“It’s very difficult for me to accept that a dancer spends the day working in a supermarket or wherever — and then later goes to dance two or three hours in the afternoon,” declares Cuban performer Nelson Reyes.
While dancers in Havana make an average of 600 Cuban pesos ($28.50) a month, their wage is equal to that of doctors. So when Reyes relocated here eight months ago to become a teacher and choreographer, and the principal dancer with Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, he was dismayed to discover that many local dancers weren’t able to support themselves through their art.
“I’m used to going to a dance studio at nine in the morning [and staying] until 3:30 in the afternoon, and dancing the whole time,” Reyes says.
“I very much admire the dancers here,” he adds.
Reyes, 28, is already well known in his native country, winning popular and critical attention for his choreography addressing the intersections between Cuba’s machismo and gay cultures. Reyes’ new works, including a take on “Swan Lake,” are but the latest assured steps in the dancer’s burgeoning career.
A native of the Holguin province in eastern Cuba, Reyes says he was always called to dance.
“When I was 12 years old, I wasn’t able to get into the art school [for dance] because I was too short,” he recalls. “I was dancing in my room, and my grandmother looked at me through the keyhole and said, ‘My grandson is going to dance.'”
Reyes’ grandmother took him back to the school, promised them her grandson would grow, and started him on a special diet that would help him reach the requisite height. He entered the seven-year program shortly thereafter, spending three years in his home province and four in Havana. There, he discovered his interest in choreography, and created his first piece at age 17.
Reyes returned to Holguin after completing the program to join Compania Danza, his first professional troupe. He says he was reluctant to go back home at first — he did so to meet Cuba’s two-year national-service requirement — but was able to find early success in Holguin nonetheless.
“Living in the province is very difficult for artists, but I was able to do a lot in that small town,” he admits. “The [Holguin] dance company is one of the three most recognized companies of dance in Cuba, and focuses on male dancers.” (Reyes is troubled by the paucity of local male dancers, who are common in Cuba: “It hurts me to not see male dancers [in Asheville],” he comments. “Something has to be done.”)
The director of the Holguin company was, says Reyes, “very intelligent, and knew how to … really recognize good dancers.”
As do Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre founders Susan and Giles Collard. During a visit to a dance festival in Cuba, they saw Reyes as just what they needed to enhance their company.
While Reyes didn’t want to come here at first, the choreographer was ultimately glad he chose to.
“It hasn’t been too difficult for me to adapt to this country,” Reyes says. “Asheville’s an incredible city.”
But he admits it’s been hard for local dancers to get used to him.
“In Cuba during rehearsals, I might just shout at someone to move because the primal energy is so high,” he explains. “In Asheville, I shouted at one of the dancers and she says that she felt blocked and wouldn’t be able to continue dancing.”
Dancers in the two countries, he ventures, bring different strengths to their work.
“In Cuba you’ll find passion, and a very strong technique,” he says. “Here you’ll find a very disciplined work ethic and a lot of cooperation.”
That culture clash will inform three pieces currently being shaped for local debut. Reyes will present “Largo Tempo” — an autobiographical dance that won raves in Havana last year — and two new pieces.
The first, “Swan Lake,” maintains the music of the classic ballet while adding a few unexpected characters. While Reyes holds back details so as not to destroy suspense, he reveals that the piece will include him as the principal swan, and a rugby football player as the prince.
“Two doctors are going to help a swan give birth on stage,” he adds helpfully.
The second piece, “X Motivo Para Ser Asi,” deals with the life of the machismo male in Cuba.
“He wants to have many women, and in the end he doesn’t have any,” Reyes explains. “He’s emotionally wrecked, and protected by his mother’s roof like a baby.”
Back in Holguin, Reyes first gained recognition with his personal piece “Pasajera la Lluvia” (“Passing Rain”).
“It [was] based on the gay life in Holguin,” he reveals. “It’s a very simple piece, a very subtle piece. It’s by no means a feminine piece, but very androgynous. It was a piece of choreography that marked a period in my life.”
Reyes admits he’s still waiting for the local dancer who can recreate “Passing Rain.”
“For me, choreography is very intimate, and I’m very passionate about it. It’s like giving birth. I want my children to be beautiful — blond hair and blue eyes,” he says with a laugh.