Cuban Ballet in Exile

Click here to see a slide show of the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami's performance of Swan Lake.

Her honeyed curls swept practically into a barrette, Magaly Suárez raps at the closed door of her 21-year-old son's dressing room and shouts, "Taritas!"

Rock music booms from inside, but he doesn't come out — at least not immediately.

Eventually dozens of men and women — including slender, striking five-foot-nine Taras Domitro — fall in behind the commanding five-foot blonde. They look as if they were stripped from the pages of a fairy tale, dressed as swans with cherry-red lips and royalty adorned in plastic jewels.

After reaching The Fillmore Miami Beach's stage, they warm up to rhythms heard only in their heads — leaping, twirling, and bowing regally.

A soloist in a swishing peach dress completes a pirouette and then huffs to a friend: "I think everybody can see I have white underwear on."

"It looks like part of the costume," a swan reassures.

French horns, clarinets, and flutes rush through scales as Magaly hurries offstage and into the audience, where she settles into a folding chair in the middle of the fifth row. Parents and other supporters are scattered throughout. She sits on the edge of the chair, a silver microphone poised at her lips.

"Slow, slow, slow, maestro," Magaly says as Taras emerges from the wings. He is dancing the lead as Prince Siegfried. His sandy brown hair is slicked back. Black track pants and a sage velvet top cover his seven tattoos. He floats into the spotlight with grand jetés, casting his long legs into yawning, ruler-straight lines.

He's suspended a few feet in the air, where he hovers like a butterfly before briefly touching down. He springs back to his own stratosphere. Glassy-eyed and tired, Magaly looks on approvingly as she leans on the chair in front of her.

Taras then gracefully sits on the stage. Magaly says, "Get up, Taras."

His brow furrows over the correction. But he obeys.

Soon four men gallantly prance onstage, legs stiff and toes pointed. Magaly repeats, "Slow down."

After the dancers have left, one stomps back. "Please don't yell at me," he says curtly.

"Please," Magaly whispers. "I didn't realize I was shouting. If you could, please forgive me."

Tension is high. Fatigue is setting in. It's the day before the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami's February 23 premiere of Swan Lake. The orchestra can't see the conductor. A handful of musicians has yet to arrive. Headpieces are missing. A mother in the wardrobe room chases her coffee with Pepsi. Dancers sneak smokes on the loading dock; the cement is dotted with butts.

It's now a few minutes before 11 p.m. They won't have time to run through all four acts before the midnight deadline set by the stage crew.

It will be a closely watched show. Three recent defectors — Taras, Hayna Gutiérrez, and Miguel Angel Blanco — will dance before an audience for the first time since they deserted the Cuban national ballet in December after performing The Nutcracker in Canada. They followed an exodus of stars who now hold principal roles in companies in San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Europe.

"We're now seeing that Cuban and other Latin American dancers have really exploded on the scene," says Lynn Garafola, a dance critic and professor at Barnard College. "The fact is that the appearance of Latin dancers on the world scene is something pretty new and something that has really challenged the preeminence of the Russians as performers."

The Miami Cuban company is unique. Magaly Suárez and others cradle dancers from the island as if they were their own children, taking them in and shuttling them on trips to Costco and the beach. It's a place where art trumps politics, where a mother and son bond through ballet, where sacrifice means the upheaval of a new beginning, and where the drive for perfection is infused with longing for home.

The roots of South Florida exile ballet trace to Alicia Alonso, a legend who founded and has reigned for six decades over the National Ballet of Cuba. Though now essentially blind and an octogenarian, she performed as a prima ballerina into her seventies and continues as the grande dame of the renowned company.

At age 15, Alonso traveled to New York, where she would later work with choreographers such as Antony Tudor and George Balanchine — who created Theme and Variations for her in 1947. A year later, she helped start a groundbreaking ballet company on the island.

Although the government nearly killed the troupe by pulling aid, Fidel Castro gave it new life when his revolution triumphed in January 1959. Soon after taking power, the dictator reportedly visited Alonso's Havana home to ask how much money would be needed to support the ballet. In 1960, Castro signed a law to promote the national ballet and provided twice the money requested — 200,000 pesos.

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Janine Zeitlin