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.
The largest performance studio at the Fernando Alonso National School of Ballet in Havana, Cuba, is packed with lower school students, seated helter-skelter around the edges of its new sprung floor. They move over to make room for photographers and visitors in town for the 26th Havana International Ballet Festival, who have come from as far away as Mexico, England and the United States. They are all at the academy, known world-wide for its rigorous adherence to a scientific methodology painstakingly developed by ballet master Fernando Alonso, because Aurora Bosch is giving a mixed-level master class to the upper school, of which she is a graduate, becoming one of its first teachers at the age of 19. Bosch, known as one of the "Four Jewels" of the Cuban National Ballet (along with Loipa Araújo, Josefina Méndez and Mirta Plá), is now based in London, but earlier this month she returned to Havana to attend and participate in the festival.
Shortly afterwards, the school's director Ramona de Saá invited me to speak with her and Bosch about the expanding focus of this distinguished school that has produced such outstanding dancers as Carlos Acosta, Lorena and Lorna Feijóo, José Manuel Carreño, and a host of others who have danced with first-rate companies the world over.
How was training at the Cuban National Ballet School different from what you see in the U.S.? It was free education, so it was very hard to get in, and there was a cut every year. We had academics alongside art, and we had to take a lot of different things: modern, character, ballroom, choreography composition, history of dance, music, French, makeup—everything you need for this profession.
Why did you defect? I always wanted to have an international career. But also, I was 19, and I had a boyfriend. We were dating in Cuba when he won the lottery visa to come to the United States. When I was on tour here with the National Ballet he came to see me and I thought, I'm in love! So I stayed with him.
Has the political opening of Cuba affected you? Before, if you defected, you had to wait five years to go back. That was pretty rough. Things have changed so much. It's about time; we're neighbors! Last year I was able to go back and perform at the Grand Theater in Havana—with my family, my teachers and my friends there.
Hupoy (right, as Alla Snizova) and Laszlo Major in "Le Corsaire." Photo by Zoren Jelenic, Courtesy Ballets de Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
One of the highlights of New York City's Fall for Dance Festival this year was an appearance by the Ballets Trockadéro de Monte Carlo, a company of men who dance on pointe with as much panache and style as any prima ballerina. Their performance of Paquita was funny, of course—they specialize in comic renditions of classical ballets— but also bracingly well executed. The star of the evening, Carlos Hopuy, aka Alla Snizova, was simply astonishing. His pointework sparkled, his hops on pointe were clean and strong, and he looked like he could have balanced in attitude forever. There was something deeply exciting about the way he combined delicacy and control with the explosive power and steel of a man's physique.
Hopuy, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and trained at the country's famed National Ballet School, has been with the company since 2012. Like all the Trocks, he has both a female and a male alter-ego: when he's not portraying Alla Snizova, he's Innokenti Smoktumuchsky, a dopey cavalier. He is also one of the dancers featured in the upcoming documentary Rebels on Pointe, which will have its theatrical release November 15 (click here for theaters and dates near you). I recently caught up with Hopuy, who, when he's not on tour, lives in Orlando with his husband Paolo Cervellera, a former Trock. We spoke by phone, in Spanish.
Did you always want to dance?
I always liked ballet. My mother, Norma Hopuy, was a principal with the Ballet de Camagüey. I used to hang around the rehearsals. She started giving me lessons at home. Then, when I was nine, I auditioned for the National Ballet School. I had the choice between that and gymnastics and I chose ballet.
When did you start going on pointe?
When I was 11. I would ask my classmates for their old pointe shoes and would try them on at home. When my mother realized that I liked to go on pointe, she started training me and bought me my own pair.
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.
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.
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.