- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2000

HAVANA Both young men want to dance more than anything else. They're young ballet stars already getting rave reviews and making audiences swoon. One is American, the 23-year-old, Iowa-bred Jason Hartley. The other is Cuban, 19-year old Rolando Sarabia. And last week, in Havana's spectacular baroque Gran Teatro, they danced their hearts out on the same stage during Ballet Nacional de Cuba's standing-room only final gala for the 17th International Ballet Festival.
It marked the first time an American classical ballet troupe has set foot on that huge stage in more than four decades.
Mr. Hartley was one of 130 in the Washington Ballet's entourage of dancers, choreographers, teachers, students, theater directors and patrons who flew to the controversial Caribbean isle of Fidel Castro by invitation of Alicia Alonso, the grand dame and cultural icon of the world famous Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Mr. Castro attended the opening night and sat with Miss Alonso.
The weeklong trip, allowed by the State Department's People-to-People program for cultural exchange, was a dream come true for Washington Ballet's Artistic Director Septime Webre, whose mother is Cuban. Mary Day, the founder of the Washington Ballet, was there to see and hear the Cubans jump up and yell for her American dancers. Back in 1956, she got to know Alicia Alonso when the famed Cuban ballerina toured with the Washington Ballet in the Dominican Republic with a final performance here at Carter Barron Ampitheatre.
Mr. Webre was buoyed by the Cuban reception.
"The relationship between our American dancers and the Cuban audience was so intense and deep it transcended any other 'conversations,' " he said, "proving the power of art."
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For more than half a century, ballet has been Cuba's national passion. Ballet stars are superheroes, recognized and hugged on the street. For those who can't jam inside to sit in the aisles or lean on the curved walls of the red-carpeted, multi-tiered hall, the performances are broadcast live over state TV.
Your taxi driver talks about the performance the next day; your waiter knows that the Washington Ballet got seven curtain calls. No one relegates ballet to the "just-for-sissies" spot. Here, in this machismo society, men fight to get ballet tickets, which cost 50 cents or less — a major expense to a physician who only makes $26 a month. Husbands proudly bring their wives and children to the Gran Teatro. Men jump to their feet and yell as if they were at the Super Bowl. They know the dancers, the music, and the steps so well that they applaud for their favorites as the music begins, even before the curtain goes up.
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The compactly built Mr. Hartley, who could easily pass for a gymnast or a college wrestler, thinks American audiences could learn a lesson.
"Cubans are very serious about art and eat it up and love it," says this Midwesterner. "Cuban ballet dancers are trained to be royalty; the public expects it. American artists are treated like dirt; it's our roots."
Long ago Mr. Hartley, who married his sweetheart from the North Carolina School for the Arts, figured out how to deal with the common American attitude about male ballet dancers.
"You only have to beat up one kid to take care of that," says Mr. Hartley, who settled the score back in sixth grade and hasn't worried about it since.
This son of a quilter and janitorial service manager adds to his argument, "These Cuban dancers are strong as oxen."
The dark, curly-haired Mr. Sarabia is the heartthrob of young American and Cuban ballerinas alike. He has danced with Les Jeunes Ballet de France in Paris, where his girlfriend is, and dreams of coming to America to dance with "your ABT," as he calls American Ballet Theatre.
"I dismiss it if people turn their mouths down when I tell them I m a ballet dancer," he says. "It's never a problem."
Both Mr. Sarabia and his 15-year old brother, whom he coaches on ballet technique, take great pride in the fact that their father was also a ballet dancer with Ballet Nacional.
And does Mr. Sarabia like being recognized everywhere he goes on this large island?
He arches his dark eyebrows and shrugs his shoulder just ever so flirtatiously.
"Yeah, I love it," he says.
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Audiences and fame aren't the only differences between these two male ballet stars. Although Mr. Sarabia still lives at home with his parents and brother, he makes more money (about $55 a month) than a Cuban doctor, lawyer or engineer — but less than the flamboyant stars of the legendary Tropicana nightclub.
"I give everything to my mother," says Mr. Sarabia, who had help from the Ministry of Culture to acquire his new yellow car and is expecting to move his family to a bigger house in coveted Old Havana now that he has become a romantic lead.
The down-to-earth Mr. Hartley knows he will have to keep dancing and planning for his future, without any state support.
"Someday I want to be a choreographer, teach dance and build a stage," Mr. Hartley says.
Will he return to Iowa?
"No, I want to go someplace tropical," he says.
Would he want his children to dance?
"They will have to grow up and decide for themselves."
Brought to the Washington company by Mr. Webre, Mr. Hartley is very matter of fact about being one of Mr. Webre's favorites.
"He's my paycheck. He has given me opportunities and I am taking them all. But I don't let that bother my relationship with the rest of the company," says the former American Repertory Ballet dancer.
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According to Fernando Alonso, the Ballet Nacional's founding partner and Alicia Alonso's long-divorced former husband, the positive Cuban attitude about male ballet dancers was not ready-made.
"It wasn't always like this," says the fit, gray-haired dancer, who still works out every day even though he is 85.Mr. Alonso left Cuba in 1975 and went to Mexico, where he has been teaching and before that, dancing. He danced with the Compania Nacional de Danza and he is teaching at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey.
"When I started dancing myself, I had lots of fights, even punching noses. Here in Cuba, they thought dancing was queer or you turned queer. But we worked with the Cubans in two ways: first we had to teach the dancers, then we had to teach the audiences.
Mr. Alonso says he remembers going to an orphanage and picking out a group of young children, half boys and half girls.
"We taught the young boys to be very manly on stage," he says. "We worked with them as an example. We taught our audiences to like and to know what was good and they began to yell for more. Now you can see the results."
Mary Day, the Washington Ballet's founder, compares this first to the Washington troupe's news-making trips to China in 1985 and 1988.
"Crowds were everywhere we went — just mobs. But there they looked at us as if we were from outer space. We had tall boys and girls with blond hair and red hair."
Miss Day voices a deeply felt respect for the legendary Alicia Alonso, now almost completely blind. More than 25 years ago when Miss Alonso started to lose her sight, she continued to dance — by having a red and green light on the side of the stage and a white one in the orchestra pit.
"From this trip," Miss Day says, "everyone came away feeling that the Cubans have tremendous respect for the art of ballet and the name of Alicia Alonso. In classes, even the little children show deep respect for the ballet. It permeates the whole society. Everyone loves dance."
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"The paradox of Cuba," says American Ballet Theatre's Amanda McKerrow, who danced as a Washington Ballet principal guest artist in Cuba with her husband John Gardner, "is that the people are so poor in so many ways but so rich in others — dance, music, their culture.
"I make a good living as a dancer so I can't complain," says the 36-year-old former Washington Ballet star, who at 17 traveled with Miss Day in 1981 to the Soviet Union and became the first American to win the gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition.
"I am at the top of my field but by comparison to American football, baseball or even women's sports figures, I am not considered important by many people. I have no endorsement opportunities; in America, art is not rewarded as much.
In Miami on the way home, relaxing on the floor as she waits to change planes, she says of her husband, "John's the strongest person I know. Anyone who knows anything about ballet would never for a second think it is sissy to dance."

Gail Scott, author of "Diplomatic Dance: The New Embassy Life in America," is a former Washington TV anchorwoman who accompanied the DC Youth Orchestra on its first trip to Europe.
see CUBA, page D5
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