Bittersweet dreams in the U.S.

Bittersweet dreams in the U.S.

This is the first in an occasional series on the Latin American diaspora viewed through the dance world.  

Ariel Serrano and his wife, Wilmian Hernandez, owners of the award-winning Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, are preparing the next generation of dancers in the art of the Cuban style. This is their story.

Inside the crowded Mexico City airport, Ariel Serrano quietly told his wife, Wilmian Hernandez, to leave his small, carry-on gym bag in a restroom, and to say nothing.

Serrano and Hernandez were young stars of Cuba’s ballet company, Pro Danza. The troupe had been on tour in Mexico and was about to return home to Havana. Dancers were casually milling about the terminal waiting for the flight.

This would be Serrano’s only chance.

Without telling his wife anything more, he casually grabbed his bag and quickly sprinted through the airport along with another fellow dancer from the troupe. Once outside, the men jumped into a cab, telling the driver, “Go until the gas runs out.”

Serrano, just 19 at the time, and his friend spent a nervous night – all night – sitting inside a taqueria with Serrano clutching his bag containing his most important item as a dancer, ballet practice clothes, and a few pesos.

This was his road to freedom.

Wilmian Hernandez and Ariel Serrano dancing in Giselle.

Wilmian Hernandez and Ariel Serrano dancing in Giselle.

The next day, Serrano and his colleague met up with a friend, who provided them safe shelter for a few days.  Serrano phoned his wife to explain. The other dancer, who secretly secured a performance contact with Mexico’s Ballet de Monterrey, had asked Serrano if he wanted to dance there too. He did. The men contacted officials at the company, who flew them to Monterrey to join the troupe.

That was December 1991.

Today’s explosion of Latin American dancers at the world’s top ballet companies started years ago with pioneers like the Serranos. Talented and tenacious dancers looking for new creative challenges have left their countries for better opportunities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They come seeking dance contracts, artistic freedom, higher pay and a better way of life. But the road here is not easy. They come to a new, unfamiliar place and must learn a new language, navigate a new culture, and learn to dance a new style.

For Cubans, most leave their country without government permission and cannot return, at least for a while. Defection always comes with a price.

“In Cuba, the daily struggle of getting transportation and food and what you need is harder to resolve there,” says Suki John, an assistant modern dance professor at Texas Christian University and author of Contemporary Dance in Cuba. “There’s the desire to have a life that’s less constrained. The freedom we have in the U.S. is very attractive to people on the island, who haven’t been able to leave.”

Part of that cost, she says, is discovering that life in the U.S. is all about work.

“The respect for dance that they have is not the same here,” John says. “There’s not a culture of concert dance that people on the street relate to here. When people come from Cuba, they leave behind their families, and the warmth of the island, and a social safety network that we just don’t have.”

*  *  *  *

Once Serrano was settled at the Ballet de Monterrey, he worked to bring his wife there, as she was still under contract with Pro Danza. After months of tough negotiations, the couple were reunited in Mexico.

But their journey to a new life was far from over.

‘What were we doing here?’

Serrano grew up in a rough neighborhood in Cuba’s Santiago de Cuba in the 1980s. At 10, he reluctantly took up dance at his mother’s insistence to keep him off the streets. He was told it was a folk style dance class. “When I got there, 15 girls were in pink tights and I was one of four boys,” he says. “We thought what were we doing here?”

By 13, he loved ballet and “wanted to jump and lift the girls and be the strongest guy.”

Every afternoon in ballet school, as the boys practiced – separate from the girls – at the barre, neighborhood bullies peering into the open windows taunted them.

“The teacher would stop the class, tell us to get out there and fight them to make them see ballet was respectable for boys,” Serrano says. They often returned to their practice with bloody lips and black eyes. “It was tough, it took being brave and standing up for ourselves.”

Ariel Serrano during his dancing career.

Ariel Serrano during his dancing career.

At 15, Serrano stood out among his peers and was sent to study at the ballet school in Camagüey (pronounced Cam-away), a city 200 miles from his hometown that also had its own ballet company. Camagüey Ballet and its school was started by Fernando Alonso, the patriarch of Cuban ballet, who is today 98-years-old. He was married to Alicia Alonso, the powerful Cuban prima ballerina, and they co-founded – along with his brother, Alberto – the country’s national ballet company and school in Havana, widely considered one of the best classical companies in the world.

Serrano found the people in Camagüey more receptive to male ballet dancers. By 17, he was hand-selected, along with his classmate Carlos Acosta, who was training at Havana’s national school, to study for a year in Italy with the highly regarded teacher, Ramona de Sáa. She oversees the national ballet school training program including the select ballet schools throughout the island.

“That changed my life,” Serrano says. “Up until then, all I knew was Cuba. Ballet class everyday that was our life. Going with her to Italy was unbelievable.” He learned much dancing alongside European professionals and bonded as friends with Acosta, the Royal Ballet star considered one of the greatest dancers of his generation. “Carlos is so hard working, I learned from him it’s what you do after the studio that counts the most.”

After graduation, Serrano joined Camagüey Ballet, landing principal roles at 18 and learning from Fernando Alonso, whom his students call Maestro, the Spanish word for master teacher showing the highest respect.

“He taught me that you have to think about ballet all the time and not just when the performance ends,” Serrano says. “You have to study all the time, you have to digest and think about the corrections.”

While at the company, Serrano met Hernandez.

Real life love story

For Hernandez, her journey to the stage began as a child, first in gymnastics and then at 10, selected for the national ballet school in Havana. Her potential was apparent from early on. In the fifth grade, her teacher was Aurora Bosch, one of Cuba’s Four Jewels. She studied under many famous coaches, but Estele Garcia – a highly accomplished prima ballerina hardly known outside of Cuba – had the most influence on her.

“She made me who I was, and I thank her for that,” Hernandez says.

Wilmian Hernandez dancing in The Nutcracker.

Wilmian Hernandez dancing in The Nutcracker.

After graduation, she headed to Camagüey Ballet where she danced soloist roles then became a principal, performing in many of the classics including Giselle, Paquita and Don Quixote.

In a 1991 performance of Swan Lake in which she had the starring role of Odette/Odile, her partner was injured. Serrano, who had just arrived at the company, stepped into the role of Prince Siegfried. Immediately, the couple had onstage chemistry. “He was a good partner,” Hernandez says smiling. “I just fell in love with him.” The couple married a short time later.

Outside of the theater, life’s daily struggle with poor living conditions and not enough money to buy food and basic goods didn’t get an easier. No one had cars and even bicycles were tough to find. By the early 1990s, when Russia pulled much of its support from the island, food scarcity and frequent power outages made life more difficult.

One night after rehearsal, a friend called Serrano, saying he had butter – just regular, ordinary butter – at his house that he was willing to share. While riding his bike over there, Serrano was hit by a truck. He suffered a badly swollen leg and internal injuries. Though he had no broken bones, he was left unable to dance.

The injury came at an especially rocky time. Alonso had just left the company, which came as a blow to the dancers there, and ballet officials wanted to send Serrano home to Santiago de Cuba, where they were starting a new company. He refused.

Instead, Serrano went to Havana to study with Laura Alonso, Alicia and Fernando Alonso’s daughter, who just opened her school and dance company, Pro Danza. The troupe practiced in the Cuban National Ballet’s studios when they weren’t in use and benefited in many ways from the parent company.

Laura Alonso helped Serrano get proper medical treatment for the bike injury, including physical therapy. “She put me back on my feet,” he says.

By that summer, Serrano competed in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, placing as a finalist.

Returning from Finland, he made an important trip to his hometown to visit family and spend time with his mother, whom he hugged good-bye for what would be the last time.

Meanwhile, Hernandez, an established dancer performing leading roles in Camagüey, eventually joined her husband at Pro Danza. This junior company was attractive because they started touring outside of Cuba – travel was a privilege few on the island had ­­– to Mexico and other Latin American countries.

On that fateful day at the Mexico City airport, surrounded by colleagues and his wife and fearing the unknown, Serrano chose to seek a better life. It’s been said when an émigré leaves for a new country, they become reborn.

The start of a new life

When Serrano arrived at Ballet de Monterrey it had just opened. Its first artistic director, Ann Marie DeAngelo, brought in a cadre of top dancers to coach and lend artistic influence including choreographer Fernando Bujones, Melissa Hayden and Cynthia Gregory. Today, its ballet school is widely recognized as it follows the American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum.

While at the company, the Serranos danced many major roles. One of Hernandez’s most memorable came in 1993 while rehearsing a variation in Act III of Don Quixote with Gregory. “She went into the style of the scene, the technique, with the arms. It was amazing. I’ll never forget it,” Hernandez says.

Outside the studio, Gregory, who is also a painter, made small portraits of the dancers, including the Serranos, giving them as gifts. “She was so nice to us. Nobody does that, a star like her,” Hernandez says.

Still, while living in Mexico, the couple was restless.  “My eyes were always to the North into the States,” Serrano says.

In December 1993, they were able to get visas to travel to Florida and were among five Cuban dancers who defected to Miami, with the largest Cuban population in the U.S.

Ariel Serrano coaching son, Francisco, and student Allie Burman.

Ariel Serrano coaching son, Francisco, and student Allie Burman.

This, of course, was just the beginning of their rebirth.

When they first arrived, friends, who had made the journey to the U.S. before them, gave them a place to stay as Cubans do for one another. The couple went from having their own apartment in Mexico to sleeping on the floor of a friend’s tiny place with just a blanket. “We came with just the clothes we were wearing,” Serrano says.

People kindly gave them clothing and other necessities. But what they needed most – steady dance jobs – took much longer. And they didn’t speak English, which made their adjustment more difficult.

They took class at Miami City Ballet with its founder and artistic director at the time, Edward Villella, but the Balanchine style wasn’t the right fit for the couple.

With their Cuban ingenuity, they networked letting people know they were looking to join a company. They found guest artist gigs at ballet galas, but making a living was tough. Serrano worked odd jobs at night – after a full day of classes and rehearsal – to make ends meet.

“It was really hard,” Herandez says. “We didn’t know what to do.”

Soon, uncertainty crept in and they questioned whether coming to the U.S. was the right decision. The couple were used to being in a company and working steadily with a regular paycheck, even if it was small.

After struggling for nearly a year, a friend told them of an audition for the Sarasota Ballet. Robert de Warren, the company’s artistic director at the time, appreciated what these Cuban dancers would bring to the troupe.

De Warren, a former Royal Ballet principal, has run several top ballet companies in the world. His breadth of experience spans decades and encompasses all the major ballet styles including the distinctive Cuban style that Serrano and Hernandez epitomize.

“Ariel was very expressive,” de Warren says. “He had big elevation and good pirouettes. And he had a very engaging personality and was receptive to coaching. Wilmian had impeccable technique, perfect line, and beautiful proportions, the making of a prima ballerina.”

Serrano says when they were hired with the company in 1994, he knew their decision to come here was right. “Our life changed. We were both dancing in the company and were making pretty good money.  I knew we were going to be OK.”

During Serrano’s years at Sarasota Ballet, he danced principal roles and grew satisfied with his career. And his family started settling into the Florida beach town which became home. In 1997, Hernandez had their son, Francisco, and daughter Camila came three years later.

The ups and down of a dancer’s life though didn’t escape Serrano. He suffered an injury during a festival show that left him with a herniated disc in his lower back. He had surgery and eventually returned to ballet and continued performing offseason as a guest artist in Latin America and Japan. But somehow things weren’t the same.

Then in 2000, everything changed.

He was in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic rehearsing for a Swan Lake performance when a cousin called saying Serrano’s mom had passed away. At the time, he didn’t have a Cuban passport, just a U.S. green card. He went to the Cuban embassy and pled with an official, who allowed him to travel to Santiago de Cuba to attend his mother’s funeral and visit with family for the first time in 13 years. Then he returned to Santo Domingo for the show and then back to Sarasota.

His mother’s death hit him hard. She never saw him dance professionally though she supported him.  That same year, he left Sarasota Ballet. For the first time, Serrano found himself in a depression trying to grapple with everything. The bittersweetness of exile had caught up with him.  “People don’t understand the emotional pain of the things you leave behind and loved ones don’t see you,” he says.

He took a break from ballet and tried something different, learning the construction trade, which helped greatly when he built his family home.

Francisco Serrano at the YAGP Finals. Photo by Liza Voll.

Francisco Serrano at the YAGP Finals. Photo by Liza Voll.

Meanwhile, Hernandez transitioned from her onstage career to teaching young students while raising her children. For years, she had wanted to open a dance school, but Serrano needed convincing. The couple never dreamed their son, Francisco, would be a catalyst.

“When he was little,” Hernandez says, “we bought him a tiny pair of black ballet shoes. But he never wore them, he never wanted to dance.”

Though he grew up around dance studios, Francisco focused on baseball and other sports.  But at 13, he asked his mom to teach him ballet. When he started, Hernandez recalls, “he couldn’t bend and touch his toes.”

She taught him rudimentary basics, how students learn in Cuba. She worked with him on stretching every day. He took class five days a week and a private lesson with her once a week, learning as much in one year as most kids learn in two.

Over time, Serrano saw his son’s improvement. Then the boy started training with Serrano. “When I saw he was serious about ballet, I fantasized about having a school to train him in,” Serrano says. “I knew we could do something serious and make it affordable.”

In May 2012, the couple opened their Sarasota Cuban Ballet School teaching the curriculum of the Cuban National Ballet School. Less than a year later, in March, they were awarded outstanding school by Youth America Grand Prix, Atlanta and their students continue to rake in awards at major ballet competitions.

Now families are moving to Sarasota from elsewhere so their children can attend the school.

Wilmian Hernandez with students.

Wilmian Hernandez with students.

“As soon as I heard they opened the school in Sarasota, my decision was made,” says Rose Baez, who moved her family from Miami to Sarasota for her daughters, Adrianna, 16, and Cecilla, 13, to train with Serrano and Hernandez. A few years earlier, Adrianna trained with the couple before receiving a two-year scholarship to study at the Miami City Ballet School. “Everywhere I’ve taken Adrianna, everyone wants to know who’s trained her. Her technique is impeccable. They create a dancer with clean technique and artistry. Ariel is the consummate perfectionist. He has a gift, he creates a very complete dancer.”

A Family Affair

The school isn’t just a husband-wife enterprise, it’s a family affair. Wilmian’s sister, Magaly, and her husband, Wilfredo Guerrero, along with her parents, Teresa and Aldofo Llanes, all pitched in to help build the school. Serrano’s friends, Enrique, “Pupo,” Ricardo, Carli and his cousin, Pedro, helped construct the studio, installing sprung wooden dance floors and painting the walls. At the end of long days working on the studio, Magaly Hernandez prepared dinner for everyone. “This is a family thing,” Serrano says, “without them, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Serrano’s cousin, the Havana-based artist, Eira Arrate, and her daughter, Grettel, along with her colleague, Estela Estevez, painted a colorful and expressive mural outside the school for its opening.

Then, there’s support from friends including de Warren, who now directs the Sarasota International Dance Festival and the summer Carreño Dance Festival. Serrano’s school hosts de Warren’s master classes and some of the Carreño Festival. De Warren is a coach and mentor to Francisco as well as other outstanding pupils at the school.

Another key supporter is Dr. Suzanne Kesten, a Carreño Festival board member whose mentorship program lends financial support and friendship to young promising dancers including Francisco (his nickname is Panchi). She met the family during last summer’s festival.

“I watched him dance and saw he had potential,” Dr. Kesten says. “He’s willing to work hard, he took direction very well, and when he wants to achieve something, he’ll work until he gets it.”

The mural outside the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School painted by Estela Esteves and Gretel and Eiria Arrate. Photo courtesy Ariel Serrano.

The distinctive mural, painted by Eira and Grettel Arrate and  Estela Esteves, outside the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School. Photo courtesy Ariel Serrano.

She also noticed Serrano’s demeanor with the students, one of sweetness and concern. “I saw how he teaches these kids, amazingly,” she says. “I watched the way Wilmian covered these kids with love. He has the makings of a phenomenal teacher.”

She’s also seen the couple’s generosity in giving back. With promising young dancers from other countries – including a young man from Guatamala – who have nowhere else to go, the Serranos have them stay in their home and train at their school.

After just a few years of study under his parents, Francisco has won top international ballet competitions and a scholarship to learn at London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School. He declined that offer though, choosing to continue studying with his father and occasionally in Cuba with Serrano’s mentor, Ramona de Sáa.

“Seeing my son do what he does, I can’t put it into words,” Serrano says. “When I see him dance, it’s like a dream.”



(Top photo: Ariel Serrano teaching students at his Sarasota Cuban Ballet School. Photo courtesy Wilmian Hernandez.)

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