Cuban ballet school turns 50

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Cuba's National Ballet School celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Amid lingering economic hardship, can it expect to last another five decades?

Cuba's National Ballet School once had to scour orphanages and factories for recruits. Today, competition for places is fierce.

For 50 years now the school has selected and shaped thousands of top-class dancers. Many have won world-wide fame.

"Ballet has been converted into an art that's popular with the nation," says the school's long-time director Ramona de Saa during a break in rehearsals.

"There's a real passion for it and people want to be dancers!"

It's that passion that gets hundreds of young Cubans out of bed at 05:00 every morning, ready to start classes at 07:00. Havana's ballet students are at the barre before sunrise for 90 minutes of training before their academic classes.

Training is free

The teacher shouts, cajoles and criticises, pushing the boys hard, making them sweat. But there are no complaints from the class as they stretch and turn on her instructions.

Carlos Acosta, shown with Viengsay Valdes London dancer Carlos Acosta, shown in a 2010 production there of Swan Lake, is an alumnus

They know this is a school that gets results.

"You have to make a lot of sacrifices to be here but it's worth it," says Brian Gomez, who has been singled out by his teachers as a potential star.

"I want to be a principal dancer at the National Ballet, or the Royal Ballet. But most of all I want to be a great dancer that the whole world knows."

The school trains about 3,000 students at a time, with 11 elementary-level programmes and two senior ones around the country.

Many students, like Brian, get their first taste of ballet in one of the "vocational orientation" workshops run for children by most municipalities.

"We seek talent in ballet, like in sport, and we train it," Brian's teacher, Martha Erin Nieto explains.

For Cuban youth, talent is the only requirement to enter the school: the training is free.

"Every child has the right to be here," the teacher says, and the school's best graduates go on to join the prestigious National Ballet.

That is a strong incentive for the students, who say they dance because they love it.

But there are other factors.

Defecting dancers

A principal dancer earns the equivalent of $66 (£41) a month in Cuban pesos, and an additional payment that ballet officials say runs up to $300.

Brian Gomez Brian Gomez attended children's workshops and then applied to the ballet school

It's a fraction of what American or British stars are paid, but the average monthly salary in Cuba is just $20. And a dancer's life opens the door to the kind of international travel and work closed to most other Cubans.

"There is always one Cuban dancer in the best ballet companies in the world - or two or three," says Ms de Saa.

Ms de Saa is the former teacher to Carlos Acosta, who has spent most of his own successful career in London.

"That makes us proud. Because it means people know us, and know the training dancers are given in Cuba despite all the difficulties."

Getting a foreign contract - or official permission to accept an offer - is not guaranteed, and it remains common for dancers to defect while on tour.

For student dancer Brian, travelling the world is a big part of ballet's appeal: Carlos Acosta is one of his heroes.

And his step-brother is a soloist with the National Ballet, touring six times a year on average.

"I feel at home with the National Ballet, but I'd like to dance with other companies too," Yaniel Gomez says. "It would be a new adventure and it helps how you dance."

As for Brian, his mother has high hopes.

'Never stopped working'

"I'm very happy he's chosen this career," says Niurka Isla. "He really likes ballet, and it brings a way of life that other jobs don't give with the economic problems we have."

A young dancer with a broken arm The students start classes at seven o'clock every morning

The school itself has been through tough times in its first half-century, especially after the loss of Soviet subsidies to Cuba that plunged the island into crisis in the 1990s.

"It was difficult, especially with costs like shoes, and children had to walk to class because there was no transport," Ms de Saa recalls of what Cuba calls the Special Period.

"But we kept going, we never stopped working."

The latest challenge is the closure of the school's Havana headquarters after parts of the ceiling came down. Classes are now spread across the city while the vast, former palace is repaired.

To help its finances, the school recently began taking fee-paying students from abroad.

Officials estimate it costs the state $85 a month to train each Cuban student: a considerable expense in a country that struggles economically.

But producing world-class ballet dancers is a tradition of which Cuba is fiercely proud.

"Sometimes you get tired of birthdays because it means you're older," says Alicia Alonso, director of the National Ballet, at a recent gala to mark the anniversary.

"But this one is marvellous."

Cuba's legendary prima ballerina assoluta is sure the school is here to stay for another half century at least.

"I think more than that. Much more. With this school, and these dancers, we have a big future."

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