within the constraints of the form, the BNC's dancers were still considered "the lungs of their people," and early critics noted the company's special style. The Alonsos told the world they had developed a technique specific to the Cuban mindset and physique, one that was warmer and more sensuous than its American or Russian counterparts.
"The company has been one of the major assets of Cuban diplomacy of the last fifty years," Septime Webre, director of the Washington Ballet and first generation Cuban-American, told me. In 1975, during the rapprochement of the Carter administration, Alicia Alonso became the first major Cuban artist to visit the United States. Two years later she performed at the Metropolitan Opera House—though only after police conducted a two-hour search of the premises with bomb-sniffing dogs. Despite the goings-on of Cold War paranoia, the audience was given a vivid impression of the artistry fostered on the island; a New York Times critic wrote that she "had never felt a dancer exert such compelling power over a viewer." Cuban-born and trained Carlos Acosta, now a star at the English Royal Ballet told me, "Cuba is one of the leaders in world ballet. The dancers are very distinctive and very strong."
But soon the defections became the headlines. There is now a Cuban-trained dancer in almost every major American company, and the rate of desertion is growing. Webre told me that in the past two weeks he's auditioned fifteen Cuban dancers for his company. "The volume is easily triple what it was two years ago," he said. (Candidates just show up at the studio; whether or not they're defectors often goes unsaid.) According to the dancers, "defection" isn't the right word for what they're doing, because they're not leaving for political reasons.
"It was called that in Cuba, but I don't consider myself a defector," said Carlos Guerra, now a principal at the Miami City Ballet. They do it for the sake of the art. "In the '70s, I never thought of leaving. The company was one of the best in the world," said Caridad Martinez, a former BNC principal who now works with Ballet Hispanico in New York. The BNC is famous for its old story ballets, many of which were choreographed over 150 years ago, but "it used to be more contemporary," said Martinez. "We performed works from George Balanchine and Antony Tudor." The same could not be said now.
As the costumes have turned yellow with sweat stains, the company's repertoire has ossified into a thing of the past. When the BNC traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011, the dancing felt so much like something out of a time capsule that critics didn't know how to pan it. "They shouldn't even be touring," said Acosta. Some of the best dancers working today had their start at the BNC, but their true potential was realized only after leaving, when they got the opportunity to collaborate with the choreographers who are innovating the form.
"How do you train dancers in a place where sometimes you can't even find milk?"
Cuban dancers are now anxiously watching the ongoing negotiations at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which might allow for the first meaningful development of Cuban-American relations in half a century. Acosta, one of the major ambassadors of Cuban dance today, thinks the change will have a great impact on the BNC: "New partnerships will emerge, new productions with different companies." Other dancers are less optimistic. Lester and Lawrence González of the San Diego Ballet are two of the most recent defectors, having walked across the Mexican border last October. When asked if they would do the same given the announcement made three months later, they obliquely answered that they would. "Our concerns have to do with not having what you need in order to live in tranquility, comfort, and freedom. These are things all dancers need." Lorena Feijóo, a former BNC dancer who is now a principal at the San Francisco Ballet, made a similar point: "How do you train dancers in a place where sometimes you can't even find milk?"
Financial circumstances on the island can only improve slowly. What most dancers are interested in is the possibility of increased cultural exchanges—the chance to perform as guest artists abroad without having to defect in order to do so. This status is only available to a privileged few. In 2011 Acosta was deemed "a son of the Revolution who had brought glory to the country," even though he hadn't called Havana home for twenty years. Others ask for this same opportunity and are denied it. "Alicia told me, 'Lorena, you're either in or out,'" Feijóo said of her last meeting with the director.
Alonso might be more culpable than any administrator at the Ministry of Culture for the bind the Cuban dancers face. One of the great artists of the twentieth century— ABT still uses her name in its promotional material—she's better known now for her egotistical grip on power than her visionary leadership of the company. She's been blind for decades, a condition that makes it impossible to meet the demands of her job. At rehearsals, she tells dancers they must "Attack!" their roles as swans, but she can offer this correction only because she knows the Tchaikovsky score and the corresponding steps by heart. Some suggest that her treatment of the dancers has to do with gender; she allows the men to travel but keeps the women at home in order to retain her title as the Cuban prima assoluta.
Even with the prospect of change on the island, the regime fixates on the glory days of the Revolution and its poster child ballerina. "Alicia Alonso made an important contribution to this decisive moment of harmony and understanding between the two countries," said scholar Ahmed Fernández of Havana's Museo de la Danza. The case for ballet diplomacy would be much stronger if the government could acknowledge the Cuban dancers currently gracing American stages. "We represent our country wherever we go, even if our country no longer recognizes us," said Cervilio Amador, now a principal at the Cincinnati Ballet. All the dancers I spoke to were fiercely proud of their Cuban training.
What the current BNC dancers themselves think of the recent political developments will soon become clear. This Sunday they're returning to Spain for their first international engagement since the thaw in diplomatic relations. It seems like the question to ask is not if there will be more defections, but how many.