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Thursday, Apr 27, 2017

Former Cuban ballet dancers bring expertise to Brandon Ballet

When Octavio Martín, a former principal dancer with the Cuban National Ballet, and his wife defected to the United States in 2005, they feared they might never dance again. Even though their careers were taking off, their options were limited in Cuba. "We didn't have anything else to hope (for)," said 31-year-old Yaima Franco. "There was no future, economically and professionally. … So we decided to defect." The decision wasn't easy, and left the couple with lots of questions about the future.
"It was really scary," said 38-year-old Martín. "I remember thinking, 'Where am I going? What am I going to do? I don't have a contract with any (ballet) company.' It was a risk." The couple's journey to the United States began in December 2004. After Martín was invited to dance as a guest principal in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," the company asked him to join the troupe as a principal dancer there. To do so, he needed the Cuban government's permission and that of Alicia Alonso, the founder and artistic director of the Cuban National Ballet. Alonso said no. "At that moment I was frustrated and worried," Martín said. Alonso knew he wanted to leave and might no longer let him tour outside Cuba. But Martín was determined to make a change. "I was desperate for a better life for myself and my wife." The decision to defect came in 2005, while Martín and Franco were touring Mexico with the Cuban National Ballet. On their last day in Villahermosa, the two secretly boarded a bus for Matamoros, a border town near Brownsville, Texas, while the rest of the group got on another bus. "It was a very difficult decision," said Martín. "Our families and friends knew nothing. It was something we (discussed) just at the hotel in Mexico." After 27 hours of travel, Martín and Franco walked across a bridge over the Rio Grande to an American immigration office and asked for political asylum. The next day, they arrived in Miami, where two of Martín's brothers live. A few weeks later, he called his mother, who is still in Cuba, as are three other brothers and one sister. It hurt her to learn her youngest son was gone for good. All of Franco's family remains in Cuba. "That's something really, really sad," she said. They call, write letters and send photos but are scared to visit. "It's too risky," she said. Slowly, they began to establish themselves in their new home. In 2006, Robert de Warren, then the artistic director of the Sarasota Ballet, offered Martín a contract to dance with the company. At the time, while the penniless couple was living in a friend's spare room, Franco told Martín she was expecting. "I will do whatever I need to do," he told her. "If I have to have seven jobs, I want my baby." In addition to dancing, Martín began teaching classes and, in 2008, was promoted to principal dancer. "After (moving) here to the United States, thinking maybe not to be able to dance again, to get the position of principal dancer again? I almost cried," Martín said. Franco gave birth to Arantza, now 6, and in kindergarten at Cimino Elementary School — and began teaching at the Sarasota Ballet. Eventually, she was promoted to teach in the company class and became assistant ballet mistress, then ballet mistress. As they established themselves professionally, the couple started planting roots. "Sarasota Ballet was not just a job, it was like a second home," Martín said. The kindness they experienced prompted them to become United States citizens in 2011. This summer, though, the couple made the tough decision to resign from Sarasota Ballet because they were disappointed with the contracts they were offered. Martín sent résumés all over the United States. Alice Holden Bock, founder and executive director of the Brandon Ballet, called immediately. In July, Martín was invited to become artistic director, and Franco ballet mistress of the company. "I didn't have to think twice," Bock said. "I knew what I was looking for." Bock had been juggling the roles of Brandon Ballet's executive director, artistic director and ballet mistress for 19 years and wanted to share responsibilities. Martín had been an occasional Brandon Ballet guest artist, guest choreographer and master class instructor since 2007. "His choreography is some of the best I've seen in the U.S.," said Bock. "He's so creative (and) has great ideas for the company. … This is such a passion for him; he thrives on it, like I do." Having Martín as artistic director and Franco as ballet mistress will "improve the quality of our performances, the company and the dancers," said Bock. Martín said many friends, dancers, teachers and choreographers asked him why, with his passion and talents, he chose to go to a small studio with an unassuming space in a suburban shopping center — and in a community that esteems sports over dance. He sees it as a challenge. "I know it's going to be really hard for me to do what I want to do," he said. "But why not take the chance, take the risk and try my best? I want to stay in Brandon; I want to raise my daughter here. My contract is just a year, but this year, for me, is going to be really important." Martín's passion is contagious. He wants to excite the Brandon and Tampa communities about ballet, building on the enthusiasm for dance he's already seen in the students and families at Brandon Ballet. He is using his connections, Cuban roots, talent for choreography and passion for ballet to shape Brandon Ballet into a contemporary company that offers a vibrant, mixed repertoire that fuses fiery Latin dance with classical ballet. Martín has plans for public lectures, free classes at local schools, free performances. He wants to partner with school music programs, incorporate live musical accompaniment into performances and hire more professional dancers, including men, to increase the quality of Brandon Ballet. It's a dream — one that will require a lot of help, hard work and good fortune. "We consider ourselves really hard workers — part dreamers, part realistic people," said Franco. "It doesn't matter where we are; in Sarasota or here, we're going to do our best. "It's in God's hands."

Contact Barbara Routen at Neighbors@tampabay.rr.com.
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