By Laura Ramirez
Sitting at Le Pain Quotidien Café in New York City, Cuban ballerina Xiomara Reyes talks about her dancing career. She gracefully sips a cappuccino and savors a raspberry tart when her phone rings. Our conversation, transitioning effortlessly between Spanish and English, was only interrupted by a phone call from her husband, to whom she speaks in French, as sort of an intermission. She is trilingual, but it is the language of dance that she is most comfortable communicating with.
I met Reyes on her lunch break. It was her first day back at work after having spent three weeks in Taipei, Taiwan. She was one of the 14 dancers invited to participate in the 2011 International Ballet Star Gala, organized by Tzer-Shing Wang, founder of IBSG Group. The Gala, which takes place every year at the Taipei National Theatre, assembles under one roof a select group of outstanding ballet dancers from the world’s greatest ballet companies. “It was an honor to be able to share the stage with so many talented dancers from around the world”, she said. “We all share something in common, and that is a love and passion for dance”.
Reyes’s love for dance started at the early age of three in her native Cuba. Her dancing debut took place at the Grand Theater of Havana, where Reyes hopped like a bunny around the stage with other children. “I was a very hyperactive kid, so my mom saw dance as a way of keeping me entertained” she said. “She would play music from the ballet Giselle, and I would spend hours dancing in the living room”.
Today, the 38-year-old ballerina still spends hours dancing. She has moved well beyond her living room stage. As principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Reyes spends most of her time either rehearsing at the studios of the world-renowned dance company, located just steps away from Union Square Park, or performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.
Reyes lives in New Jersey and drives to Manhattan every morning to get to the ABT studios on 19th and Broadway. Her day begins with a ballet class that all company dancers take to warm up ahead of a hectic day of rehearsals that usually lasts until 7:00 pm. “ I always try to get to the dance studio before the 10:15 am ballet class begins so I can concentrate and prepare my body for the long day ahead”, Reyes said.
Perhaps it is her discipline and the way she takes care of her body (she is a fan of traditional Chinese medicine) that has kept her at the top of her game, even though she is not considered a young ballerina anymore. In ballet, like professional sports, getting to one’s late thirties means getting closer to the end of one’s career. But Reyes is not worried at all about the time constraints of ballet dancing. “A lot of dancers decide to retire when they are 40 years old”, Reyes said. “Right now, I don’t even think about retiring because I feel great”. “ I always listen to my body, and I will only stop when I feel I can’t do it anymore”.
She is also not in a hurry when it comes to having kids. “I’m enjoying my career very much”, she said. “I know a lot of people say my time to have kids is going to pass, but I don’t feel like I have to give my career up because of that”.
Reyes, who is 5-foot- 3- inches, is a petite ballerina. She has medium length dark hair that she puts in a bun when dancing. Her bright brown eyes and sweet smile are pleasant to look at standing still, but it is when she moves that one can view her true beauty. If you didn’t know she was in her thirties, you could easily mistake her for a teenager. “I’m young at heart, and that’s what I think keeps me looking and feeling young” she said.
Getting the nod as principal dancer took Reyes years of training and hard work. She also thinks good luck played a role. “There are many dancers out there that are very talented, perhaps more talented than me”. “I’ve been very lucky in life,” she said with a smile. “Many doors have opened for me, but I’ve also been able to walk through them with no fear”, she added.
Reyes, born in Havana, started training professionally when she was nine years old with the Cuban National Ballet School. She says that becoming a ballerina was not something she really had in mind, even though she was exposed to dance from a very young age. “I wanted to be an actress or a TV personality instead”, she said. The rigorous training of classical ballet kept her from fully embracing ballet at first. “What attracted me the most to dance was the possibility to create and play characters”, she said. This hasn’t changed; Reyes continues to prefer ballets that have a story to tell. Although she was not able to pick one, she listed “Manon, Romeo and Juliet and Giselle”, ballets that require serious acting skills on the dancer’s part, as her top favorites.
After graduating from ballet school in Cuba, Reyes joined La Joven Guardia as a soloist. This is the second company of Cuba’s National Ballet, where most young Cuban dancers start their careers in that country. After two years performing important roles of the classical ballet repertoire, Reyes received an invitation from the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium. She left Cuba with a work visa in 1994 to join the company as a soloist.
Reyes describes her seven years with the European company as “a period of personal and professional growth”. “It was an interesting experience because I had to get used to a different work style, very different to the one I was used to with the Cuban National Ballet,” she said. She also explained that living in Europe “wasn’t easy at first, but it was an enriching experience”.
Her first culture shock came one day when she and a friend ordered a tea at a Belgium café. “In Cuba when you ask for a tea, they bring you a cup with the tea already brewed”, she explained. “When I ordered a tea in Belgium, they brought me a cup of hot water and the tea bag on the side”. “I’ve never seen tea like this”, she said to her friend. “It looks just like water”. She laughed as she recounted this incident, one of many that she would encounter, and one of many that would make form her experience as an internationally recognized dancer.
Embracing other cultures languages and lifestyles is something Reyes has done more than once. First, when she moved from Cuba to Belgium and later, when she moved from Belgium to New York City. “I love getting to know different cultures,” she said. “It enriches you as a person to live in and adapt to other cultures”.
“I have my dream job now”; she said of her principal dancer position with ABT. “Since I was studying ballet in Cuba, I had a special attraction for that company”. American Ballet Theatre was home to ballet stars like Alicia Alonso, prima ballerina assoluta (the highest honor in dance) and founder of the Cuban National Ballet. “The fact that Alicia and other stars that I admired from a young age were part of this company made that desire to be part of this dance troupe even more magical for me”, she said.
In 2001, while she was dancing for The Royal Ballet of Flanders, Reyes sent an audition tape to the New York City based dance company. To her surprise, an invitation to perform with ABT arrived a few days later. “I was offered a soloist contract right after that performance and just like that, my dream came true”. After only two years with ABT, Reyes was promoted to principal dancer. This makes her the second Cuban ballerina (Alicia Alonso was the first) to become principal dancer of the prestigious ballet company.
Xio, what friends call Reyes, has been married for six years. She met her husband, Rinat Imaev, while dancing with the Royal Ballet of Flanders. “He was a principal dancer with the company and was my partner for many years” she explained.
When Imaev joined us at the café, Reyes’s face instantly lit up. “What do you have over there?” she asked him. He had some shopping bags from Reyes’ favorite store, Desigual. “I got something for you”, he said. Reyes’ face was like that of a child receiving a gift on Christmas day.
Imaev does not dance anymore, but he continues to support Reyes and is very involved in every aspect of her career. “I teach company classes at ABT, so she takes classes from me” he said smiling. Imaev, originally from Russia, recently coached Reyes and her partner, Rolando Sarabia, for their performances at the International Ballet Star Gala in Taipei. “He is always there for me”, she said about her husband.
ABT occupies the third floor of 890 Broadway, which is home to other dance companies such as Eliot Feld’s Ballet and Gina Gibney Dance. Three weeks after our initial conversation, I entered the building, took the operator-controlled elevators to the third floor and met with Reyes once again. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and she was wearing a navy blue leotard, matching tights and a pink tulle skirt. “Rehearsal starts soon” she said. Reyes kindly invited me to watch her rehearse Giselle with her partner of eight years, Herman Cornejo. “This is my favorite ballet we dance together”, Cornejo said. She shook her head in agreement. Reyes and Cornejo have been good friends for a long time. “I loved dancing with Xio”, he said. “She is a beautiful ballerina”.
Cornejo and Reyes have great chemistry. Every movement they executed together looked graceful and effortless. Cornejo lifted Reyes with such ease, she looked as light as a feather. A few times, they stopped dancing and talked about certain steps that needed more practice.“ I think is better when you lift me with your arms fully extended” she said to him one time he lifted her up above his head. They communicated well with each other and even used what seemed to be their own version of sign language to refer to specific steps of the choreography.
In November of 2010, Reyes returned to Cuba for the first time in 18 years to participate in the 22nd Havana International Ballet Festival. It was American Ballet Theater’s first time performing in Havana since 1960. “Going back to Cuba was great”, Reyes said. “I never felt like I needed to go back, but once there I couldn’t understand how I was able to be away for so many years”, she added.
In Cuba, Reyes performed Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas with Cornejo. Ratmansky, who is ABT’s head choreographer, created Reyes’ role with her and her partner in mind. In reviewing the performance, the New York Times noted, “Ms. Reyes and Mr. Cornejo rely on their innate playfulness in a duet that emphasizes their strengths — her whiplash turns and his ability to soar — yet Mr. Ratmansky pushes them beyond their comfort zone with darting changes of direction”.
Getting to choreograph is one of Reyes’ plans after she retires from dancing. “I’ve been taking choreography classes from a Julliard dance teacher ” she said. “I also plan to teach more”. Reyes has already had the opportunity to teach ballet classes at The Hakucho Ballet Academy, in Japan. “It is a pretty new thing for me but it is fun”, she said.
When she is not dancing (which is not very often), the Cuban ballerina likes to relax and spend time with her husband and friends. “When is nice out, I like to go to the park and enjoy nature. I also like to write, paint and listen to music”.
As I was getting ready to leave, Reyes invited me to attend one of her upcoming performances at the Met. ABT’s 2011-spring season opens May 16th with Reyes performing ballets such as Majisimo, Don Quixote and her all time favorite, Giselle. “It is going to be a great season,” she said.