Ballet News takes in the Cuban sol!
When I was researching for this interview one of my friends told me that I’d have such fun because Xio was so lovely and easy to talk to. And that’s exactly what happened.
Xiomara Reyes is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and has been since 2003. I’m catching up with her after a matinee show where she danced Jardin aux Lilas while the company are at Sadlers Wells in London. They have received lukewarm reviews, with the exception of Reyes performances which have always garnered fabulous comments.
Reyes was born in Cuba and after studying at the National Ballet School she danced as a soloist with the second company, La Joven Guardia. What does she feel are the strengths of Cuban training and how did it help her in the early days of her career ? “First of all we have a very good basic technique. We are also encouraged to develop our personality which is one of the things that I think differentiates us a little bit. Cuban dancers are very warm, very expressive. We are not afraid of turning or jumping, we just like it and we enjoy it. We are encouraged and we have very, very good teachers [for example, Loipa Araujo]. What I felt when I left was that I was able to do any repertory with the right coaching, I had a lot of confidence. I started dancing very young, in the big roles. I did Don Quixote at 16, Coppelia at 17, The Three Musketeers at 15, you know, things that were very hard, and at a very young age, and that was a blessing because it gave me confidence.”
The Royal Ballet of Flanders
Two years later she joined the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium and danced there for seven years, rising to the rank of First Soloist. She met her husband, Rinat Imaev, who was born in Ufa, Russia, and danced with him in the company, “now he teaches with ABT and he also does the Youth America Grand Prix, a very big competition. He’s a judge in this competition and sometimes he has people who have liked his classes calling on him and just want to work with him especially. You get so many talented dancers, it’s amazing. At 11 they can do anything. It’s crazy.” During that time, having worked with many choreographers, Reyes got the chance to dance Giselle. “And I got to do Giselle, when I was 20, which was a dream for Cuba because to dance Giselle in the company, in Cuba, you had to be, at that moment, not now, things have changed, but at that moment you had to wait a very long time. It was Alicia Alonso’s daughter, Laura Alonso who organised a group of younger people and created performances where we would do the leads in the ballets which had exactly the same choreography but were not in the company. For me, to go to Royal Ballet of Flanders and be able to dance Giselle at 20 was like, wow! In the company. That’s really good.”
American Ballet Theatre
Joining ABT in 2001 as a soloist, Reyes has danced many roles in the repertoire including Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake. Is it tough getting roles ? “It is tough getting performances because we don’t perform that much. We don’t have that many shows. We get one show, maximum two shows a week and we do one ballet every week. One Juliet, one Giselle.”
Reyes has created a role in Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, which she danced to rave reviews on opening night here in London. How did the role come about ? “Well, we have the possibility of working with Alexei Ratmansky. He is now the head choreographer of the company and that’s wonderful. He gets to see us and we get to be his modelling clay. And that’s a lot of fun. He chooses what he wants, and has ideas about what the company needs and it’s wonderful. He has a lot of energy and a lot of ideas. I think it’s wonderful to have somebody so passionate.” There’s no story as such in the ballet but Reyes says “well, I think it’s a funny relationship with the two of them, right? Like he’s always behind her and she doesn’t like it; but she likes it, and that kind of thing. You think about things like that, nothing really specific or deep.” She doesn’t make a character for herself, then ? “No, I think I’m being playful. I’m being me, playful, and creating. It’s like you said, a little bit of the characters are things that are from you, like joy, and with some things they ask me to go deeper to find things that I’m not used to feeling.”
ABT have breaks between seasons, sometimes lasting two months, sometimes longer still, and I asked Reyes how she copes with them, since it can be hard to keep a high level of fitness & technique without daily ballet classes, and she reveals a surprise talent “I would love, to be honest with you, if we didn’t have the big breaks because it’s hard to keep your condition. I guess you just try to take it as it comes. We use the time to get gigs, and to be able to dance with other companies or to have galas and perform somewhere else, summer courses and, you know, teaching.”
Teaching ? I am intrigued and Reyes elaborates, “it’s a pretty new thing for me, I have been teaching in Japan. I had danced for their school and they asked ‘would you like to teach for us?’ and then they prepared this wonderful summer course for a month and so you teach and it’s fun, it’s fun. It’s not something I have done; my husband is a teacher. I take what I know and share it a little bit.” Reyes has been teaching at the Hakucho Ballet Academy, which has sent dancers to the Youth America Grand Prix – for example Takeru Shimizu.
Last November Reyes returned to Cuba for the first time in 18 years, to perform at the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival, where she had a beautiful costume made for her by Gemma Bond, a fellow dancer in the company. “I asked Gemma Bond because she has amazing skill. Amazing, amazing! She made the most the most beautiful costume and we went together to pick the fabric. I showed her want I wanted and she did is perfectly, it was perfect. It was purple. We made it very special; I wanted something different. It was a beautiful, a beautiful colour like moonlight. It was pearly. But I don’t think I could have done that!”
“I really would like to go back to Cuba, it was an amazing experience. We were treated, as a company, amazingly. I was treated very well and I had a wonderful time and would like to renew that, to be able to go, not to wait 18 years and go back, you know what I mean ?” Did she notice any changes over those 18 years ? “Maybe, or maybe it’s me. Maybe I changed. It’s very beautiful but very timeless and I really had an amazing time and saw so many beautiful things. I saw the state of some things which are very destroyed but even like that they have their beauty. I don’t know if it’s me, if I changed, because I am able to see this now, because I don’t live there. It’s hard to say.”
Reyes was in school with Carlos Acosta, and recalls, “we went together to Mexico, performing there with another girl also from our group. I remember him. He always had this charm and this prince-like quality. When he was little at first he didn’t have much technique but then in the school, I don’t think he concentrated on dancing. He was extremely talented but he had so many other things in his life, but it was fun. Then he left and became this big thing.”
What does Reyes do when she’s not dancing ? “I love reading, I love painting, I love going to the movies, or eating. Going out with friends. I enjoy that.”
I wonder what her advice is to young dancers and she’s very quick to suggest that they question their motivation. “Do you really like it ? Actually no, not do you really like it, do you really love it ? If you really love it, it is completely worth it. If you don’t, just don’t do it. It’s just too hard, it’s just too hard. But if you love it, it’s everything and it is so worth it. I could not imagine having another life.” The best thing ? “Just being on the stage. I mean yes, the applause is amazing and when you get that it’s the icing on the cake, but the whole process of creating. For example you create this other person that is the complete opposite from who you are and you have to explore so many parts of you that you are not used to even knowing that you have. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about people and how they react; I take it that way and that makes my life much richer. It’s not only about the steps, it’s all the other things and the joy and the fun that is just to be able to move and to do something through music. If you love it, and I love it, it’s so worth it.”
What are her ambitions for the future ? “Ah, well you know, there is Alexei who is in the company and hopefully I will work with him again. We did Bright Stream. When I saw it, it didn’t seem great and then I discovered it was actually pretty interesting to do, and pretty deep. You think ‘okay, Sleeping Beauty.’ It was never my favourite but then I discovered by doing them that you can have a whole philosophy inside that ballet. It depends how you do them and I think that’s what makes it rich for me. I don’t want to think too much in the future. I hope good ballets keep coming my way and I hope I can keep dancing. I am studying. A teacher comes and teaches some women who are interested in choreography, because they want to encourage a female presence in choreography as there are so many men. It was wonderful. We are still doing a little bit. I started two years ago but we don’t have much time. I love it, I enjoy it very much and it teaches me a lot of things. I have made little pieces which I give to little kids for competitions.” One such winner was Allie Parsons, “and actually she won a competition! One of the first in New York that we worked with, my husband and I. I did this little choreography and she won. So rewarding! It was called Largetto; it was the name of the music [by Hayden]. So funny !” Is music an inspiration for her ? “Well sometimes. Sometimes I just listen. I have to say since I was little, I listen to the music and imagine movement in my mind. I don’t know if everyone hears it that way.” I tell her they don’t and she says “really?”
What about competitions ? They’re in vogue at the moment but isn’t ballet competative enough ? “I love them. I had a good time. I think competitions are wonderful because you get to see what other people are doing. But you cannot go and try to compare yourself with everybody. Just go and see, do your thing, see where you are and enjoy what the other people are doing. See more or less for yourself where you are, and that’s it. You cannot stress out about it. If you’re too stressed out then don’t do it. I would not do it if I was too stressed out.”
As we leave, Reyes is off to meet her husband and friends for dinner. She reminds me of a tiny hummingbird; dazzling, quick, and radiating the heat of the Caribbean sun. And she surely can fly.