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Dancers who defected from Cuba are building new dreams in Syracuse

Dancers who defected from Cuba are building new dreams in Syracuse
mgreenlar@syracuse.com
Michael Greenlar | mgreenlar@syracuse.com

on March 09, 2017 at 1:54 PM, updated March 09, 2017 at 2:11 PM
Syracuse, N.Y. — Alejandro Cobus would leave his apartment in Syracuse
for his ballet class three hours early. He’d walk nearly six miles in
the snow and cold in sneakers. Then he’d warm up, dance for the next
three hours, and walk the same route home in the dark.

He never complained.

“We had no idea,” Kathleen Rathbun said. Rathbun is the artistic
director of the Syracuse City Ballet and its school, Ballet & Dance of
Upstate NY. When they found out, the parents of other dancers and
Rathbun began giving Cobus rides.

Until December, Cobus and Jose Carlos Pino were dancers with the elite
national ballet company of Cuba, Ballet de Camaguey. The men, 20, began
their careers at the age of 8 in Cuba. The government program in the
communist country chooses the dancers. They leave their families for school.

“This is your career,” Cobus said through an interpreter.

Getting into the program, and staying in, is a tremendous
accomplishment. Cuba, like Russia, trains some of the best ballet
dancers in the world. Now, fate and circumstance have dropped the two
young men in Syracuse where they are dancing with the Syracuse City
Ballet in its production of Snow White.

In Cuba, Cobus and Pino found little opportunity and meager pay. Dancers
were given a place to live and paid $10 a month, they said. They were
given small rations of meat and rice, they said, but it was not nearly
enough to fuel their constant movement. Both men said they often went
hungry.

Beyond those practical struggles, they saw, stretched before them, a
world of little opportunity. There are only a few good roles for men in
the company. And that company was the only company available to them in
a world where the government controls every choice.

In December, when the company was touring in Mexico, the two men walked
away from everything they knew. They defected from Cuba, crossing the
border into Texas, legally, as political refugees.

They left behind their families. The mothers of both young men are
school teachers who make about $20 a month. The pay is so meager that in
all of their years of dancing, neither man’s mother has seen him on stage.

The road to Syracuse for both men has been accidental in the way fate
sometimes seems. At first, Pino and Cobus split up. Pino had relatives
in Houston, so he stayed there for a while. Cobus had no one and no money.

Cobus got a job driving a van until he saved up enough money to make it
to Miami. When he was in Miami, Cobus said, he found help at a church.
There, someone made a connection for him with InterFaith Works in
Syracuse, which brought him to Syracuse and helped him find an
apartment. They also helped him find the ballet and are continuing to
help him learn English.

On the surface, Syracuse seems like a place that couldn’t be farther
from Cobus’ tropical home. But when he found a place to dance, he found
a new home. Ballet, after all, is the same in every tongue. And he found
warmth, family even, in Rathbun and her ballet company.

Cobus called Pino to tell him he found a place where they could both
live and dance.

Pino arrived two weeks ago. He and Cobus are sharing the small apartment
in Syracuse. They are friends, but more like “hermanos,” brothers. And
opposite in so many ways.

Cobus leans forward as they talk, pointing and unpointing his toes. The
men are paid a little by the ballet, but they need other work, Cobus
says. He tries to think what he could do with his meager English –
cleaning during the day maybe, so he can dance at night?

Pino leans back in his chair, he legs outstretched. He smiles and tells
Cobus he worries too much. All will be fine.

They bicker, in a friendly way. Cobus gets up too early, Pino says.
Cobus says Pino sleeps too late.

Rathbun smiles at them and laughs before their words are even
translated. She calls them, “the boys.” She and dance moms from the
school have clothed them, driven them. A dance mom, Erica Stark,
translates for them. As they talk before rehearsal, another mother
brings sandwiches for them.

When asked what their ultimate goal is, Rathbun already knows the answer
for Cobus: Basilio in Don Quixote.

“He is always doing it in the studio,” Rathbun says. The role is full of
dramatic leaps, including a spiraling, dangerous one that Cobus adds.
(That makes Rathbun grimace because she worries he’ll fall).

Pino would be Albrecht in Giselle, he says.

While dance was chosen for them, neither man would change his life path.
They live to dance.

In a back room studio at the Civic Center, where the ballet is doing its
dress rehearsal for Snow White, Cobus and Pino take turns running
through leaps and twists across the floor. It is a friendly show of
one-upping. One man runs and leaps, the other take a cell phone video.
Then they switch.

Cobus does that spiraling leap that makes Rathbun nervous. The first
time, he falters and puts him hand down. The second time, he nails it.

Here, though they have so little, their dreams seem closer. Even this
one: Perhaps one day their mothers, who gave them to the ballet when
they were still little boys, will see them fill the stage with leaps so
large it seems like there must be a tiny bit of magic somewhere.

“Algun dia,” they both say. And smile.

Some day.

Marnie Eisenstadt writes about people, life and culture in Central New York.

Source: Dancers who defected from Cuba are building new dreams in
Syracuse | syracuse.com –
www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2017/03/cuban_dancers_who_walked_away_from_their_country_are_now_building_new_dreams_in.html

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