Cuban Ballet in Exile

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

Nearing midnight this past December 17 — two months before the Swan Lake performance — dozens of bleary-eyed passengers, rosy-cheeked babies, and young women in dowdy college sweatshirts stumble off an AirTran flight from Atlanta at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

Nine journalists wait outside the security gate with glaring lights, microphones, and cameras until a svelte trio emerges with posture rarely seen outside beauty pageants and Catholic schools. They are Miguel Angel Blanco, a six-foot-one 24-year-old with a Ken doll profile; Hayna Gutiérrez, age 26, a caramel-haired beauty in black knee-high boots; and Taras, who has the air of an aloof skater kid in his black hoodie.

Hungry reporters simultaneously ask why they defected. They tired of the Cuban ballet company's staid repertoire, comes the answer. They want to try new things in new places. "I came here to dance for the United States," Taras replies. "I'm very happy to spend Christmas with my mom."

Magaly clutches his arm, smiling broadly and gazing doe-eyed up at him. "I'm very happy," she says. "This was the only thing I've been waiting for for nine years."

The trio followed defectors such as Carlos Guerra, who's now a 29-year-old principal dancer with Miami City Ballet. He was allowed to leave Cuba in 1998 to dance in Chile, and then wrangled a visa to Miami with the help of Sábado Gigante producers. In October 2003, 19-year-old Adiarys Almeida left the National Ballet of Cuba during a New York tour. She later danced with the Cincinnati Ballet. "You can't look back," she says.

Indeed the high mark for defectors was probably between 2002 and 2003, when more than 20 dancers fled while visiting Mexico, Spain, the Dominican Republic, and the United States.

Alicia Alonso did not approve. "They are like kites that one builds carefully with rods and strings and paper," she told the New York Times. "Then you launch them into flight and suddenly they break loose from the cord. It is sad how they fool themselves."

The Sarabia brothers' defections in 2004 and 2005 captured the most headlines — particularly that of Rolando. "His departure ... will be keenly felt in Cuba," the New York Times reported in August 2005. "Critics have called him 'the Cuban Nijinsky.'"

Then last December, Magaly and her husband Pedro traveled from Fort Lauderdale to Hamilton, Ontario, where the Cuban ballet was performing The Nutcracker. She reserved a room at the Ramada, where the troupe was staying. Alicia Alonso and her inner circle were at another, higher-end hotel. The day of the performance, Magaly met Taras and they went to a Wal-Mart to buy toiletries and DVD players for his return to Cuba.

The Canadian audience embraced the trio. A critic at the Hamilton Spectator heaped superlatives on Taras and Hayna, calling them "remarkable dancers who connect brilliantly with the Sugar Plum Fairy Variation and the airborne grandeur of her Cavalier." He annointed Taras a successor to Baryshnikov.

What happened next was neither planned nor premeditated. Around 11 p.m. after the Sunday show, Taras knocked at his mother's door. "If I decided to defect here, do you think that I could?" he asked.

"Are you sure?" Magaly answered, startled by his decision. He was.

Soon Hayna, a prima ballerina with a sweet demeanor, appeared too. She had studied with Magaly for a few years as a teen before the teacher's departure from Cuba.

"Taras wants to leave," Magaly told her.

"Okay, I'm going too," Hayna said.

Then Miguel Angel Blanco showed up. There were three.

About two hours later, Magaly crammed the trio into a rented Pontiac and headed south in the throes of a snowstorm. When they pulled up to the border crossing to New York state, Magaly told the guards the dancers were Cubans and planned to ask for asylum.

After a few hours, they were freed and caught a plane to Fort Lauderdale. During the odyssey, Magaly called Peña. They agreed the trio would perform in the planned performances of Swan Lake. Miguel Angel and Hayna had even danced the main characters, Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette. "It was pure coincidence," Peña explains. "It worked out perfectly."

After issuing a press release, an elated Peña, wearing a leather jacket and stylish Buddy Holly-esque black-rim glasses, met them at the airport. Then the dancers headed for Pompano Beach.

A few days later, they received a jarring welcome from Miami's Cubans during a press conference at Versailles Restaurant, the unofficial exile headquarters in Little Havana. Taras said their departure wasn't driven by politics. "I'll never speak poorly of the people or the company [in Cuba]," he says. "We aren't politicians. We're ballet dancers."

The lemon-colored ranch-style home on 16th Avenue in Pompano Beach is walking distance to Magaly's studio in a nondescript strip mall. There's a pool in the back and a royal blue BMW in the roundabout out front.

On a February morning in the kitchen, after a breakfast of raisin bran, Hayna — still in pajamas and her face bare of makeup — approaches Magaly as the woman she calls mamicha washes dishes. "I wanted to hug my mother this weekend," she says softly. Then she embraces the next best person.

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