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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For American audiences, Balanchine's "Rubies" is instantly recognizable. Cuban audiences, though, have never seen the iconic work, due to over five decades of severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. That will change this Sunday, when Beckanne Sisk and fellow Ballet West principal Christopher Ruud perform the saucy, showy "Rubies" pas de deux at the International Ballet Festival of Havana gala. Pointe spoke with Sisk about making dance history.

Sisk in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

 

You're no stranger to galas, but do they make you nervous? 

It's not a whole production, so I feel a lot of pressure to do well in those nine minutes. But it's also very exciting. I feel comfortable with "Rubies," and I'm so honored to be the first to dance it in Cuba.

 

How do you think the audience will receive this pas?

I feel like this is the perfect pas de deux to take because they love exciting dancing. This pas has a whole lot of everything in it!

 

How does "Rubies" continue to challenge you?

I'm learning to be able to throw myself and do all these crazy things while keeping the technique. I have to be poised and together in my core while throwing my limbs, so I'm finding that balance.

 

What do you like about the role? 

There are no limits. It's all just power and go, go, go—there are no rest steps, and you do everything to the fullest. It's very showy, but it's all fun, feel-good steps.

 

Besides performing, what else are you looking forward to doing in Cuba? 

I've never been to Cuba, so we're gonna try and do some touristy things. I'd like to see some cool cars, and the food—I can't wait to try the food! We'll also get to take company class [with the National Ballet of Cuba]. I'm really, really excited about that.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

Catherine Conley, photo by Cheryl Mann

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.

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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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NBC principals Grettel Morejón and Alfredo Ibáñez perform at the opening weekend of the newly restored theater.

Photography by Quinn Wharton

“My dream was to dance in Cuba," says Lorena Feijóo. “I didn't want to leave my country." It's a lament the San Francisco Ballet principal shares with countless other members of the Cuban ballet diaspora: dancers who left their families, culture and country behind to escape economic hardship and seek artistic freedom abroad. The diaspora extends from Miami to Seattle to Oslo, where Cuban dancers' superb classical training and refined artistry are sought after.

The problem is not a lack of appreciation at home—“The Cuban audience is absolutely insane about ballet," Feijóo says—but subsistence wages and artistic conservatism at the National Ballet of Cuba, and rigid restrictions on guesting overseas. In Cuba, dancers earn an estimated $30 to $50 per month. However, a balletic revolution may be on the horizon.

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What do changing U.S.–Cuba relations mean for Cuban ballet? Take a look inside the studios and theater of the world-renowned National Ballet of Cuba.

All photos by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.

First soloist Ivis Díaz Acosta stretches during a Giselle rehearsal. (Photo by Quinn Wharton)

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Ian Gavan, Courtesy ROH
After 17 years at The Royal Ballet, Carlos Acosta is ready to begin his next chapter. The principal dancer retired from the company last night after performing in his new production of Carmen, which he choreographed and starred in. According to The Telegraph, after receiving a 20-minute standing ovation last night, Acosta offered a few words of advice for the next generation of dancers. “Allow yourself to make mistakes, there is no such thing as failure," he said. "Be curious and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy because one day you will blink and realize that 70 years have gone by."
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With stars such as Lorena and Lorna Feijóo, Rolando Sarabia, Carlos Acosta and Jose Manuel Carreño, Cuban dancers are prominent figures in ballet now more than ever. Octavio Roco, a longtime dance critic, wrote Cuban Ballet to tell the story of Cuban dancers at National Ballet of Cuba and those who have defected and now dance in companies across the globe. Pointe spoke with Roco about the new book, which is released today. Order your copy here. 

 

What story are you trying to tell in Cuban Ballet?

There is no earthly reason why this little island should be so influential in ballet: The entire population of Cuba could fit inside NYC, LA or Moscow! And yet American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet and The Royal Ballet all have Cuban principals in their ranks. What I’m trying to do is tell the story of ballet in Cuba, and of those dancers who are in exile.

 

Why do you think Cuban dancers have become such prominent figures in the dance world?

It’s the training—and the commitment. Cubans take ballet very seriously and think it’s a privilege to be a part of this art.

 

How are Cuban dancers shaping American dance?

I believe a lot of Cuban dancers improve their companies by example. They seem to be coming in numbers, and they are all very worthy, so it’s bound to affect a company. Helgi Tomasson offered Taras Domitrio a contract within one day of his defection. Cuban dancers just get snapped up.

 

How much of the book discusses Cuba’s political climate?

A lot. I go into the oppression of dancers, the conditions that artists have to live with in Cuba. It’s no small feat that The National Ballet of Cuba is what it is. There are a lot of things they have to be careful about and can’t talk about. The integrity of the art, however, has stayed. And that’s what I hope will remain. Cuban ballet has been there before Castro, and it’s going to be there after. Critics and politicians will be forgotten, but the dancing is what you remember.

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, Tom Gold Dance performed at the Cuban International Ballet Festival. The NYC-based pickup troupe includes a number of top New York City Ballet dancers, including Abi Stafford, who writes about the trip here.

 

Sunday, October 28
This evening we flew to Havana to perform Apollo, Twyla Tharp's Junk Duet, and Tom Gold's Gershwin Preludes and Tango Fantasy with Tom Gold Dance in the 23rd International Ballet Festival. Five of us dancers traveled today along with Tom and Willy Burmann, a tremendous teacher at Steps on Broadway. Tom brings Willy along when TGD tours to teach warm-ups, coach the dancers, and to generally be a supportive presence. Four more dancers are scheduled to arrive Tuesday morning—we they won’t be stranded by Hurricane Sandy. Tonight we went to a party thrown for all the dancers in the festival. Alicia Alonso was there, and when Tom was introduced to her, she said “Bellas artes.” We called it a night at about 12:30. Time to rest. My lower back is a bit stiff from flying and I'm eager to get dancing and moving.


Monday, October 29
This morning we took taxis to Old Havana and spent the morning walking around the old buildings and shops. I was thrilled to see NY-style bookstands on the street with English copies of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; on Friday we're going to visit the house where he lived for 20 years. While driving along the sea wall, waves were splashing over onto the street. Remnants of Sandy, I'd imagine. Before Willy's 3 pm class at the school for the National Ballet of Cuba, Tom came up with a Plan B should one of the dancers not make it because of closed airports. (Simone Messmer, who dances with ABT, is in Spain at the moment and must fly through NYC.) I donned my ballet mistress cap and taught Simone's part in Gershwin to Gretchen Smith, with help from her partner Stephen Hanna. The ballet is a charming pas de deux, with brilliant footwork, sassy movements and slow, luxurious adagio steps. It's one of my favorite pas de deuxs to dance. Tom simultaneously taught Amanda Hankes three new sections in Tango. She already has her own role in the ballet, but can dance Simone’s parts on top of hers. Gretchen and Amanda were pros, or course. I can’t believe how fast they learned everything. Amanda had videotaped Tango off her computer at home by holding her IPhone up to the screen in case anyone needed to see it; lucky for her! After rehearsal, we got word that Simone officially could not find a way to Cuba. Happily, everyone was already two steps ahead!


Tuesday, October 30
Uh-oh. Some dancers are having some terrible stomach issues. Amanda spent much of rehearsal bent over and Tom felt feverish. Perhaps it was the ice from our mojitios last night? The three other dancers from our group made it this morning. We had studio space again and put together Tango, (which involves all the dancers) and Apollo before running out of time. Robbie Fairchild and I haven’t rehearsed Junk Duet for a couple weeks now. The only worry is whether my stamina will be up to par. Junk Duet is quite hard, but it’s difficult in a way that makes me feel excited for the challenge. The choreography for the female has many, many pirouettes so I like to think that if I mess up one, I get to try again on the next…and then there’s another one…and so on and so forth. I can’t believe the first show is tomorrow! At dinner tonight I filled up on papaya and pineapple—someone said they are good for inflammation. But I’m craving apples. And my daily Dunkin’ Donuts.     


Wednesday, October 31
Uh-oh again. Stephen came to breakfast and said he was sick all last night. But he pushed through. Tonight was our first performance and this morning was our first time on the stage of the beautiful Mella Theater. Today was a dance marathon: We began with class at 10 and rehearsed until close to 2:30. Rehearsal was hard so we popped Advil and B 12 vitamins (for energy) before the show. The stool for Apollo has two legs that are a bit unstable; it would be quite embarrassing for Adrian Danchig-Waring if the stool fell out from underneath him. That didn’t happen, but I did trip while bourreeing out for Apollo. I thought “Well, that was a good start, Abi!” But the rest of the ballet went quite well. Next on the program was Gershwin, followed by Junk. For Junk, the taped music must begins when Robbie and I start moving. One of the first steps is a flip over backwards for the girl, essentially like a cartwheel, but the guy does all the work. We started dancing, the music didn’t start…the music didn’t start…then the first chords of Gershwin played. There was a moment of panic before Robbie whispered to me, “Let’s go back to the beginning.” The right music started before we got back to our places and Robbie and I weren’t quite on the same page. He managed to flip me over again without any help from me because I was trying to move on to the next step. It got my adrenaline pumping, to say the least! After a few chaotic moments, we picked up the choreography, but afterwards Tom said that it actually looked fine because we both kept moving. Gotta roll with those punches! By the end of Tango, we all were beat. Adrian was so tired that he said he was seeing stars. It was all worth it, though. The audience was lovely, amazing and enthusiastic. They went wild for Tango. There is a particularly exciting “boys dance” for Adrian, Robbie and Stephen. The applause was so extended afterwards that we could barely hear the music to begin the finale. At the very end, the audience treated us to a standing ovation. Several of the stagehands asked us girls for single roses from the bouquets that we received during bows. We decided flowers must be a bit expensive here and were happy to comply. When leaving the theater, a woman recognized Adrian and said, “Apollo! Apollo!” Mind you, in Spanish the “double LL” is pronounced “yo.” So, she was saying, “Apo-yo.” And the Spanish word “pollo” (or po-yo) means chicken, so we decided that Adrian must have reminded her of a chicken!  Afterwards we ate dinner while donning Halloween masks. Might as well bring a bit of Halloween to Cuba!


Thursday, November 1
I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. I have many sore muscles in strangest of places. Amanda and I have sore quads from Apollo and Adrian said that his calves won’t stop cramping. We got some great compliments from people who saw the show last night while eating breakfast in the hotel.  We repeated our show this evening but I felt that my performance was not quite as good as last night. Willy, however, informed us that it looked better. He said that the energy was higher which might have happened because we were more tired and had to push harder. He said, “You all looked wonderful” and when we answered with, “It didn’t feel as good,” he said, “Now, I didn’t ask you how it felt. I’m telling you how it looked!” An important distinction, I’m sure. After our performance, we headed to the National Theater to watch the National Ballet of Cuba perform. The program had a handful of pas de deuxs, followed by an opera by Handel. My favorite pas de deux was by Eduardo Blanco. The girl’s name was Yanela, I believe. She was clean, graceful and beautiful to watch. Alicia Alonso choreographed a new ballet which was a lovely pas de deux set in a studio (the set consisted of two ballet barres and a mirror) with a trio of musicians onstage. It reminded me a bit of Afternoon of a Faun. We were thrilled. Tomorrow we are visiting the Hemingway House and spending the rest of the day at the beach. Then home to New York on Saturday. I can’t believe how fast this trip went—and I can’t wait to come back!

Carlos Acosta, a principal at The Royal Ballet and one of the most well-known dancers ever, will retire from the classical stage during the summer of 2016. However, he's already begun to lay his next plans: Running his own dance company.

Acosta told the London Evening Standard that he plans to split his time between the UK and his native Cuba, and will draw most of his dancers from Cuba. Acosta's show Cubanía (which will be performed at the Royal Opera House later this month) features dancers from the country's top contemporary company, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, as well as the Ballet Nacional and several guest artists. It has served as a precursor to Acosta's larger vision—to showcase new work with a distinctly Cuban flair.

He has also been working to restore the ballet school at Havana's National Art School and hopes that structural work will be completed within three years.

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