Cuban Ballet in Exile

Some of the world's best dancers hang out at Costco, then perform Swan Lake.

"You can say the stereotypical things like it's passionate, it's caliente, but the Cuban understanding of music tends to be more syncopated," says Suki John, a choreographer and dance scholar who teaches at Texas Christian University. "They tend to be expressive. They tend to have big personalities onstage."

Pedro Pablo Peña chanced upon this expressive style of ballet as a slender, leggy 15-year-old piano student in the early Sixties. The man who would later become a leader in the exile dance movement was enraptured as he watched a class while studying at the Municipal Conservatory of Music in Havana. "It was destiny," he says. "The peace, the movements. When I saw them dancing ballet, I thought, This is what I want to be."

Soon he was accepted to study ballet at the conservatory, but his father tore up the acceptance letter and forbade him to dance. Peña left the family home in San Miguel del Padrón, outside of Havana, to devote himself to ballet in the capital.

Magaly adjusts Taras's costume before the February 23 performance of Swan Lake.
Andrzej Sobieski
Magaly adjusts Taras's costume before the February 23 performance of Swan Lake.
Pedro Pablo Peña hands a bouquet to Almeida after the show
Andrzej Sobieski
Pedro Pablo Peña hands a bouquet to Almeida after the show

Around age 21, he joined the National Ballet of Cuba as a supporting dancer. In those years, the government expected artists to participate in the revolution, but Peña refused to join Communist clubs. He attended Mass and maintained antirevolutionary friends. As a result, he complains, he was penalized and prohibited from travel. "It was like they could smell it if you didn't fit in."

In the early Seventies, he was hired as a choreographer at a company that produced Broadway-style shows. Then he was ousted from that job. The reason: He wasn't enthusiastic enough about the revolution. Though he was reinstated, he joined the Mariel boatlift in 1980, slipping away on a shrimp boat and drifting to Miami. "I had to leave, whatever the risk," he says.

He scraped by, working at a ballet store and then teaching dance in Hialeah. In 1984 he became a choreographer on Univision's Sábado Gigante, which led to his crafting steps for legends such as Julio Iglesias and Celia Cruz. He left the show around 1991, and over the next few years put Miami on the ballet map, first forming the Miami Hispanic Ballet and then initiating the International Ballet Festival of Miami, now one of the nation's most acclaimed showcases of its kind.

In 2005, he heard about an interesting Cuban teacher in Pompano Beach, far from Little Havana's tight exile community. He attended one of Magaly Suárez's classes and then a recital. A creative spark flared. They soon hatched plans for their own company and in 2006 formed the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami.

Dancers from the island had been defecting in waves since 2002, and the pair hoped to take advantage of the Magic City as a first stop by using world-class dancers to produce crowd favorites such as Swan Lake. It was planned as an alternative to Miami City Ballet, which favors more contemporary choreography.

Magaly became the ballet mistress and shared with Peña the title of artistic director. Among those who signed on to their first full ballet, Giselle in 2007, were six former National Ballet of Cuba dancers, including Lorena Feijóo, now a top dancer with San Francisco. The troupe worked hard and drew audiences from the beginning. "The career of a ballet dancer is enslaving," Peña says. "It's total dedication, almost like being a priest. They came to fulfill their careers. And, to them, that's everything."

A memory Magaly holds dear: It's the early Nineties and she and Taras, an impetuous boy with wavy hair and a Cheshire Cat grin, are onstage after a show in the Alejo Carpentier room, a smaller performance space in the Gran Teatro of Old Havana. Maybe it was Don Quixote.

He is five or six years old.

It's past 10 p.m. The red curtain is open. The stars have bowed, the applause has stopped, and the audience is long gone. Magaly, a teacher at the National Ballet School of Cuba, mills about with other faculty members. Onstage, Taras spins, twirls, and leaps, offering his take on the show. This continues for a half-hour.

Magaly says she knew at this moment he would be a dancer. "I could see his skills, but I didn't want it. I wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer and take care of me. But he's an artist — you can see it. A lawyer doesn't like tattoos."

The boy inherited his passion for ballet from his mom. Magaly began studying at nine years old when she was chosen for Havana's renowned Alejo Carpentier Provincial School of Ballet. Later, after earning a coveted spot at the National Ballet School of Cuba, she danced roles in classics including Swan Lake and Paquita. She struggled with diet, as many dancers do, and ended up an emaciated 70 pounds. At age 17, she decided her petite, curvy frame was unsuited for the spotlight.

She opted to be a teacher. "I like to be the best in what I do," she says. "And if not I'm not going to be best, I prefer not to do it."

She graduated in 1980 and the same year became one of the youngest faculty members at the National Ballet School of Cuba. Her arduous schedule lasted from 7:30 in the morning to 9 at night, Monday through Saturday. She taught character dances, pointe classes, and pas de deux to the likes of Jose Manuel Carreño, now a principal at the American Ballet Theatre in New York; Luis Serrano, who would later join Miami City Ballet; and Lorna Feijóo (Lorena's sister), now a principal in the Boston Ballet.

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