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Cuban Ballet in Exile

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After the show, they went to dinner. He stayed at her hotel. "I didn't try to make it a big deal," Magaly recalls. "I didn't want to be talking about something that was in the past."

Taras ended up winning the top prize and joining the National Ballet at 17 years old. In the years that followed, Magaly journeyed to his shows in Mexico, Brazil, and Spain at least once a year. But she was never allowed to see him in Cuba.

She never pushed him to leave. "It's a very personal decision," she says. "It has to be the right time for you."

Magaly was a maternal figure for exile dancers beginning with Daniel Sarabia in 2004. At age 19, he defected after performing Carmen in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and then headed to Miami, where he trained with Magaly. Soon he moved into her four-bedroom Pompano home while dancing and looking for a job. His older brother Rolando, a star dancer in Cuba, followed in 2005.

Both Sarabias stayed with Magaly for about a year before Daniel found a spot with the Boston company and Rolando with Houston. Both now dance with Miami City Ballet. Magaly eased them through a tumultuous time. "I didn't realize it was going to be that hard," Daniel says.

Since then, at least seven other Cuban dancers and teachers have lived with Magaly. She also shelters American dancers who have left faraway families to train in Pompano. "I don't really tell anyone to come," she insists. "They just call me when they get here."

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.

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Janine Zeitlin