Cuba is known for a variety of things–cigars, baseball, being writer Ernest Hemingway’s longtime home, and a variety of dances from the mambo to the salsa. But foreigners often don’t realize that of all the Cuban pastimes, ballet is perhaps the most esteemed. And now a new series of Instagram photographs by Omar Robles is showing off the otherworldly grace of the country’s dancers, right in the middle of the crowded streets of Havana.
“Over the past two years I’ve devoted my work almost exclusively to photographing ballet dancers within urban settings,” Robles blogged. “Cuba has one of the top ranked ballet companies, thus why I dreamt of visiting the island for a long time. Their dancers are just some of the best dancers in the world. Perhaps it is because movement and rhythm runs in their Afro-Caribbean blood, but most likely it is due to the Russian school of training which is part of their heritage.”
Prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, who once danced the role of Gisele at the New York City’s American Ballet Theatre and later became legally blind, founded Cuba’s first ballet school 60 years ago. Alonso trained at Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical with Nikolai Yavorsky and in London with Vera Volkova, and later starred in Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Paris Opéra Ballet, and brought that international influence to her home country. The ballet school she founded survived the Communist revolution and as other industries fell apart, it continued to thrive.
This is probably one of my favorite images from my shoots in Cuba. While I was shooting Daniela Cabrera, this elderly woman got really close to her and just stood there watching her for the longest time. I'm almost certain she didn't even notice me shooting. It seemed as if she was reminiscing about her own youth. As she stood, I moved back to adjust my composition and include her into the frame. #OZR_Dance || #🇨🇺💃 || #Cuba
Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, and although much of the world turned against him, it’s undeniable that his support for education and the arts has been unimpeachable. As a tenet of socialism, he was determined to make the arts available to everyone, and that started with Alonso’s ballet company.
That year, Castro gave $200,000 Alicia Alonso and renamed the school Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Today, it’s still almost wholly government-funded.
With funding, the ballet can search the country for the top students and undiscovered talent.
Lorena Feijóo talked to Yahoo! Beauty about her experiences as a Cuban ballerina. “I have been in the biggest theaters in the world, but there’s no audience like the Cuban audience.”
Top dancers make salaries of about $50 per month, but the government often subsidizes many other aspects of their lives, including via a government-run factory that manufactures pointe shoes. Dancers train from age 8 to age 18, all at no cost to their families, and the dancers will spend two years with the company to help pay off the expense.
Dancer Lorena Feijóo said she was grateful her education and opportunities. Having danced in North America and Europe since leaving Cuba at age 18, Feijóo noticed that not every international ballet school offers as much education as technical instruction.
Young, hopeful dancers flock to the program, since unlike most professions in Cuba, it offers big salaries, government subsidies, and the chance for international travel.
Meanwhile, dance companies in the United States often struggle to stay afloat.
The ballet has performed in 58 countries, although many Cuban dancers have defected and now appear on stages around the world. Many hope to return to Cuba eventually and pass on what they’ve learned. Cuba has remained isolated after the revolution, but with the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States, that may soon change.
“Taxi drivers know who the principal dancers are,” dance critic Lester Tomé told Yahoo Beauty. Cuban-born Xiomara Reyes is the retired principal dancer at New York City’s American Ballet Theatre and the ballet master at London’s English National Ballet is Loipa Araújo.
Erika Kinetz of the New York Times wrote that “training, especially Cuban training, has been a key driver of the latinization of ballet.” Cuba combines the intense training that Russian dancers get with the peculiar Latin artistry, athleticism and rhythm of Cuba. It results in a mix that has become celebrated worldwide.
Margarita and Ramona de Saá were featured in the PBS documentary “Mirror Dance.’ Ramona de Saa educates young dancers at the teaching program.
“We were from a humble family and received scholarships to the Alicia Alonso Academy,” Ramona said in the film.. “[We] had the great fortune of having a prima ballerina like Alicia and a master teacher like [her husband] Fernando.”
“The old government was out and the new hope was coming for the arts and the ballet in Cuba,” dancer Margarita de Saa told PBS.
“We now had social security. We now had professional recognition,” Ramona de Saa told PBS.
With the opening up of Cuba to the world, these dancers will soon find an even wider audience–and the world may not know what hit them.