At the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center, a grand white house standing just west of downtown, Pedro Pablo Peña is organizing this year's International Ballet Festival of Miami. Now in its 21st year, it's one of only a handful of festivals like it in the world.
What began with only three or four companies has grown into a two-week event featuring performers from Latin America, Central America, Europe, Asia, and all corners of the United States. Like the Olympics, this event showcases the best of the best.
"We are working with the great stars from around the world," Peña says. "Every year, I have a commitment to put Miami on the cultural map. This is my responsibility, and it's a reality now."
Peña, born in Cuba, came to Miami in 1980 on the Mariel Boatlift. By then, he had established himself in the Cuban ballet world. These days, his enthusiasm for ballet is expansive. Seeing classic pieces performed by virtuosos is the fuel that feeds his fire.
"When Don Quixote is danced by a great artist, it's something special," he says. "Ballet is dependent on the dancer. And remember that in dance, the only vocabulary you have is your body, your expression."
While planning for the long list of companies that will appear at this year's festival, Peña has also been busy with a different group of visitors: ballet dancers who recently defected from Cuba. Over the years, he has gained a reputation for running a safe haven for Cuban dancers when they touch down in America. "They are able to continue their career in the United States. I offer to help with everything."
Peña gives them a spot in his Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami or helps them contract with other companies. He also provides housing and a surrogate family for those with no local relatives. "Some come into the house the same as the son coming to the father," he says. The Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center is a former home, and two of the bedrooms are set up to host newcomers.
In 2014, Peña took in eight dancers, and this year so far he has taken in four. When they left Cuba, many were up-and-coming dancers with coveted spots as soloists for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba: Estheysis Menendez, Masiel Alonso, and Mayrel Martinez came through Canada earlier this year. Also among this year's arrivals is a young man, Alexis Valdes, only 15.
Valdes, a promising student at the National Ballet School of Cuba, left the island with his father in July. Peña's marketing director and right-hand woman, Karen Couty, herself a former ballerina, says Valdes left only because his parents were defecting. "I think it was a leap for him to understand," Couty says. "He was very torn about it because he was devoted to the Cuban ballet technique. Now he has to negotiate the fault line between the United States and Cuba."
Valdes was invited to perform in the festival's International Young Medalists Performance. Focused on future stars from around the world, this is a remarkable opportunity for an up-and-coming dancer who arrived just weeks ago. Peña hopes the performance will give Valdes access to new opportunities. "He's a great young dancer, a beautiful technician with beautiful style," Peña says. "You never know — in three years, maybe he will be a principal dancer somewhere."
Peña's devotion to dancers is passionate and personal — he has been in their position. When Peña decided to leave Cuba in 1980, he says, "I decided that I wanted not only my freedom for my life, but freedom for my career, my artistic development." Fed by the Russian tradition, Cuba has long held ballet as a national treasure. But the island is home to only one major ballet company, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. "If you don't dance there, it's impossible that you dance classical in another company because it doesn't exist," Peña explains.
"When I danced, I didn't have an opportunity for some reason," he says. "Maybe for political reasons, maybe because of my personality." In Cuba, he says, it can be difficult to pursue one's dreams. "Maybe cultural activities will open between Cuba and the United States. I don't know, but people continue to leave Cuba. The people are tired, waiting for what is necessary for their life."
Witnessing the many dancers passing through Peña's organization, Couty says of Cuba: "There's an absolute stifling of creativity. They want to be able to express themselves in other ways." Plus, she says, with just one major company, "there can only be so many prima ballerinas."
Peña elaborates: "Remember this is a short career. If you don't take [advantage of] your time, you lose your career, you lose everything you sacrificed your life for."
When Peña arrived in Miami in 1980, he immediately began changing the shape of the local dance community. Two years later, he formed the Creation Art Center, followed by the Miami Hispanic Ballet in 1993 and the International Ballet Festival of Miami in 1996. In 2006, the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami was formed. His many projects are now housed in the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center, which he calls "the White House of ballet."
Coming from a place where exposure to other cultures has largely been blocked, it makes sense that Peña would create an international forum for dance. Cuba's isolation limits artistic exchange. And interaction is the lifeblood of creativity, even in a field as traditional as ballet. Peña has watched dancers from distant parts of the world, with hair, costumes, and makeup sparkling, waiting in the wings for their cue. "When everybody is together," he says, "something happens. It's competition, but not personal competition — it is competition for the quality of the arts."
All four of this year's arrivals will dance at the festival. Notably, Estheysis Menendez, who arrived this year, along with Javier Omar Morales, who defected previously, will appear with Lorna Feijoo's Bay Area Houston Ballet & Theatre. Feijoo's ballet career too was made possible with Peña's help.
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Many others have come under Peña's care over the years on their way to stellar careers, including Xiomara Reyes, now a principal ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre; Lorena Feijoo, Lorna's sister and prima ballerina for the San Francisco Ballet; and Hayna Gutierrez, principal ballerina for the Alberta Ballet in Canada. "A lot of big names come through here because of the Cuban connection," Couty says.
All of this is the product of Peña's dedication not only to Cubans but also to the art of ballet. "I am the man of the dance," Peña says. "I am the man for the possibilities for dancers, because my life is dance."
International Ballet Festival of Miami
Saturday, August 27, through September 11 at multiple locations. Visit internationalballetfestival.org or call 786-747-1877.