HAVANA (AP) — The young dancers in simple black leotards watched closely as the master demonstrated his leaps and pirouettes, every move reflected in multiples from the mirrored walls of the room. Having graced many of the world's most prestigious stages, this return to Cuba for Jose Manuel Carreno was an act of giving back.
"I grew up in this school," said the former principle dancer of New York's American Ballet Theatre. "For me, to return to Cuba is to come home."
Carreno was among a dozen Cuban dancers who returned to the island last week to be part of the 24th International Ballet Festival of Havana, where several workshops were dedicated this year to Fernando Alonso, one of the founders of the National Ballet of Cuba who died last year.
While many dancers have returned to Cuba before, the festival marked the largest gathering of such dance stars living abroad.
A recent relaxation of Cuba's laws on travel and income have made it easier for Cuban-born dancers to return, a trend also being seen with musicians and other artists.
The visit by dancers such as Carreno, who left Cuba to join the Royal Ballet of London in 1993 and now leads the San Jose Ballet in California, is a creative boon for the National Ballet of Cuba whose dancers otherwise have limited exposure to emerging techniques and styles.
While the National Ballet is "an incredible company," said Cuban-American art critic Octavio Roca, "this is one of the most conservative companies in the world. It has few new ballets, and little new choreography."
The company was founded in 1948 by Fernando Alonso and his wife, premier ballerina Alicia Alonso, who both rose to fame in the late 1940s in New York. It is considered one of the crown jewels of Cuban culture, prestige that also has placed it at the center of political attention.
If a dancer abandoned the company to live abroad, it once would have been nearly impossible to return to the stage in Cuba. Those dancers who reached Miami would be pressed by the exile community there to publicly denounce the Cuban government.
Over the years, dozens of dancers deserted while on foreign tours. For many, the complicated process of trying to win Cuban permission to work abroad made defection their only option to experience the wider ballet world firsthand.
"Cuba is our home, even for those who must pursue their own path," said Rolando Salgado, the longtime dance partner of Alicia Alonso, now a professor at the King Juan Carlos University in Spain. "It is the foundation, regardless of the roads traveled."
Javier Torres, a star dancer with the Northern Ballet of Great Britain, said the spirit of their homeland shapes their art no matter how far they travel.
"We are Cubans and we carry the Cuban interpretation of ballet — what we have learned here," he said.
Those who try to politicize the world of ballet, he added, only sully the art.
Others who returned to Havana for the festival included the National Ballet of Norway's Yolanda Correa and Joel Carreno, who is the brother of Jose Manuel, and Rodrigo Almarales, a member of the Cincinnati Ballet whose dancer parents left the island decades ago. Marta Garcia, former artistic director of the Colon Theatre of Buenos Aires presented her autobiographical book. Festival goers were treated to new works by Torres, choreographer Luis Serrano, and American Ballet Theatre star Xiomara Reyes.
But there still are Cuban dancers who have not been welcomed home, noted Roca. He pointed to sisters Lorna and Lorena Feijoo, who perform with the Boston Ballet and the San Francisco Opera, respectively.
"There is no logic," he said. "Why are (Jose Manuel and Joel) Carreno able to come and go and the Feijoo sisters not?"
Trained since childhood, and dedicated full time to their art, the young Cuban dancers, particularly the men, constitute the most powerfully talented group on the continent. While the become stars with the National Ballet of Cuba, Roca said, the opportunity to tour the world is priceless.
The call of potential riches is not the only factor enticing dancers to leave the island, but the chance of artistic innovation, he said.
"They have the opportunity to expand their aesthetic boundaries, something they don't always have in Cuba," he said.
Now, with Cuba relaxing its attitude toward those living abroad, even veterans of the National Ballet welcomed their prodigal children with enthusiasm.
"I respect their personal decisions," company historian Miguel Cabrera said. "Throughout history, the dancer has always wanted to travel."
Furthermore, he said, they bring knowledge and experience home to their birthplace, and to the company's next generation.
"It's very beautiful that the children contribute bread to the table," Cabrera said.
Andrea Rodríguez en Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP