Why Cuban Ballet Dancers Risk Defecting

Six more dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba defected during a performance abroad. Lester Tomé, a former Cuban dance critic, tells NPR's Scott Simon why Cuba can't hold on to its ballerinas.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. The much vaunted National Ballet of Cuba was on tour in Puerto Rico recently and eight of the dancers took that as an opportunity to defect. Six of them arrived in Miami this week. Now last year, seven Cuban ballet dancers came to the U.S. after defecting during performances in Mexico. Baseball and ballet are both sources of national pride in Cuba, yet dancers and pitchers continue to leave. To talk about the dance, we're joined by Lester Tome. He's an assistant professor of dance at Smith College and was a dance critic in Cuba. He joins us from studios at Harvard University, where he's a visiting scholar of Latin American studies. Mr. Tome, thanks so much for being with us.

LESTER TOME: Thank you for having me over.

SIMON: And maybe there are a number of different answers, but why are dancers defecting?

TOME: I think that on the one hand, there is great demand for Cuban dancers internationally because they are very well trained. Companies in cities like London, New York or Boston or San Francisco are very interested in hiring dancers from across several nationalities and ethnicities to reflect the cosmopolitan environments in which the cities are. And dancers from Cuba are highly coveted. These are dancers that have a sterling technique. They are very well known for their balance, their jumps, their turns, their fast footwork, their bold attack and also for their work ethics. So they can make a very good contribution to an international ensemble.

SIMON: This may sound naive, but what prevents a great Cuban dancer from just saying to the people who run the National Ballet of Cuba look, it's been great, but I'm going to dance for the Joffrey now?

TOME: That has actually happened. Some dancers leave Cuba with the blessing of the National Ballet and with the blessing of the Ministry of Culture. And these dancers become cultural ambassadors for Cuba. But other dancers are denied the privilege or the opportunity.

SIMON: But does that wind up inspiring more dancers to defect, as these eight have just recently?

TOME: There is great motivation for these dancers to defect because they are dancers with world class training, and therefore they have world class ambitions. They are attracted to positions in those highly prestigious international ensembles that offer a very diverse repertoire to which they don't have access in Cuba. In Cuba, the National Ballet of Cuba performs, very frequently, 19th century classics like "Gisela" and "Swan Lake," for which they don't have to pay the copyright. But they do not have the possibility of licensing works by, let's say, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins. Therefore, the dancers with the company feel that they are performing a repertoire that is stagnant. They are not growing artistically, that they are not having new challenges. And they are eager to go to companies abroad where they can have access to a more diverse repertoire.

SIMON: So creative freedom, I assume, obviously, the possibility of more money, although not as much as a baseball player would make.

TOME: Yes. Cuba has not recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dancers make the equivalent of $30 monthly. And therefore the salaries of an international ballet company, even if they are not as high as those of baseball league, they are very attractive to Cuban dancers.

SIMON: Defecting's a serious step though. As I understand it, it essentially would prevent them from coming back to see their families for, for how long?

TOME: The situation is a little bit murky because since January, there is a new migration law. And that law allows most Cuban citizens to travel freely international. But those who defect as part of an official mission, as will be the case with a baseball team traveling abroad for a competition, or the National Ballet of Cuba going to perform and represent the country, according to that law, they are punished with eight years of banning from returning.

SIMON: Where does this - all of this leave the Cuban National Ballet, Mr. Tome? I mean, great dancers on the island, but forgive me to use a baseball term again, but it sounds almost as if they've become the farm club for the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet.

TOME: That seems to be the situation. On the one hand, it comes with a degree of prestige that speaks to the quality of ballet training in Cuba. And on the other hand, there are so many dancers leaving all the time, that they have to hire a new crop of inexperienced dancers who are just fresh from the school. And it creates a problem with the quality of the performances.

SIMON: Lester Tome, scholar of dance and Latin American studies with Smith College and Harvard University. Thanks very much for being with us.

TOME: Thank you for having me.

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