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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jul. 18, 2018 10 months ago

Sarasota Cuban Ballet School intensive instructors preserve national legacy

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The four faculty members leading the 2018 summer intensive each bring something different to the same method.
by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment

There typically isn’t much laughter in a ballet class.

The beautiful dance form is known for requiring strict instruction and a ruthless pursuit of perfection. But in Luis Javier Fuentes Bermúdez de Castro’s class at the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School summer intensive, students can’t control their giggles. When a male student picks him up to demonstrate how a female dancer should be held, laughter fills the room as the instructor does his most graceful ballerina impression.

“People have forgotten how fun it is, ballet,” says Fuentes. “That’s my goal. Bring everybody to the class, teach them good technique,  but be fun. Enjoy what you do.”

The son of fellow intensive teacher Ana Julia Bermúdez is one of four faculty members instructing 80 students enrolled in the summer intensive. All the teachers come from a similar dance background, but each has his or her own personal connection to — and approach to teaching — the Cuban method.

THE CUBAN WAY

Cuba is home to the world’s largest ballet school, according to a November 2017 National Geographic article listing its student population as more than 3,000. Escuela de Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Havana and its company, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, were founded in 1948 by famed Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso. It soon became a springboard for the country’s most famous dancers.

Ana Julia Bermúdez, right, says the biggest difference between Cuban students and non-Cubans is her national school dancers are hand-picked and destined to become professionals. Courtesy photo

By the early 21st century, the Cuban style of ballet became a respected style recognized for its athleticism, passion and grace, with a foundation influenced by all the major schools of ballet: French, Italian and Russian.

The Cuban style emphasizes dancing with the entire body — a body that doesn’t have to fit the mold of tall and lean like the traditional European ballerina.

STUDENT BECOMES TEACHER

All the instructors agree that the country’s history of producing fine ballet is a point of cultural pride for Cubans — both male and female dancers are celebrated. Some are even recognized like celebrities in the street.

Sarasota Cuban Ballet School summer intensive guest instructor Sara Acevedo Rodriguez was one of the lucky few to be scouted for the renowned Cuban school at the age of 9. What followed was eight years of pre-professional training that led her to become a professional dancer with Ballet de Camagüey, a company based in the central Cuban city of the same name, Camagüey.

Luis Javier Fuentes Bermúdez de Castro leads a class at the SCBS intensive. In 2006, he moved to the U.S. to work as a ballet teacher at The Art of Classical Ballet School. Photo by Niki Kottmann

Acevedo left Ballet de Camagüey after 13 years, and in 1988, she began teaching at the Escuela Nacional de Ballet Alejo Carpentier in Havana. Now, she’s the chair of elementary ballet at the Escuela de Ballet Nacional.

“They’re the perfect age to mold,” she says of the 9- to 15-year-old students. “They will improve, but they need that foundation.”

Ana Julia Bermúdez also started at the age of 9, but at the Instituto Superior de Artes in Havana. After graduating with a gold mention in ballet, she also danced in the Camagüey company. 

Victor Gili Mendez has been commended by the Cuban Ministry of Culture, and in 2007 he received the Alejo Carpentier Medal from the Cuban State Council. Photo by Niki Kottmann

Faculty member Victor Gili Mendez says dance has always been a huge part of his life. He’s a graduate of the Escuela Nacional de Ballet who went on to become the principal male dancer of Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1999. Now, he’s the director of rehearsals at Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico in San Juan.

Bermúdez’s son, Luis Javier Fuentes Bermúdez de Castro, had a less traditional path to his ballet training and teaching. Because his mother taught at the national school, he says he felt the urge to rebel and focus instead on go-kart racing as a child. When his mother eventually enrolled him in the national ballet school because of its superior academic teachers to the public schools, he didn’t take school seriously.

But something changed in his third year — Fuentes fell in love with ballet. So much so that he ended up graduating with the best grades in his class. But there was one problem: he was too short (5 feet, 4 inches) to be a professional dancer at the national company, which has a minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 7 inches.

Sara Acevedo Rodriguez teaches an intermediate class at the SCBS summer intensive. Acevedo has trained hundreds of dancers who have gone on to win gold, silver, and bronze medals in competitions. Courtesy photo

“My experience was hard,” Fuentes says. “Imagine you’re the best in your group and somebody tells you you’re never going to dance because you’re small. What are you going to do? But if you learn from that, you can help people to be better every day.”

In 2013, after dancing as a principal with Prodanza Dance Company in Havana and performing occasional roles with the national company, he decided to become an instructor. Today, he’s a master teacher working on opening a ballet school with his wife in Fort Lauderdale.

PRESERVING A LEGACY

This summer is Acevedo’s first time at the Sarasota school, where she was invited to teach students of varying ages and levels.

The instructor says  she respects Sarasota Cuban Ballet School Co-Founder Ariel Serrano’s standardized way of teaching and running his school. Serrano is a former member of the national company, and Acevedo appreciates his commitment to preserving the Cuban method by teaching it to students from around the world.

Instructor Luis Javier Fuentes Bermúdez de Castro previously danced for Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Prodanza Dance Company and Joburg Ballet. Photo by Niki Kottmann

Bermúdez is a master teacher at the national school where the method was founded, and now she pursues her passion for sharing the knowledge she gained from the method’s developers.

“The challenge is to get them (students) to where you want them to be,” she says of any intensive class that includes students from various dance backgrounds. “I have to bring everyone to the same place … talented students who don’t work hard and students who work very hard but don’t have the natural talent.”

When Faculty member Victor Gili Mendez was the principal male dancer of the Cuban national company, he performed both principal and soloist roles in famous pieces of classical ballet, from Giselle to Don Quixote. Courtesy photo

Gili says Caribbean dancers are fiery, and because the Cuban style is so geared toward powerful, athletic dancers, there are actually more famous male Cuban ballet dancers than female dancers.

The Cuban national school is among the top five in the world, he says, even though it’s one of the newest — about 70 years old. That’s also despite originating in a country of limited resources and lower-quality equipment. 

“(Cubans have) less budget but more power,” Gili says with a laugh.

MAKING IT PERSONAL

One thing all four faculty members have in common is a hands-on approach to instruction fairly typical for the Cuban method.

Gili says ballet is all about sensations.

Instructor Luis Javier Fuentes Bermúdez de Castro is also part of the staff at Nuvo and Radix Dance Convention and teaches classical ballet for gymnastics and other disciplines. Photo by Niki Kottmann

“How can my students feel those sensations unless I’m showing them exactly how to do it with demonstrations and corrections?” he says.

Fuentes’s passion for teaching radiates off him with every adjustment of a student’s arm placement, jump demonstration or other correction.  He delivers his directions in an upbeat, energized voice that keeps the students encouraged.

“Look how beautiful you are!” he yells during a combination, clapping to show  approval.

Fuentes says his hard road to becoming a professional ballet dancer is what gave him the skills to teach effectively. He knows what it’s like to be beaten down by teachers, he says, so he takes the time to show his students he believes in their abilities.

“I know how to talk to the kids,” he says. “Some of them can’t do more than six pirouettes ... but you need to make them feel that they can do it.”

I'm the Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment here, which means I write, edit and share stories about our multifaceted A&E scene in Sarasota. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism and a French minor. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 356

See All Articles by Niki

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