This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
Photo courtesy Miguel Gutierrez
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
The last time Pointe caught up with Conley, she'd finished her year of training at the Cuban school, and had decided to audition for the company. She had just found out about her acceptance into a six-month professional training program (the equivalent of an apprenticeship) with the National Ballet. Conley dove into her apprenticeship at the end of last summer. While apprentices typically don't get cast in roles, they're expected to attend every corps de ballet rehearsal, know the choreography and be ready to fill in at any time.
"At first it was kind of hard," Conley says. "I would have ballet class in the morning, and then they would have rehearsal and there would be like 15 of us in the back marking." But she embraced the challenge, checking the cast list every day before rehearsal to see if any dancers were absent. She started filling in frequently. "It taught me a lot about learning things quickly and being very adaptable," she says. That diligence paid off. When a corps dancer got sick during rehearsals for Swan Lake, Conley was asked to sub for her, and was later chosen for the second cast of the ballet.
Conley learned that she'd officially made it into the company in late April, right before the troupe's U.S. tour. The first thing she did was call her parents, followed by Victor Alexander, her teacher from the Ruth Page School of Dance in Chicago (and the one who'd set up the original exchange program with Cuba). Though Conley didn't tour with the company, the National Ballet did perform in her hometown. "A lot of people from the company hung out with my family," she says, laughing. During a pre-show talk with prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés at one Chicago performance, an audience member asked if all of the dancers were Cuban. Naturally, Valdés mentioned Conley, describing her as a "beautiful, graceful and very talented ballerina."
These days, Conley is working on Cinderella, which the National Ballet will perform in July, and adjusting to company life. "I learned a lot from watching the more experienced dancers," she says. "I think it's changed the way that I move." She's developing her own approach to interpreting the movement, asking more seasoned company members for corrections or advice, and soaking up every opportunity to watch and learn.