Embracing the music, dance and people of Havana

havana-live-serranoHAVANA, 12 July (By Carrie Seidman, Photo Elaine Litherland) From the darkened wings of Havana’s national theater, Ariel Serrano stares toward the brightly lit stage where the finalists in an international ballet competition for aspiring student dancers are awaiting the announcement of the medal winners.

Seated among them is his 17-year-old son, Francisco, the only American ever to participate in the competition. With a long and lean ballet body, a conversational grasp of Spanish and the curly, black hair and cafe con leche coloring of his heritage, Francisco seamlessly blends in with the other dancers, who are all from Cuba or Mexico.

havana-live-serrano1At the front of the theater is Serrano’s wife, Wilmian Hernandez. A week of escorting a half-dozen students from the Sarasota ballet school she and her husband founded, of waiting in endless lines to renew her Cuban passport, and of dealing with Havana’s traffic, pollution and chaos has left fatigue etched on her eternally cheerful face.
She is thinking back to that day, four years earlier, when her son asked if he could take up ballet, the art that propelled his parents from this Caribbean island to the United States more than two decades ago. Francisco was 13 then; she had started her own training at 8. Her husband, watching his son try in vain to touch his toes, told her firmly: “No, Wilmian.
havana-live-serrano2It is no good. He doesn’t have it.” She believed otherwise. Now, seated on a folding chair in the back row of Cuba’s Teatro Nacional, behind dozens of his dancing peers, Francisco wonders why he is here – in this strange moment, on this foreign stage, in this country that is both his and not his. Why is he sitting alongside all of these dancers who are more experienced, more at ease, more “into it,” in a way he can’t begin to put into words?
havana-live-serrano3Why did they ask him to dance tonight, at this final gala? Could this mean he has won something? That can’t be, he tells himself, tamping down a quiver of expectation, hoping he is mistaken. Because much as he doesn’t like competitions, he does love performing. And maybe… Just maybe, when I do my variation tonight, I will throw in that step at the end, a step no one, not even my father, is anticipating, he thinks. Maybe they will clap for me as they did last night — that thunderous rhythmic, unison pounding that Cuban audiences reserve for their favorites. He’d felt like running back on stage for a second bow when it happened, wishing he could scoop up the accolades in his upturned palms.
havana-live-serrano4In April, Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez returned to Cuba with their children, 14-year-old Camilla (“Cami”) and 17-year-old Francisco (“Panchi”) — and five students from the ballet school the couple founded three years ago in Sarasota. They are here for a workshop and competition at the Cuban National Ballet School, the very place where Serrano and Hernandez received their own ballet training before defecting to the United States in 1993. “I tell my kids, this is where we come from,” Serrano says. “This is the source.
havana-live-serrano5You need to see this. You need to understand why we did what we did.” But for Serrano, the trip is more than a homecoming. More even than just the next step in Francisco’s budding career, recently boosted by a full scholarship to the Royal Ballet in London. It is the beginning of what Serrano hopes will become a permanent ballet bridge between his own school in America and the school of his youth. “I do not look back,” says the 42-year-old, who once had the long, lean look of his son, but whose waist has expanded along with his world view. “I take my life how it came to be. I am happy I was born here and studied here because it gave me my work and my discipline. But I’m also glad I left.”
havana-live-serrano7That departure happened in 1993, while he and Hernandez, then dancers with Cuba’s secondary company, the Ballet de Camaguey, were performing in Mexico. They bought one-way tickets to the U.S. after Cuban officials came knocking on their door, demanding garnishment of their wages. When they arrived in Miami, they knew no one, spoke no English, had no prospects for work. They made their way north, where they signed contracts with the Sarasota Ballet. Hernandez stopped performing when she became pregnant with Francisco, who was born in 1996.
Chavana-live-serrano7Serrano, hampered by injury, quit dance in 1999, after the death of his mother. Even as Hernandez continued to teach and Camilla, born in 2000, started taking classes with her, Serrano refused to set foot in a studio. But at 13, Francisco, who had earlier rejected ballet in favor of baseball, had a change of heart. He asked his mother if he could begin training and she agreed. Serrano refused to have anything to do with the idea at first. “I was afraid a 13-year-old boy will change his mind,” he said. “And I could not have handled that.
It was way too close to my sentiment and my emotions to mess around.” But when at last Serrano took a look, he realized his son had caught “the ballet worm.” He agreed to coach Francisco and to consider creating a studio with his wife to fast track his son’s course. “Once I told him, ‘I will help you,’ it meant I was completely in,” Serrano says.
havana-live-serrano8In 2011, Hernandez and Serrano opened the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School; a year after that, the studio won “Best School” at the Atlanta regionals of an international scholarship competition and Francisco was awarded the “Grand Prix,” the top overall award. When the scholarship to the Royal followed, guiding Francisco to a professional career seemed just the beginning. This trip to Havana is a first small step toward an impossible dream they hope to make possible. And it begins by reuniting with the teachers who trained them in their youth, including Ramona de Sáa, the director of the Cuban National Ballet School then and now. Francisco is the only Sarasota student competing; no American has ever before entered the XII Concurso Internacional para Jóvenes Estudiantes de Ballet.
havana-live-serrano9It is time for Round 1 of the Concurso’s variations category for advanced students. That means the first public appearance on the Cuban stage for Francisco. Earlier, Francisco confessed he felt insufficiently prepared for the two additional variations he will have to perform if he makes it through this first round. He’s had nearly a week in class with his fellow competitors, enough time to appreciate the caliber of the dancers he’s up against. “I’m glad I came,” he says, “but I guess I’m really doing this for my dad. I’d like to come back here sometime though, and not worry about ballet.” Earlier, he asked his mother why people’s expectations are so high for him here; it doesn’t seem quite fair.
Chavana-live-sarrano13After all, he’s only been dancing four years and at nowhere near the level of intensity of most of these dancers, whose lives are ruled by a strictly defined schedule of daily classes. On the third and final day of competition, Francisco, wearing down booties over his ballet slippers and the feathered headdress of his slave costume, slides into the splits in the wings. He performs to perfection, perhaps as well as he has ever danced. “Eso es!” (“That’s it!”) Serrano shouts, pumping his fist, as he jumps up. “He did it!” Sustained applause morphs into that rhythmic, unison beat that Cuban audiences reserve for the very best performances. Dashing into the wings, Francisco leaps into his father’s waiting arms, wrapping his long legs around Serrano’s thick waist like a young child eager for a ride from Dad.
havana-live-serran011As quickly as it has occurred, Francisco disengages and rushes off toward the dressing room, as if slightly embarrassed by the wave of emotion that has erased his maturity and sophistication. But later he insists: “I didn’t care what anybody thought. I was so happy.” On the day of the final performance, when the bronze, silver and gold medals will be bestowed, Ariel Serrano collects congratulations from all sides, as if he had danced himself: “Felicidades!” “Maravilloso! “Preciosa!” Each compliment serves as a benediction, a confirmation. “It’s been like, oh such a dream,” Serrano says. “Just to have him here. Just that alone. And then, this is so much more.” Already he is looking forward to the Cuban students’ visit and to planning a return trip, with new students. He has already created a nonprofit, DanzAmerica, to facilitate the exchanges and the future programs he hopes to build. “I feel like an ambassador. I never knew I had it in me to do this.
havana-live-serrano12And to think I almost quit.” On the night of the final gala, as the backstage area quiets and an announcer steps before the audience in Havana’s Teatro Nacional, Serrano looks with silent pride at his son, seated on the stage among boys who look just like the boys he grew up with. The house lights dim. The voices fall silent. The awards begin. Bronce, plata, oro. Bronce, plata, oro. Bronce, plata… “Oro…Francisco Serrano Heranandez, Estados Unidos!” Serrano sits in stunned silence for a pregnant, disbelieving moment. Then he shouts. “Get out! The gold medal? No way!” The little dance he performs in the wings could not exactly be called ballet. “Oh my God,” he gasps, beaming. “I am so glad we came here! Just imagine…A little American boy — among los Cubanos!”