Longform

Cuban Ballet in Exile

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"Are you sure?" Magaly answered, startled by his decision. He was.

Soon Hayna, a prima ballerina with a sweet demeanor, appeared too. She had studied with Magaly for a few years as a teen before the teacher's departure from Cuba.

"Taras wants to leave," Magaly told her.

"Okay, I'm going too," Hayna said.

Then Miguel Angel Blanco showed up. There were three.

About two hours later, Magaly crammed the trio into a rented Pontiac and headed south in the throes of a snowstorm. When they pulled up to the border crossing to New York state, Magaly told the guards the dancers were Cubans and planned to ask for asylum.

After a few hours, they were freed and caught a plane to Fort Lauderdale. During the odyssey, Magaly called Peña. They agreed the trio would perform in the planned performances of Swan Lake. Miguel Angel and Hayna had even danced the main characters, Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette. "It was pure coincidence," Peña explains. "It worked out perfectly."

After issuing a press release, an elated Peña, wearing a leather jacket and stylish Buddy Holly-esque black-rim glasses, met them at the airport. Then the dancers headed for Pompano Beach.

A few days later, they received a jarring welcome from Miami's Cubans during a press conference at Versailles Restaurant, the unofficial exile headquarters in Little Havana. Taras said their departure wasn't driven by politics. "I'll never speak poorly of the people or the company [in Cuba]," he says. "We aren't politicians. We're ballet dancers."

The lemon-colored ranch-style home on 16th Avenue in Pompano Beach is walking distance to Magaly's studio in a nondescript strip mall. There's a pool in the back and a royal blue BMW in the roundabout out front.

On a February morning in the kitchen, after a breakfast of raisin bran, Hayna — still in pajamas and her face bare of makeup — approaches Magaly as the woman she calls mamicha washes dishes. "I wanted to hug my mother this weekend," she says softly. Then she embraces the next best person.

Hayna shares a modest, tidy seafoam green bedroom with Taras. Miguel Angel sleeps on an air mattress tucked behind a wooden screen off the kitchen. Kate Kadow, a 17-year-old from Tampa, occupies another room. And two male dancers from Brazil and Georgia live in a third. "She loses count of all us," Kadow says as she lounges on the living room's floral couch.

There are daily trips to Costco, Publix, and the gym. They eat dinner together and take trips to the beach, though they can't fit in one car. Miguel Angel sometimes cooks pasta. Magaly prepares rice and beans. "We are a happy family," Magaly says. "If they dance well, they can do whatever they want."

Taras, Hayna, and Miguel Angel are settling into life in the States. The guys stay up late and don't stir until the afternoon. Then every day but Sunday they head to ballet practice around 4 or 5 p.m. They arrive home at 10 or 11 and watch TV — Taras is partial to 24 — or play videogames such as Guitar Hero.

Taras listens to American bands — Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Aerosmith. He misses his grandmother, friends, and fans in Cuba. "The audience there is unbelievable," he says. "They encourage you."

Hayna deeply misses her mother, Mercedes, a teacher at the National Ballet School of Cuba, with whom she lived on the island. Phone calls are expensive, so they communicate mostly by e-mail. "My heart will always be with them. I have faith that I will see my mother again."

So does Miguel Angel, who writes daily to his mom, Gloria, in Cuba. He expects reality to hit once he moves out. "When I live alone, I'll have my own house, my car, and I'll have to start paying electric bills and rent. Then I'll start to understand how things really are here."

Since their arrival, the three have been rehearsing Swan Lake at Magaly's Pompano studio almost every day. One Friday evening around 8 in early February, Peña and Magaly watched as Hayna crumpled to the floor during intricate footwork on pointe. Then she pulled herself up, rubbed her knees, and apologized. "I was too hurried," she said, her chest heaving. "It's my fault."

Miguel Angel stretched his neck and cracked his knuckles, looking like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. He then pirouetted so quickly his sweat flicked on bystanders.

Finally Taras began his dance. Poised to leap, he stumbled a bit at the start. He pursed his lips. Magaly looked at Peña. "He's tired," she said.

There's much work to do.

It's Saturday night around 7, an hour until showtime at The Fillmore, and Magaly barges into the upstairs dressing room where 10 swans, mostly Americans, primp in a row of mirrors framed with lights.

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Janine Zeitlin