The music world’s loss was the ballet world’s gain when a young Cervilio Miguel Amador began studying dance instead of saxophone in his native Cuba.
These days the popular principal dancer with Cincinnati Ballet (he joined the company in July of 2004) brings his joyful Cuban sensibility and superb classical training to roles such as a swashbuckling Sinbad, the Nutcracker Prince, and Peter Pan. He originates memorable roles in works like Adam Hougland’s powerful Mozart’s Requiem, in which he portrayed a tormented soul frantically trying to outrun the inevitability of death. He is scheduled to appear in this spring’s world premiere Infamous Love Songs, set to the music of pop duo Over the Rhine.
I talked with him Wednesday evening by phone just as he was leaving rehearsal for Victoria Morgan’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (opening this Friday at The Aronoff Center).
I wanted to know more about how he was introduced to ballet in Cuba, his role as Puck (he is reprising the character from 2005’s premiere of the work) and the production itself, which strives to enhance the ballet’s storytelling with new choreography and the innovative addition of dramatic onstage readings.
I was also curious about his take on the recent brouhaha brought on by the epilogue to Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, in which she reluctantly admits she thinks ballet is dying in today’s world.
Below are questions I asked, and his answers, some of which have been slightly edited and reordered.
How did you start dancing?
In Cuba, I discovered ballet through my older sisters, who were attending a local arts school and studying instrumental music.
I wanted to be in this school. It was the best school! But I needed to do something. To be part of this school, you had to be in the orchestra and play an instrument, or be a painter or dancer.
And I really wanted to be in this school, because it was one of the best schools in my town and also my sisters were there. So – I needed to do something related to art. I decided I wanted to play saxophone. And that’s what I tried for, but . . . my sister told me ‘well, why don’t you try for ballet, too, you have a good body,’ because I was on the swimming team and I already had some muscle development. She thought I could be really good, but I said that I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer – ‘That’s not for me.’
It was decided that I would try both and see how it went, and I agreed.
Actually, I was able to enter with either dance or music, but my score for ballet was much higher. So, my parents decided I should do what I was naturally better at. They decided for me – they told me I didn’t pass the test for saxophone, so if I wanted to be in the school they said I had to take ballet.
They did kind of lie to me. Because if they had given me the option, I would have taken saxophone! But you know, both of my parents were teachers, and they wanted their kids to do what they were naturally good at. They knew the teachers at the school, who were on the same page, and they needed guys.
I entered the school at nine years old. I actually loved it from the very beginning. There were like 25 girls and only 4 boys. It was so much fun, and it was so much exercise. When I was a kid, I always needed to be playing something. And I was always telling my mom ‘I’m so bored. I’m so bored.’ and this way I was always doing ballet and I was so tired, I would get home and just want to go to bed!
And my mom loved it! I didn’t tell my friends I was a ballet dancer until three or four years later. I kept telling my friends in the neighborhood I was a saxophone player. A couple of years later, I told them. By then, I was proud of it.
So, that was how I started ballet!
Where is your saxophone today?
Well, actually I had wanted to play saxophone, but I have never had a saxophone to play! I guess for me as a kid that was what I thought was cool! But I have to admit, I never did anything about it.
Were your parents happy that you were in the arts?
Yes. Because, also in this school, you were able to do both. Academics and arts. If I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer, I would still be able to go to university and be whatever else I wanted to be. In the school, you had five years where you could go either way – art or academics. Then you have three years, with emphasis on ballet. And you then have an audition to get into the National Ballet of Cuba when you are 18 (which I did). And that’s how it worked.
In October, 2003 you defected to the United States while you were on tour. Can you explain more?
Well, I was with the National Ballet of Cuba for two years. And during those years I was able to travel all around the world. I got to see all the companies and all the places.
And the life that I saw was better than the life in Cuba. Also, the problem with the Cuban ballet is that it’s only a classical company. I love classical, but I didn’t want to be stuck in doing classical all my career. And there is only one Cuban company. So I wasn’t able to change inside my country. I needed to outside Cuba for what I wanted.
The thing is Cuba did not allow me to be part of the company and go and work for another company for a year and come back. I would have loved to do that. You had to stay or leave.
I wanted freedom. I wanted to be able to choose what I wanted to dance, and who I danced for. You know there are many problems in Cuba with Communism, how things are run. But, in my case, I was young, so I was just really looking for all that freedom and to take my career in any direction that I wanted.
Didn’t your parents come recently to visit?
Yes, they did. It took me five years to be able to go back to Cuba. I saw them, then. That was incredible. It took them seven years to come and see me here in Cincinnati, to show them the company I dance for, and see me dance for the first time.
This was one of the biggest things to happen after I left Cuba. My parents had lived all their lives in Cuba. So that’s all they knew – Cuba. They had never been outside. I’m very, very, very thankful. It [was wonderful] for me to be able to bring them here and show them what I was doing.
How is this weekend’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream different from the original version? The three interlocking plots and all the different characters are a lot to keep track of.
I think it’s really different. Victoria has re-choreographed a lot of scenes from the previous version. She has made it more animated. It’s really gonna be new in that way.
Also, what she has done with the actors – I think it is great. It gives the audience another idea of what is going on besides us [the dancers] telling the story. I think for some people it is really hard to figure out the plot. But, this time, if you follow the lines, and then you follow our dancing and our pantomime, you can have a really good understanding of what is going on. On top of that, the actors that are working with us are great.
It’s been really fun, it’s something really new.
How are the dramatic readings put in?
They are integrated through the whole ballet. Sometimes there is no music, and they are just talking and dancers on the stage are doing pantomime to what they are saying. Other times, they do talk over the music. Everything they say is from Shakespeare’s play.
I can tell you that the directors, the ballet masters and Carmon [DeLeone, the CB music director] are doing a great, great job. It’s extremely hard to pull all this together – such as when the music or voices come in or out, and for how long.
The actors have to be with us, the dancers, in the pantomime and we have to try to hear them and try to act at the same time they are talking. You know, all these things are really hard.
Do you feel that two different performances are side by side? Is your attention taken away from your performance? Do you have to concentrate extra hard on dancing?
No, for the dancer, everything becomes a dance. Everything becomes dancing at the end. It’s not divided – we as dancers don’t feel like that. But it is much harder this time.
Like I said, Victoria has re-choreographed everything and made it harder. And there are last minute changes. Just tonight, I had a new line for my role as Puck.
That’s how it is – you always have to be paying attention and knowing what you are doing. And she’s hard to please. When she’s in the room, she expects the best out of you.
pictured above: CityBeat dance writer Julie Mullins and Cervilio.
Do you feel that dance is in decline? In the epilogue of her ballet history Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans has said (reluctantly) that she thinks ballet is dying.
I don’t think that ballet will ever die. I think that ballet is underestimated. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is, and a lot of people don’t give it as much credit as we deserve. But at the same time, I know there are many people in this world that will never let ballet die. Never. It won’t happen.
Honestly, the struggle is more here in America. I mean – in Cuba, dancers were like gods – really, we were treated like gods. And when we toured all over Europe, it was the same thing. Here sometimes you say you are a ballet dancer and they say “But what do you do for a living?” And you get so frustrated, you are like no, no. I mean – what do you say to that?
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