HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 26 — Xiomara Reyes, a principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, is returning to her native Cuba for performances in the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival, which begins on Wednesday, October 28, and will continue through November 7.
Helson Hernandez, a host of cultural programs on Cuban radio, interviewed Reyes concerning her artistic career and what it means for her to return to a Cuban stage after having left the country 18 years ago.
Interview with Cuban dancer Xiomara Reyes, currently a principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
By Helson Hernandez
HH: I would like for you to tell us how Xiomara Reyes achieved the status of principal dancer in a company as prestigious as the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and what were the circumstances that led to this great advance in your career.
Xiomara Reyes: Well, I’d be lying if I told you that only talent and hard work allowed me to make it, though these have been indispensable in my adventure with the ABT. A large part of it also involved sheer luck. A series of circumstances in my life came together allowing me to be at the right place at the right time, as the story goes.
I was stagnating creatively in the Royal Ballet of Flanders Company, which had offered me a great deal at one time but later became a brake on my artistic development. I therefore decided to try my luck in another company with my husband Rinat Imaev, who was my partner not only in life but also on the stage. Unfortunately, or what seemed unfortunate at that moment, the company that had accepted us later dropped us at the last moment. For my part, there was no way that I was going to go back to where I had started.
What happened was that at that very moment I received a fax from the American Ballet Theatre inviting me to dance with their company for a month, so I found myself completely free to accept the invitation. From there the rest is simple: I fell in love with the company, and they were happy to receive me. From the beginning they give me a range of opportunities. I made it to soloist, and thanks to the experience that I brought with me I was quickly promoted to principal dancer.
During my two years as soloist it was a little difficult since I had to dance in secondary roles that I had previously performed in Cuba and later in Belgium. Nonetheless, I was truly happy because at the same time I performed leading roles, which I enjoyed immensely. At that moment I was also selected to dance “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet,” in addition to other important ballets that permitted me to demonstrate what I could do and that showed that I was a dancer with a certain degree of maturity.
HH: What were the last images in your memory of Cuba?
My memories of Cuba were the heat, the sea, ballet, the charm of the Garcia Lorca Theater, the people and tostones (fried bananas rounds).
Xiomara Reyes: When you finished your studies at Cuba’s National School of Art and graduated specializing in ballet, of course, what professional experiences marked that stage of your development and were important in your first appearances on the Cuban stage.
I must mention the Havana Vocational School of Ballet, where I began my studies and that established the base on which I built my career.
My early period in school was an experience that prepared me enormously for the career I’ve pursued. I was lucky to perform several important roles from a very early age. At 15 I danced my first complete ballet in three acts: “The Three Musketeers.” I played my first Kitri [a character in “Don Quixote”] at 16 and danced for the first time in “Coppelia” at 17.
It goes without saying that I danced almost all the pdds [pas de deux, or partnered dances] of the classical repertoire and a host of other neoclassical ones. The sense of security one has in knowing they’ve already done something is priceless. Many of these ballets are still in my repertoire, and the fact of having had that opportunity to dance those ballets at such an early age is one of the great fortunes of my life.
I also place great value on the two years I spent in the Cuban National Ballet, where I had the opportunity to be part of the ballet troupe and not only to gain respect for the work of the group but to see almost all of the classic ballets from another perspective. In Cuba it’s said, or at least it was said, that the dance troupe was a school, and while I may not have enjoyed it, I do agree with that point. I was fortunate in having done those two things almost at the same time, and what both opportunities taught me is something I treasure.
HH: I would like, with all justice, if you were to mention the names of those people who contributed to your academic development and for you to define the artistic path that facilitated your successful international career. I’m referring to teachers, trainers, directors….
Xiomara Reyes: It’s difficult to decide who to mention since there have been so many people who left their influence on me; like one of my first teachers, Silvia Rodriguez, who I remember because she left hand marks on my legs trying to make me understand that I had to stretch them; or the pretty choreographies of Lupe Calzadilla, who inspired all of us as girls. Then there was Loipa Araujo, who not only taught us ballet but culture in general.
I could add Gloria Marin and Karemia Moreno, as well as Ofelia Gonzalez, who always moved me with her art. Plus there was Laura Alonso, who was always like a kind of fairy godmother to me and who followed my career from my “first steps” onto the stage from the age of three. These and so many other people who made that me passionate for this art form that has provided me with tremendous happiness.
HH: What memories are evoked in you by the word “Prodanza”?
Xiomara Reyes: What comes to mind is my youth, being as open as a sponge to that sea of experiences. It makes me think of the challenges, the competitions and so many many things I had to learn. Having had the luck to belong to Prodanza [Cuba’s Center for the Promotion of Dance] and to work with Laura and to be nurtured by her passion was for me, and for my comrades I’m sure, an unforgettable experience and one of great value. Many of us who have succeeded belonged to Prodanza and that left an impression on us all.
HH: What year did you leave Cuba and what made you begin your career outside the island at that time?
Xiomara Reyes: I left Cuba in 1992, so you can imagine how it was back then. The truth of the matter was that it was very simple; I was very young, I was dying to dance “Giselle,” and the Royal Ballet of Flanders offered it to me. This and all those possibilities opened up before me with new roles, new choreographies and new places. I was desperate to see where all that I had learned would lead me, and even more desperate to learn more. I’d seen videotapes of the Soviet-Russian-born American dancer of Nataliya Makarova and I fell in love with her capacity to express emotions and music with her whole body. I wanted to dance those choreographies that required that emotion from me. The Englishman Kenneth Macmillan also fascinated me. In short, there were a million things to learn abroad.
HH: Many years have passed since you left Cuba to develop your successful career as a dancer in the world of classical ballet, and you left behind a time that has notably influenced you in having to coexist with other cultures, other lifestyles. Even so, I wanted to ask you what then remains of that dancer trained in the Cuban school of ballet. I’m asking you this in terms of your way of approaching dance, as well as from another angle: from your essence and roots.
Xiomara Reyes: What remains in me? That I am Cuban who was born on this island, under this sun and near the sea, and that these experiences influenced and will influence my life forever. Cubans are generally open, extroverted, emotional. Those characteristics also define me as artist. Later there was the school created by Alicia and Fernando Alonso, which provided me the base from which to throw myself into the air and fly. What have I retained from my school? Many things, but especially the attitude towards dance, like Alicia’s unyielding character and her firmness, her absolute adoration of dance.
Then too there’s the technical precision that as teachers Fernando and Alicia developed in the dancers. Also, there’s the knowledge that technique is a means, but not an end. One of my favorite aspects of ballet is the deep and special connection between the dancer and their partner, with the other characters and with everything on the stage in general. That is one of my pleasures, feeling that I’m part of something larger than myself. My best roles are those in which I can interact freely and spontaneously with my partner and with all the surroundings. That is something I brought from Cuba and that I learned here.
HH: Speaking of works, the grand classics contain a wide variety of characters and styles.Which interpretations have become the most expectant for you within the many representations that you’ve been able to do… Perhaps because of the affinity you have for a given character or because of the mastery of your style and execution, also keeping your potential in mind.
Xiomara Reyes: I prefer stories with abstract ballets, though I’ve been given the opportunity to interpret roles in the pure poetry ballets of Jiri Killian. But telling a story, that’s where I feel I’m in my element. “Manon,” “Romeo and Juliet, and “Giselle” are my favorite ballets, though I also greatly enjoy those with roles like Kitri, or Lisa in “La Fille Mal Gardée,” or Swanilda in “Coppelia.” Or Titania in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” or Cinderella. Even ballets like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Corsair,” where I never found the plot very interesting, I study them to bring out all I can, so the character becomes real for me. That way I always find the charm in them.
It seems that that’s one of the blessings of my career; in trying to understand the characters you discover yourself…your capacity to love, to dream, to forgive; that and the pleasure of letting your body be swept away in beautiful music, which sometimes touches you without words in places you didn’t even know existed. So my preferences lean toward works that have a good story and or good music.
HH: Let’s say that you had to choose a work and a character to perform in front of the Cuban public; what would you choose? Who would you partner with? …a particular rehearsal partner to recall old times? And with which company and which director?
Xiomara Reyes: If they let me choose a character and a work, I would say Giselle. Not only is it a key work in the history of ballet in Cuba and of Alicia, but it’s also one of the works that the Cuban public loves most, probably also because of the story. It was also one of the reasons that I left, to have the opportunity to perform it 20 years ago, and it would be magical for me to be able to now interpret it in my land. I would love to have the opportunity to rehearse it with Alicia and to be up close to her to hear her experiences with that role over the years.
As a partner I would love to dance it with my husband. It was an unforgettable experience to dance it with him in Ufa, Russia, the place where he was born, so it would be magical to share that experience in my homeland with him. Unfortunately, at least that part, this will remain in the realm of dreams since he has concluded his career as a dancer. And as for a company, it would be Kevin (McKenzie) and the ABT, which is the place that always had an aura of mystery and glamour, and was the one where I felt at home.
HH: This year the International Festival of Ballet of Havana will be recognizing the 90th anniversary of the life of the director of the National Ballet of Cuba, Alicia Alonso. It will also be celebrating the fact that foreign participation will be so great, as well as that for the first time in the history of this event there will be so many dancers in Cuba representing the ABT, which includes two Cubans in its cast: Jose Manuel Carreño and yourself, both principal figures of that company.
Incidentally, within this program you will be dancing a pas a deux, which is one of the works with the greatest expectations among those you will be executing as it is a piece that demands a high-level of technical execution and virtuosity. It will also give an opportunity to the two Cubans representing us in this acclaimed US dance group to dance together that night in what I’m sure will be an unforgettable evening. What can you add for me in this respect?
Xiomara Reyes: Returning to Cuba with the ABT after having been invited by Alicia is like the closing of a circle, or rather of a spiral. Alicia began her career in the ABT when the company was very young, and now the ABT is coming to be presented in the place where she was born and will include in its cast two principal dancers who left her school. I see that as a reason for pride. Unfortunately I won’t be accompanied in “Diana y Acteon” by Jose, since he has danced the piece so often in Cuba and therefore he prefers to be presented in “Fancy Free,” which the Cuban public hasn’t seen him in.
HH: What’s happening at the emotional level with Xiomara Reyes only a few weeks before returning to Cuba to dance before a public —who I’m sure you miss and who are also anxiously expecting you— and in an event of such renown as the International Festival of Ballet of Havana?
Xiomara Reyes: What’s happening? Well, millions of things. Thank God I’ve been so busy dancing from one place to another that I still haven’t really had time to get nervous, though inside me is that little voice that is telling me that this is extremely important. When I hear it I try not to pay it any attention, because the truth is that I’m afraid of ending up and seeing myself completely submerged in emotion and dancing poorly. That’s why I try to avoid thinking about that. What’s certain is that I dream a lot about Cuba, of my friends, of the people I grew up with, the places. I’m dying to return with more time and to show my country to my husband. I don’t know…there are millions of things like that. For a long time Cuba was far from me, years of distance. Life made me travel other roads, but now I can’t wait.
HH: What does it mean to you to be the second Cuban woman who was able to reach the category of principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, now understanding everything that this theme represents in the history of Cuban ballet and particularly in the figure of Alicia Alonso?
Xiomara Reyes: Clearly this is an honor, but it’s also a beautiful story – not only for me, but for all Cuban dancers and teachers. It’s a validation that, while not necessary, speaks well of the Cuban school. I say that it’s not necessary because Cuban ballet doesn’t need a justification. Dancers like Alicia, the “cuatro joyas” and generations of others have offered immense satisfaction to the Cuban public and to many other audiences. That’s the reason for our work…to provide a magic moment to whoever comes to see us, regardless of their race, nationality, language, politics or religion. That is the work of an artist and of a group of artists like the Ballet of Cuba, which has carried it out for many years. Me, a Cuban and trained in the Cuban school, I’m more proof of the value of this school and what it produces.
HH: Xiomara, as for your family —who has supported you all the way to your dreams— how does this family now view this Cuban in New York?
Xiomara Reyes: My parents have always been very interested in my career. They live in Miami and come to see me dance whenever it’s possible. I live in New Jersey with my husband, who has been an instrumental figure in my career since we first met, first as a partner and now as a teacher. His passion to help all of us with his extensive knowledge continually inspires me. I’ve been very lucky in having him at my side over all these years and in the fact that I have absolute trust in his professional opinion; it’s something that gives me infinite security. Also part of my family in New Jersey is my neighbor Lourdes Novoa, who was a beautiful primera bailarina of the Cuban ballet and who had a very successful international career. Her daughters Alesandra and Carmen make our lives much fuller with their friendship and affection. To round out my family in New Jersey is my dog Ketty, a source of constant joy.
HH: If you could alter certain things in the past, what would you change in the road that Xiomara Reyes has walked up until today?
Xiomara Reyes: Nothing. Although at certain moments in my life when things weren’t easy, I felt the desire to not go through with them, I’m completely aware that without those moments I wouldn’t be who I am today, nor would I be where I am. And clearly I’m not speaking only as a dancer, but also as a person. Life is a school and sometimes the subjects we like least are those that teach us the most.
HH: So, we’ll be looking forward to seeing you in the ballet festival at the Karl Marx Theater on Wednesday and Thursday, November 3 and 4. Anything you would like to say to the Cuban public who are looking forward to this event?
Xiomara Reyes: Thank you, for all of the expectations and the love that I’ve felt from the moment the festival was announced. Thank you, because there is nothing like dancing before one’s own people, those who love you and wish you the very best.
HH: And to conclude my interview with “Xiomarita,” as many people continue to call you with affection, what you would like to hear on our show at this time?
Xiomara Reyes: Silvio (Rodriguez). Because I’m a romantic.