Imagine for a moment being the best there is at what you do.
Doesn’t matter what. You could be a singer, an actor, a baseball player. Teacher, mechanic or pipe fitter. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker.
Wherever you go in your country, people know you. Your every need is taken care of. You don’t pay bills. You eat well. You travel internationally. Your life is your work, your craft, your art.
And then, at the end of the month, your take-home pay is $20.
Not $20 an hour or $20 a day or even $20 a week. A month. A whopping $240 every year.
In very general terms, this was Amaya Rodriguez’s life in her native Cuba.
Rodriguez is a ballet dancer. She had risen to the top of her game in the National Ballet of Cuba. There wasn’t much more she could do in her career.
Except for one thing.
Rodriguez is one of two Cuban dancers recently hired by the Kansas City Ballet. Both she and Humberto Rivera Blanco will be performing this holiday season in “The Nutcracker,” which opens Saturday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Their departures from the island under Communist rule are part of a larger trend of Cuban dancers seeking better fortunes in other countries. Both Rodriguez and Blanco left Cuba last year, following in the footsteps of several other dancers who have left the country or defected. On Friday, news came that the country’s former dictator Fidel Castro died; he was 90.
The Kansas City Ballet says the dancers are considered legal Cuban immigrants with work visas. Officials with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services say they do not comment on individual cases. But in general, if Cubans make it to the U.S. and are allowed into the country, they can apply for a green card after a period of one year.
Now 29, Rodriguez left Cuba at the height of her career. Blanco, 20, is just starting out. He’s little more than a kid, really. Rodriguez laughed and teased him the other day about burning his hand while frying a steak.
Through an interpreter, she says, “He probably needs to learn how to cook before he learns English.”
On his left calf, Blanco has a tattoo of his favorite sports team’s logo: the insignia of the Spanish football club Real Madrid, home of international soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s a fine tattoo, but it may be the least remarkable thing about Blanco’s legs. At the thigh, they’re as big around as utility poles.
Devon Carney, artistic director for the Kansas City Ballet, asks if Blanco can perform a leap. They’re in a studio at the Todd Bolender Center near Union Station. Carney pantomimes for Blanco, who doesn’t quite understand. Or perhaps he does but just wants to make certain he understands perfectly. Carney repeats the request, slightly louder.
An interpreter explains in Spanish, and Blanco gets a light in his eyes.
“Sí, sí,” he says.
And then, something remarkable. Blanco winds his left arm around, crouches ever so slightly and then launches himself into the air. It’s not a leap, it’s a rising. Like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.”
And there at the apex of the jump, about half his 6-foot height, Blanco twists his body into a crescent shape and hangs like the moon, a sideways Cheshire grin of a man suspended.
After a moment lasting as long as a thoughtful breath, he lands on the dance studio floor with the impact of a pillow falling off of a bed. If Blanco had been wearing a Jayhawks jersey and could do that sort of thing with a basketball in his hand, everyone in this town would know his name.
“Good, good,” Carney says.
The interpreter says, “Bueno.”
Rodriguez says the toughest part about being in America is missing her family.
She has her husband with her here in Kansas City now, though he intends to return to Miami soon to continue his training as a hair stylist. He was a dancer, but he has given it up.
“He doesn’t want to dance anymore,” she says. “He doesn’t want to suffer any more pain.”
Many of her husband’s family members live in Miami. But her kin are in Cuba. She is an only child. Her grandmother and mother remain in her homeland. Her father died of a heart attack at 45; she was 15 at the time.
It was her father who instilled in her a love of dance, taking little Amaya to see the ballet for the first time. Like any other average family with a daughter and a dream, her father, mother and grandmother took turns shuttling her to classes and practices and rehearsals and performances.
“Every time I stand onstage, my performances are dedicated to them,” she says.
Rodriguez and her husband started talking about leaving a couple of years ago. Artistically, she was stifled. The same old parts in the same old productions.
It was a big proposition to come to a different culture and look for a different life. But ultimately, the desire to learn more, to experience more, won over.
They had a little money saved up, but to earn enough to leave they performed on the side at galas. By the time they were ready, they had managed to scrimp and save about $10,000.
Once they were in the U.S., the Cuban-American community helped them out, and they received food assistance from the U.S. government. She used their savings to buy a car. A woman from Cuba who runs a Miami dance studio and helps newly emigrated Cubans get on their feet put Rodriguez in touch with Carney earlier this year.
“Amaya literally just sent me her resume and video and said, ‘I’d like to audition for you,’ ” he said. “She came in and auditioned, and I hired her that day. It was pretty easy to do. It didn’t require a lot of thinking.”
Carney himself is newly returned from Cuba. In his office at the Bolender Center the other day, he scrolls through images on his cellphone from his trip.
Rows of old American cars lining the streets of Havana make the city’s parking lots on any given afternoon look like hot rod car club night at your local Sonic Drive-in. A video shows National Ballet of Cuba director Alicia Alonso arriving at her box seat in the opulent theater that bears her name while international ballet fans stand and clap.
Carney shows photos of houses only a couple of blocks from the National Ballet of Cuba, homes where people live in the top floor because the ground floor is rotted, broken, battered.
In videos and photos of the studios where dancers such as Rodriguez and Blanco practice, you can see that the walls are smudged with dirt. The dark, warped floors have yard-long cracks wide enough to stick a big toe in. There’s no air conditioning in a climate that averages between 75 percent and 95 percent humidity.
A video of a rehearsal features a piano that is wildly out of tune. You could get a better sound out of a piano gone untouched for decades in the basement of any Methodist church in Kansas or Missouri.
All of these things made Carney appreciate and understand Rodriguez and Blanco so much more.
“I think it makes them better artists,” he says, “just because they come here and can leave those difficulties behind and just enjoy their art form.”
On his own
Language has been a huge personal challenge for Blanco. And he misses the food of his native country, hence his botched attempt at cooking a steak. But professionally, dancing in the U.S. is at a faster pace than in Cuba. Both he and Rodriguez have had to adjust from a very structured, methodical dancing to something more limber, with faster foot movements.
“The teachers have been wonderful and treated me well,” he says, “but that’s my biggest adjustment.”
When he was 6, Blanco started dancing in workshops. He was soon discovered by roving teachers who went around to schools recruiting kids they thought had potential, a program instituted by Castro. Auditions were held in every town in Cuba. The best dancers were given scholarships to attend schools in Havana.
Then, about four years ago, Blanco’s family decided to leave Cuba. He was 16. The family would wait until Blanco finished high school and take another year of training before pulling the trigger.
When it came time to go, Blanco flew to Mexico, and his family followed a day later. They crossed the border at Mexicali, made their way to San Diego, then flew to Miami, where they had family and friends waiting for them.
When asked about that first night in the States, he and his interpreter try to find the right word in English. They settle on “dumbfounded.”
“It was a ton of information, a ton of experiences,” he says. “It was … wow. I was dumbfounded. Astounded.”
His parents picked up whatever work they could so Blanco could keep in shape and find a job dancing. Now that he’s with the Kansas City Ballet, Blanco says, much of the money he earns goes back to his family in Miami. His mom now works for an events company that focuses on weddings, birthdays and quinceañeras. His father drives injured people to and from a workman’s compensation clinic.
This is the first time Blanco has been on his own. In his downtime, he rides his bike around the city. He lives with a couple of guys from Brazil. Even though they speak Portuguese, they help him with his English.
“They’re helping me a lot as far as being a 20-year-old outside of my hometown, what I need to do — buy groceries, get my bearings,” he says.
Another day. Another studio. Another thought exercise.
Imagine that in three weeks you’ll be dancing to “The Nutcracker” in front of hundreds of people. Performances nearly every day for an entire month.
Your spouse is depending on you. Your family is counting on you.
If you mess this up, you could lose your job. Everything you’ve dreamed about your entire life could vanish overnight.
And the person who is teaching you how to perform this dance? She doesn’t speak the same language as you.
Flop sweats, anyone?
Rodriguez flits and bounces from one corner of the studio to the other, barely touching the floor, it seems. There’s not much to her, but she’s all muscle and bone and she moves like water.
She’s working on her part in “Waltz of the Flowers.” She dances for about 10 minutes solid, until ballet master Kristi Capps goes to the music console in the Bolender Center. Rodriguez is breathing hard. Really hard.
“You’re a little bit early,” Capps says. “You want to be a little late.”
Rodriguez nods, tries to catch her breath, nods again.
Capps pantomimes the moves she wants and sings, “It’s ‘baum-baum-BAUM-b-baum.’ ”
Capps pulls on her own shirt to show that Rodriguez should appear pulled by the midriff. Rodriguez mirrors her movements exactly, stomach first forward, spine curled in to move backward.
Capps claps once. “Yes-yes-yes-yes-YES!” she says. Rodriguez smiles.
This goes on for a solid 30 minutes, Rodriguez dancing, Capps correcting through pantomime, Rodriguez repeating it over and over and over.
That’s not super unusual in dance, Capps says. Dancers generally are visual learners, and they’re accustomed to working with people from other countries who speak different languages.
“Maybe the first couple of times Amaya wouldn’t understand, but it definitely has gotten easier,” Capps says. “She’s picked up her English so quickly since she’s been here. Thankfully, we have one international ballet language in French, for our ballet terms, and then we can use the body parts to show correct form. If anything, working with them both makes me wish I’d hung on to my high-school Spanish.”
In Cuba, dancers generally learn one part per production. The Kansas City Ballet asks its dancers to know multiple roles and be ready to sub for someone at a moment’s notice.
Rodriguez says this aspect has been a struggle, both physically and mentally. When she finds some free time, she wants one thing. In exaggerated, exhausted English, she says, “My bed!” and laughs and laughs.
She terms her choice to come to America as purely artistic. She was ready to learn and understand different types of performances and have other experiences. The hardest part of leaving Cuba?
“I had everything there,” she says.
A few years ago, her company started touring less, and life got a little harder. And she was having less to give to her mother and grandmother.
She says, “I wanted them to …”
She stops and pantomimes a huge breath.
“… breathe easier. So they can actually go out and buy things that they otherwise would not be able to afford, to give them a little more freedom to do the things they wanted to do.”
Dancers who start out with the Kansas City Ballet earn a salary ranging from $741 to $1,068 a week, depending on experience, but in Cuba, Rodriguez didn’t have a lot of bills to pay. She sends back home what she is able.
Here, she has opportunity. She danced in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a few weeks ago. She has several parts in “The Nutcracker” in December. Her husband cooks Cuban food for her nearly every night, but she says she’s excited at the idea of returning to Cuba again some day.
“To visit,” she clarifies, in English. “Everything is very unique in Cuba. The people, the place, the things they do. They really enjoy life.”
For now, though, she’s feeling fairly comfortable in Kansas City.
“I love this city,” she says. “To be honest, I feel like I’m at home, like I’m in Cuba. All I need is the sea. That’s all I need to feel at home.”
Digital editor Maria Torres contributed to this story.
Kansas City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”
The annual classic runs Saturday, Dec. 3, through Dec. 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. 816-931-2232. kcballet.org. $60.50-$135.50.