JEREMY FOKKENS

Weightless in Exile

How a Cuban star found her artistic home in Alberta Ballet

By Marcello Di Cintio

Ballerina Hayna Gutierrez comes from the tropics, but her long journey to Alberta Ballet began in a Canadian snowstorm. In November 2007, Gutierrez—a star with Ballet Nacional de Cuba and one of Cuba’s most beloved ballerinas—had just performed a matinee of The Nutcracker in Hamilton, Ontario. This was the last show on the company’s Canadian tour, and the dancers were booked to fly back to Havana early the following morning. Gutierrez had finished stuffing her suitcase with the Christmas gifts bought for her family in a last-minute dash to Walmart, when fellow dancer Taras Domitro knocked on her door.

Domitro came in with his mother, Magaly Suarez, who co-directed a ballet academy in Miami and had travelled to Hamilton to see her son dance. Gutierrez and Suarez knew each other well. Suarez had been one of Gutierrez’s most important teachers in Havana before she defected to the US. Domitro sat on the edge of the bed and told Gutierrez that he would not be returning to Cuba. He, along with Miguel Angel Blanco, another dancer in the company, had decided to stay in North America and join Suarez in Miami. Then Domitro asked if Gutierrez wanted to join them.

The offer to leave the company and Cuba behind took Hayna Gutierrez aback. She was at the peak of her success with the Ballet Nacional—which meant she enjoyed rock-star-worthy fame. In Cuba, ballet is bigger than baseball. “You ask any Havana cab driver to name 10 baseball players and he’ll name 20,” says Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director of the Calgary-based Alberta Ballet. “And if you ask him to name 20 ballerinas, he’ll name 40.”

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro decided to make the arts available to every social class. He harboured particular fondness for ballet, and lavished state funds on the Ballet Nacional, whose founder and artistic director, Alicia Alonso, had backed the Revolution. With Alonso’s guidance and Castro’s support, the Ballet Nacional founded a training centre and set out to identify gifted young students, boys and girls both, from around the island. Alonso imported renowned teachers and choreographers from the Soviet Union to teach her dancers, and the Ballet Nacional blossomed into one of the world’s greatest classical ballet companies. Alonso, now in her nineties and nearly blind, continues to direct the company. She is a Cuban national treasure.

Domitro’s offer surprised Gutierrez. But she had often thought about defecting. All Cuban dancers muse about it. “We talk about how good it would be to dance in other places. How good it would be to have a different life,” Gutierrez said. “For some reason, I got a little bored in Cuba.”

Anyone who knows ballet knows the reason: The artist in Gutierrez yearned for more. Cuban ballet, for all its artistry, remains devoted to—and, arguably, mired in—the classics. The Ballet Nacional’s repertoire has changed little since the 1950s. Don Quixote. Sleeping Beauty. Giselle. “I don’t know how many Swan Lakes I did,” Gutierrez says. “A lot.” Grand-Maître likens the situation for Cuban ballet dancers to orchestra musicians spending an entire career playing the same two Mozart symphonies. Cuban dancers don’t typically defect for economic reasons. After all, they tour the world and earn more than neurosurgeons. The dancers leave, instead, for the same reasons Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov abandoned the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. They seek to expand their art beyond the limitations of classical ballet. The dancers want to be challenged by contemporary dance.

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Ballerina Hayna Gutierrez. (Jeremy Fokkens)

They leave all the time. For decades now, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba has endured an epidemic of defections. The company loses dancers during their international tours almost every year. Late-night hotel farewells and pre-dawn escapes are commonplace; seats often sit empty on flights back to Havana. After 15 dancers left during the 2002–2003 season, Cuba’s minister of culture even insisted Ballet Nacional dancers sign amendments to their contracts that would forbid any defectors from returning to Cuba—and their families from leaving Cuba—for five years. The new regulations were cancelled, though, when the annual exodus failed to slow. “They are like kites that one builds carefully with rods and strings and paper,” Alicia Alonso said after a spate of defections in 2003. “Then you launch them into flight, and suddenly they break loose from the cord. It is sad how they fool themselves.”

One can sympathize with Alonso’s poetically expressed frustrations, and with Cuba’s loss, but the dancers are hardly fooling themselves. Few of Ballet Nacional’s expatriates float adrift for long. Many grace stages in San Francisco and New York. They perform in London and elsewhere in Europe. “The greatest ballet companies in the world have Cubans as their stars,” Grand-Maître says. Even Alberta Ballet, a relatively small company, boasts four self-exiled Cubans in its troupe. Their strict technical training grants Cuban dancers a physical proficiency that excites artistic directors the world over. “They are extraordinary,” says Grand-Maître. “Their athleticism, and the pirouettes they can do. Their technique has made them world famous.” But Cuban dancers are no Soviet automatons. They are Latin, after all. Their indigenous emotion gilds their dance with passion and heat. “Cuban ballet is even sexier than normal ballet,” Grand-Maître says.

At the hotel, Gutierrez hesitated. She didn’t know what to do. She was a principal dancer and an adored ballerina in a nation mad for ballet. “Cuba is a small island. Everybody knows who I am,” she said. Then Suarez revealed that she had already spoken with the director of the Cincinnati Ballet, and that they had a contract waiting for Gutierrez if she chose to leave Cuba. Quickly, quietly, Gutierrez gathered her bags.

Before they left the hotel, Gutierrez phoned her father in Spain, roused him from his sleep, and told him she wasn’t going back to Cuba. “He supported my decision in that moment, because what else could he do?” Afterwards, she called her mother in Havana to tell her she would call again after they crossed at Niagara Falls. “I didn’t have time to talk at all,” Gutierrez remembers. “It was very hard.” Then the three dancers, Suarez, her husband and their friend crammed into a car and drove two hours through a blizzard to the border. They crossed a little after midnight, and the three dancers requested asylum from American immigration officers. Though they had no passports—all the Ballet Nacional dancers had had to turn in their documents to company chaperones when they arrived in Canada—the border officers quickly processed Gutierrez, Domitro and Blanco and welcomed them to the US.

Gutierrez did not have time to consider the import of her decision in the immediate excitement of her defection. “I remember the first two days, I didn’t cry,” she said. “But when I relaxed, when I realized what I had done, I was crying for months and months and months.” Her fellow dancers with the Ballet Nacional understood and supported Gutierrez’s decision to leave, but the defection of Gutierrez, Domitro and Blanco—all principal dancers—left a sizeable hole in the company. Gutierrez also had to deal with the response from her Cuban fans. Many wished her well and told her to “keep dancing beautifully.” Others, though, called her a desertar—a derogatory term—and accused her of abandoning her nation, her company and, worst of all, her mother.

The characters Hayna Gutierrez now plays at Alberta Ballet have little in common with classical swans and fairy princesses.

The last accusation stung the most. When Gutierrez called her mother from Niagara Falls and told her she would not be returning to Cuba, her mother didn’t say anything. She couldn’t understand how Gutierrez could make such a decision without first seeking her advice. Furthermore, Gutierrez’s mother worked as the ballet mistress for the Ballet Nacional, the company Gutierrez had abruptly abandoned. “I realized that what I did to her was terrible,” Gutierrez said. It took a year before Gutierrez and her mother reconciled, and two years before they finally reunited. The women met in Caracas, where Gutierrez’s mother was working with some Venezuelan dancers on behalf of the Cuban National Ballet. “I was very happy, but I was very nervous to see her again. Because I left her. I left her alone in Cuba with my grandma.”

After their arrival in the US, Gutierrez, Domitro and Blanco joined Suarez’s Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, a haven for Cuban émigré dancers. Gutierrez never ended up signing with the Cincinnati Ballet; a ballerina of her skills and renown had her pick of companies. After six months in Florida, Gutierrez moved to a company based in San Francisco. She travelled to Spain six months later, where she worked as a freelance ballerina until the European financial crisis hit. Even ballet dancers are not immune to the downward drag of a flailing economy. Struggling ballet companies started to offer fewer and fewer contracts. In 2008 Gutierrez received an invitation from Grand-Maître, who’d met her in Cuba and long admired her dancing. He offered her a soloist contract. It was a rare opportunity Gutierrez could not resist. She travelled back across the ocean to join the Alberta Ballet.

Here, on the Canadian prairie and under the directorship of Jean Grand-Maître,Hayna Gutierrez found the contemporary ballet she’d left Cuba in search of. In addition to dancing such classics as Sleeping Beauty and, yet again, Swan Lake, Gutierrez performed in Alberta Ballet’s contemporary “pop ballets”—Love Lies Bleeding, featuring the music of Sir Elton John, and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, the Sarah McLachlan ballet. This spring, Gutierrez will dance the principal role in the cheekily named Balletlujah!, inspired by the music of k. d. lang. The characters Gutierrez plays in these ballets have little in common with classical swans and fairy princesses. For example, she exchanged her tiara and tutu for a cap and baseball bat in Loves Lies Bleeding. And in Balletlujah! she plays a woman born on the Canadian prairies and engaged in a lesbian love affair.

Gutierrez finds contemporary dance more physically demanding than classical ballet. When she began rehearsals for Love Lies Bleeding, she found the movements difficult and heavy. Grand-Maître said Gutierrez fell into the safe, classical patterns she’d learned in Cuba. “Ballerinas train their whole friggin’ lives to be weightless,” Grand-Maître says. It takes a decade or more for a dancer to learn to untether from gravity and appear to float upon the stage. For classically trained dancers, contemporary ballet feels like the antithesis of all they’ve learned. Grand-Maître urges his dancers to stop trying to float and to get closer to the ground. “I tell them ‘take your pointe shoes off. Let your hair down and move off your centre. Let yourself fall to the sides and see what happens. And be free that way.’” Classical style is all about control. In contemporary ballet, dancers must learn to relinquish, let go and allow their bodies to dance for them.

“You ask any Havana cab driver to name 10 baseball players and he’ll name 20. Ask him to name 20 ballerinas, he’ll name 40.”

Despite these initial challenges, Gutierrez proved a quick study. “She is so kinetically gifted,” Grand-Maître says. In technical terms, Grand-Maître considers Gutierrez the strongest dancer in the company and one of the finest dancers he has ever worked with. “There is something about her dancing that is absolutely mesmerizing,” Grand-Maître says. “Everything is felt. Everything has subtext.” But it is Gutierrez’s unreserved surrender to her roles that most impresses Grand-Maître. “She is one of those rare dancers that come into the studio in character. So that when I am creating movement, it is her character reacting, not just Hayna. Very few dancers have that ability. I call them the muses. They really become the muses.”

Gutierrez, despite her defection, retains her Cuban citizenship and visits Cuba whenever she can. Each time she returns to Havana, she drops in on the Ballet Nacional.

She insists there is no lingering resentment about her having left the company. Unlike some Cuban dancers who, once they defect, speak ill of Cuban ballet, Gutierrez has nothing but praise for her former school. “It was my house, that company. What I know, I learned there.” Instead of a desertar, Hayna considers herself an ambassador of Cuban ballet. “I am part of the community of Cuban dancers. I am very proud of that. Because here, in Calgary, I can show how good the school is. How hard we work. I am very proud to be Cuban.”

She is proud too to be working under Grand-Maître. “I can understand his language,” she says. She admires Grand-Maître’s sensitivity to the particular strengths of each of his dancers and his devotion to their individual passions. Thanks to Grand-Maître, she has found a home, and a kind of family, among her fellow dancers in Calgary. Alberta Ballet lacks the sense of internal competition that darkened some of the US companies she danced for, where soloists jostle for roles and the principals do not speak to the “lesser” dancers in the corps de ballet. “I want to stay for the rest of my career,” she says. “I want to finish my career here.” #

Marcello Di Cintio is based in Calgary. His book Walls: Travels Along the Barricades won the 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize.

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