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Sixteen-year-old Sofia Castán Vargas on the steps of the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Leysis Quesada, courtesy Vargas.

If you've had an opportunity to see the Cuban National Ballet Company perform, or taken class with a Cuban-trained teacher, or observed a Cuban-trained dancer in classical, contemporary or character roles, you've probably wondered what it might be like to study or dance professionally in the island nation. The U.S. trade and travel embargo can seem like an obstacle, but under its provisions, travel to Cuba is permissible for pursuing an education or professional interests. Shortly after the 26th Havana International Ballet Festival, I spoke with two dancers—a student and a professional—whose experience studying and dancing in Cuba sheds some light on what it's like.

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Ballet Stars
Catherine Conley is now a member of the National Ballet of Cuba. Photo courtesy Riley Robinson

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

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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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Ever since diplomatic relations were reestablished between Cuba and the U.S. back in 2014, people have been wondering what increased cultural exchange might mean for Cuban ballet. This week, it was announced that Catherine Conley, a dancer from Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts, was invited to train at Cuban National Ballet School. The eighteen-year-old will start studying full time under the school's director, Ramona de Saa, this summer after she graduates from high school.

Catherine Conley, photo by Cheryl Mann

Cuban National Ballet School is one of the largest and most esteemed classical ballet schools in the world, and has produced dance legends from Carlos Acosta to José Manuel Carreño. But though U.S. dancers have participated in workshops and festivals at the school, long-term opportunities for exchange and training have been extremely limited.

Conley with Ramona de Saa, photo by Anthony Robert La Penna

A Michigan native, Conley has trained at the Ruth Page Center for more than 10 years, and attended summer intensives at The Royal Ballet, Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. She caught de Saa's eye while participating in a groundbreaking exchange program between Cuban National Ballet School and Ruth Page Center that started in 2015. The program, called “Chicago Y Cuba: The International Dance Experience,” featured joint classes and performances in Havana and Chicago.

Training in Cuba is the opportunity of a lifetime for Conley, and her experience is another sign of changing circumstances and increased opportunities for collaboration. We'll be keeping our eyes on the young dancer as she embarks on this adventure.

 

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