They emigrated over creative and not political differences, but Cuba's Feijoo sisters have launched an artistic invasion of the United States that their homeland's masters must envy. They are boosting a very old art form's bottom line as a new generation and new demographic take heed.
Despite that heft, the ballet industry could use a boost.
It's been described as a "boutique industry," with just 76 dance companies in the United States having a million-dollar or greater budget. A majority of those bigger companies have been in perpetual financial distress at least since 9/11 as both corporate giving and government funding fell, a situation partly offset by the growth in their endowments and fairly stiff ticket prices.
"Most administrators have a one-number performance review. It's at the bottom of the financial statement," an executive director told David Mallette, making light of the industry's financial woes, in a 2006 article commissioned by Dance/USA.
The prima ballerinas – older sister Lorena dances for the first-tier San Francisco Ballet, the younger Lorna for the respected but smaller Boston Ballet – reflect a movement so fundamental in the art world that Dance Magazine recently headlined, "Latin is the New Russian."
Thirty years ago, Mikhail Baryshnikov was a superstar in the Soviet Union and the West. So were Nureyev and Nijinsky. Now, at a company such as the American Ballet Theatre [co-founded by a Cuban], 41 percent of their 17 principals are Latin or Hispanic, while only 30 percent are from the nations representing the old Soviet Union, and just 29 percent from the United States.
At the New York City Ballet, which along with the ABT and the San Francisco Ballet comprise the Big Three in the United States, Joaquin de Luz and [in 2008] Spain's Gonzalo Garcia will be principals. Globally important companies in London, Australia, and elsewhere also include Latin dancers.
Soviet dancers had no problem being acknowledged in the West, and despite the political taboo – or perhaps because of it – their names were known by people with no appreciation of ballet.
"Ballet is traditionally controlled by the big companies, but more and more companies have found success with the help of Hispanics," says Octavio Roca, a jury member for the International Ballet Festival in Havana and a critic for various newspapers, including The Washington Post.
"Not only do they bring a specific caliber to the performance, but they bring in new audiences, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic, that are specifically attracted to them. Cuban dancers have augmented our box office by 30 to 40 percent, if not even 50."
Were all the Hispanic dancers to disappear overnight, it would create a "massive void," says Carlos Lens, a CPA who acts as the Feijoo sisters' financial adviser [and who studied ballet for 17 years].
"I don't like focusing solely on the principal dancers. There are also the corps members and the soloist. If they all were gone, it would bring companies to their knees."
Are the Feijoos, Rolando Sarabia, Jose Manuel Carreno, Carlos Acosta, and many other Cubans and Hispanics being acknowledged?
"They are and they aren't," explains Mr. Roca. "It's almost a good thing that the Hispanic influence doesn't even need to be stated. It's just there for everyone to see. Russians came at the right time politically and changed ballet in London and New York. It's just a different time now. The general press doesn't cover the arts anymore."
The presence of the sisters is changing that.
"The Feijoos have such caliber and their artistic valor is notable, as well as their technical skills," says Pedro Pablo Pena, artistic director of the Miami Hispanic Ballet Corps for 11 years and founder of the first Choreographic Workshop of Havana.
"Go to any ballet in any small town and there's a Cuban there. They use fast foot work with neoclassicism, mixed with European theatricalism," Mr. Roca says.
Why are they so popular?
"With other dancers, you can see in their dancing that they're preparing a jump; not so with Cubans. Cubans just jump out of nowhere; you don't see them prepare for it at all. Their entire upper body is alive and never stiff," says Catherine Conway Honeig, who covers dance theatre for Scene 4 magazine. She's visited Cuba and written extensively on Lorena.
"Dance is so ephemeral and a career is so limited. The usual focus here is technique; showing off pyrotechnics – but not her. Her Giselle is so emotionally devastating that I was actually relieved I only saw it once."
It's a role they have studied for their whole lives.
"You know how, here, athletes are superstars?" Lorena asks. "Well, in Cuba, the dancers are the stars."
"In Cuba," says Lorna, "the little children sing the old ballet songs in the streets. That passion is missing here, where dancers must learn Giselle in a week."
Cuba's influence on ballet is not new. Alicia Alonso was a founding member of the American Ballet Theatre in 1940 and then, with husband Fernando, the Cuban National Ballet in 1948. "Alicia Alonso created a company where dancers are given the time to develop in a way you don't see here," Ms. Conway Honeig says.
Ms. Alonso continues to train talent from Rolando Sarabia to Joel and Alihaydee Carreno.
"Fernando Alonso [Alicia's husband] used to say my mom had a golden uterus," Lorena Feijoo says. "He would joke, 'Why'd you stop having kids? There could've been even more talent!"
Their mother was Lupe Calzadilla, herself a dancer in Cuba's National Corps. "We were a family of artists," Lorna says. "When I was little, my sister was already dancing, so I knew I'd be doing the same without even thinking about it."
The Havana-born pair was trained by Ms. Alonso at the National Cuban Ballet. Although the sisters left Cuba due to creative disagreements with Ms. Alonso – the 36-year-old Lorena in 1990 in a clean break with Ms. Alonso, the 33-year-old Lorna about five years ago and with Ms. Alonso's blessing – both hold her in admiration as an example of tenacity.
"I just wish she had given me more of a chance to show what I could do," Lorena says, "so we argued over that."
Given the "brutally short" career that ballet offers, Lorena is currently looking toward a career in Hollywood. "Acting was interesting to me," she says. "It's something I can do one day when my body is too old for ballet. It's close to what I do – studying metamorphosis."
You might have seen Lorena in Andy Garcia's film The Lost City, where she played the dancer Leonela.
"We bonded, and it turned out one of her parents was from my hometown," he recalls.
The younger Lorna is still focused solely on ballet, notes Mr. Lens, and she is featured in the documentary Dance Cuba: Dreams of Flight.
And Lorena's favorite thing about having a successful sister whom looks and sounds like her and has virtually the same name? "Getting great reviews for performances I haven't done."
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