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Photo by Susan Bestul, Courtesy Verb Ballets.

Ever since President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, the two countries' dance communities have been eager to strengthen relationships. Now, in spite of tightened travel and business restrictions by the Trump administration, an exciting new collaboration is on the horizon: Cleveland–based Verb Ballets is teaming up with Cuban ballet company ProDanza for a series of performances in Havana. There, the two companies will combine to form the Cleveland Havana Ballet, presenting a full-length production at the prestigious Alicia Alonso Grand Theater.

Last spring, the Cleveland Foundation, through its Creative Fusion: Cuba Edition program, brought ProDanza artistic director Laura Alonso to Ohio for a two-month residency with Verb Ballets, where she taught classes in the rigorous Cuban style. "We're not a classical company, so the dancers needed that kind of training," says artistic director Dr. Margaret Carlson in a phone interview. Alonso—a former dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba and daughter of its founder, prima ballerina Alicia Alonso—worked with the company to break technique "down to the little finger," says Carlson, who points out that "it's hard to get that kind of training anymore."

Laura Alonso (far left) works with dancers of Verb Ballets during her two-month residency last spring. Photo by Susan Bestul, Courtesy Verb Ballets.

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Catherine Conley. Photo by Alex Garcia.

When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.

My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.

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Ballet Stars
Mayara Pineiro photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's April/May 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

After Pennsylvania Ballet's Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca run their Nutcracker pas de deux in rehearsal, ballet master Charles Askegard asks for just one correction. Pineiro—who is thrilling as she plunges headlong into penché, whips into crisp turns and hurls herself backward into Soca's arms—is asked to emphasize taffy-like stretches into lengthened holds. Askegard is right. Counterbalancing the lightning-quick and the sensual brings even more dimension to this riveting dancer.

In just her second season with Pennsylvania Ballet, where she started in the corps, the Cuban-born Pineiro has danced leading roles in Balanchine's Allegro Brillante and Matthew Neenan's Shift to Minor. Elevated to soloist in March 2015 following her performance as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, she continues to be given choice principal roles.

“It was like fire onstage," says Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella of her performance in Allegro Brillante. “She's one of those dancers that comes only every once in a while." The path leading to this moment was long and challenging, including Pineiro's rigorous training in Havana, her brave defection to the U.S. and a period of uncertainty about whether she could continue dancing at all. Now, she has landed right where she wants to be.


Pineiro in "Don Quixote." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

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