Pena, a former dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba and Ballet de la Opera on the island, arrived in Miami in 1980 with hopes of starting his own company. For a few years he worked at local dance academies and then in 1982 founded his own school and company, Creation Ballet. Eight years ago he rechristened the troupe the Miami Hispanic Ballet to better reflect the variety of countries -- Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia-- from which its members hail.
In 1996 Pena came up with the ambitious idea to organize an international ballet festival that would unite acclaimed dancers from all over the world on one stage. "This city is important, not just for the tourists and economic growth but for cultural growth. Culturally I think in three or four years it's going to be equal to New York and cities in Europe," Pena says. "Other cities have festivals like this. Why not us?"
The first festival, funded by Pena and a couple of corporate sponsors, took place in one evening at the Dade County Auditorium, with eight companies from Latin America, Europe, and North America participating. In 1997 eleven troupes took part. This year, thanks to the support of several sponsors, the event has continued to expand. The performances stretch over two days at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts and fourteen companies will be here, including England's English National Ballet, Chile's Ballet de Santiago, Italy's Arteballeto, Spain's Ballet de Zaragoza, Canada's Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal, Puerto Rico's Ballet Concierto, Connecticut's Hartford Ballet, Colorado's Aspen Ballet, and more. Local participants include celebrated Cuban ballerina Rosario "Charin" Suarez, the Momentum Dance Company, Ballet Concerto, Ballet Cubano de Miami, and Pena's corps as well.
The program may lean heavily on classical pieces such as pas de deux from Don Quixote, Le Corsaire, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and La Sylphide, but dance fans who don't care much for the classical repertoire should not be put off. The artistic director stresses that contemporary pieces will be highlighted as well, among them the Hartford Ballet's Between Blue Moon, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal's Max Mon Amour, and Momentum's Spanish Love Songs. "People are interested in seeing the classical pieces because they're very difficult and technical," Pena explains, "but I like to have a mix, because dance is one language."
Aside from the two days of entertaining performances, the event will also encompass education. Prominent Spanish prima ballerina Arantxa Arguelle, director of the Ballet de Zaragoza, and well-known Cuban-American dancer Fernando Bujones, who at the festival will announce his retirement from performing, will teach master classes to advanced students selected from private and public schools around Miami.
Although the dancing is hardly over, the tireless Pena is already thinking about a bigger and better festival in the future. "It's grown and grown and grown," he effuses. "I'm proud of this event. This is what I came to this country for. I want the audience to enjoy it and be satisfied because they are seeing a great performance."
-- Nina Korman
The International Ballet Festival of Miami takes place Saturday and Sunday, September 19 and 20, at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets range from $23 to $43. Call 305-673-7300.