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International Ballet Festival of Miami Founder Pedro Pablo Peña on Keeping the Fest Alive

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Pedro Pablo Peña, founder and artistic director of the International Ballet Festival of Miami, has had to do more than pirouettes to make sure the dance celebration he started almost two decades ago continues and thrives, in spite of rough economic times. But the Cuban choreographer and former ballet dancer will keep twirling. After all, if South Florida's book lovers can delight in the Miami Book Fair International, and film buffs can enjoy the Miami International Film Festival, why not ballet fans?

For Peña, dance -- whether classical, modern, or experimental (all of which he trained in) -- has been his life.

In Havana, he danced for that city's Opera Ballet and for the renowned National Ballet of Cuba, among other companies. He arrived in Miami in 1980, and 13 years later founded the Miami Hispanic Ballet, a non-profit dance organization that offered a platform to professionally trained dancers of Hispanic descent in South Florida. It also became the launching pad for the International Ballet Festival of Miami.

To promote the Cuban ballet tradition and to support Cuban dancers who defected from Cuba but not from the arts, Peña began the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami in 2006 as well.

As the curtains are about to rise in various venues across the county for the XVIII International Ballet Festival of Miami (this Friday through Sept. 8), with more than 200 artists and companies from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Mexico, Hungary, Germany, and the United States expected to participate, and including some workshops and a film series, we spoke with Peña from his headquarters in the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center (11 S.W. 5th Ave., Miami).

New Times: How difficult is it to pull off this event year after year?

Pedro Pablo Peña: There are a lot of challenges. For starters, there's the challenge of having to face an event of such magnitude. And there must be challenges, because without them, you won't fight to get the festival presented. You never really have what you need the most, which is money. Money definitely promotes what you want to do, yet budgets for the arts have been cut back so much. This affects the arts in general, but especially an event like this one, in terms of logistics, of bringing personalities, of structure. So we put it together with lots of love, persistence, and the help of generous people who have always believed in this proposal and in my work.

As the economy has slowly improved from the dark days of the recession, are things still as difficult as a few years back?

I think they are still hard because for the arts there's never the support that they should get, especially in a city like Miami, which needs more of this backing at a more intense level. Why? Because Miami can't just be about beaches and fun, but also, it must show itself as a city that is thriving in the arts.

We have a lot of interest when Art Basel comes around, and with the ballet fest, there is that interest as well, and companies from all over want to come too. But I have to hold back ... it'd have to be a month long, and that takes oodles of money. So we're not there yet. Banks used to be great sponsors, but not anymore. It is a global situation, and yes, the United States has suffered these poundings, but Miami has always had a sort of weakness in terms of supporting the arts.

With other projects you're involved in, like the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami and its school, and the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center, don't you have enough on your hands?

Because we are masochists! Without this torture, this suffering, we wouldn't be able to live. This is what nourishes us. And somebody has to do it. Every year I do think, "I'm not going to do it again," but that only lasts till the festival comes to an end. The next day, you are already planning next year's edition. We feel the need to do this. Otherwise, we wouldn't be happy.

The highlights of the XVIII International Ballet Festival of Miami include the Youth American Grand Prix on Friday at 8 p.m., followed by the Contemporary Dance Performance on Sunday at 5 p.m. and culminating with the Gala of the Stars, which includes award presentations, on Sunday, Sept. 8, starting at 5 p.m., at the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater (1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach). Tickets range from $25 to $65; for all events, times, locations and tickets, go to internationalballetfestival.org; 786-888-2145.

--Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie, artburstmiami.com

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