It’s not exactly common for two sisters to experience a simultaneous meteoric rise to stardom, but prima ballerinas Lorena and Lorna Feijóo aren’t your average siblings. Though the pair danced side by side nearly their entire lives, not an ounce of competition exists between them; only a profound admiration and sisterly bond that defies the distance and years between them.
I met with Lorena and Lorna at their Coral Gables hotel, in town promoting Milk’s Somos Fuertes campaign. Today, Lorena is a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet, and Lorna is an international guest artist performing all over the world.
The pair is as close as ever. Lorna and Lorena seemed more like twins than merely sisters; their obvious closeness would manifest itself throughout the hour we spent chatting in their room, discussing everything from their childhood to their strengths as dancers and the things they miss about Cuba.
Older sister Lorena was drawn to ballet after years of watching her mother, herself an accomplished ballerina and choreographer.“Since I was a little girl I was exposed to theater and music, and I loved watching my mother dance,” she told the New Times. But an education in ballet in Cuba isn’t typical compared to the United States, and Lorena’s mother was hesitant to allow her daughter to proceed.
“Ballet in Cuba forces you to grow up really fast, it’s very competitive, the hours are grueling, so she was against it at first,” she said.
At the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, helmed by the legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso, pupils aren’t accepted until they’re at least nine years old, when it’s perceived they have the sufficient physical ability and mental capacity to absorb formal artistic training in ballet. The education is all-encompassing – those accepted to the ballet take their primary subjects there, in addition to taking on intensive courses in arts and language. Painting, drama, and French are central tenets for aspiring ballerinas in Cuba.
Lorena waited patiently for the chance to audition at the school, unwavering in her desire to become a ballerina like her mother. But her sister Lorna’s course of study was a bit more tenuous. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Moving my body came very naturally to me, and I thought I would just do a bit of everything and decide later. But once I started watching my sister dance, I was mesmerized. I knew I wanted to dance, too.”
At first, their mother discouraged the idea of the two of them dancing ballet, for fear the competition would pit the sisters against one another. But she wound up being their most important critic; her trained eye corrected not just their technique but helped to shape their individual style. “She encouraged us to find who we were as dancers, and our training taught us how to bring that person out,” the sisters agree. While their mother tried not to pay too much attention at school - she was a choreographer at the ballet and didn't want to jog suspicions of nepotism should the girls succeed – she managed to instill her own critiques without being overly obsessive.
Training at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba was certainly rigid, but the Feijóo sisters maintain that it's their training that allowed them to both become principal dancers at internationally acclaimed ballets. Receiving direction from one of the world’s most celebrated ballerinas certainly didn’t hurt either. “She knew exactly what she wanted from you... [Alonso] trained you to understand the character and to really feel who you needed to become, and that’s something that’s just not done at companies here in the United States,” Lorna said. Regardless, it was Alonso's rigidity and adherence to classical ballet styles that ultimately resulted in Lorena’s decision to relocate to the United States.
“Every year an International Dance Festival would arrive in Cuba, and dancers from all over the world would put together choreographies for us, which really thrilled me and showed me another side of ballet. But I realized that there would never be contemporary ballet in Cuba – Alicia stuck to the classics, staging Giselle, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote – and I knew that if I wanted to dance something else, I would need to leave,” she said. Lorena left the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1990, 12 years before her sister would follow suit.
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Lorena’s departure did not please Alonso, who staunchly supports the Communist party and Fidel Castro. As a result, Lorena has never been invited to perform in Cuba again, despite efforts by her colleagues to secure her return. But Lorena maintains that her reason for leaving the Ballet had nothing to do with politics, rather everything to do with her career.
“As a ballerina in Cuba, you don’t live like the rest of the Cuban population. You get to go to places they can’t, move in circles they’re forbidden
“The public in Cuba knows the dance and they almost train you for it. It’s not like here, where the curtain closes and everyone runs to their car and barely stays for applause. It’s electrifying to dance before our audience in Cuba because of their passion,” the sisters said, practically simultaneously. We might consider taking a page out of their playbook.
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