Cuban defectors take different paths to the same performance stage.
It would be easy to call Ariel Serrano and Francois Llorente family.
Both are Cuban natives. Both are skilled ballet dancers. Both possess the gregarious charm typical of a performer. They are focused perfectionists.
Serrano, co-founder of Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, and Llorente, a student, have the same furrowed expression as they work to perfect Llorente’s form — a miniscule movement of the elbow here, a minute pause there.
Their bond — not familial — is one of a shared story — a story of dance and defection.
For Cuba’s male ballet dancers, their art is infectious.
Llorente caught the bug while accompanying his father, a stained glass artist, on a job to the home of Carlos Acosta, a fellow dancer and friend of Serrano.
Acosta and Serrano represent the last of a generation of male Cuban dancers training in the 1980s. They were plagued by the assumption that dance, ballet in particular, is a female endeavor.
“In my time, I’m telling you, I fought every single day ...” Serrano says. “I lied to my friends. I never said I was in a ballet school. I couldn’t say I was in a ballet school ... That’s a fight!”
Although the sentiment was pervasive in that era, it was compounded for Serrano, who grew up in the more conservative city of Santiago de Cuba on the east end of the island.
Llorente benefited from a more open ideology in a more enlightened era. He began dancing in Havana’s workshops at 12 years old, “and that was when I started all that,” Llorente says.
By “all that,” Llorente means earning a degree from the National Cuban Ballet School, the most prestigious ballet school in Cuba, and going on to dance in the National Cuban Ballet company.
At 21, he already boasts soloist roles in classic productions like “Swan Lake” and “Don Quixote.”
Llorente defected from Cuba in November 2016, mere months before President Obama rescinded the “wet feet, dry feet” policy that offered Cuban nationals who made it to America a path to citizenship.
“You are the lucky one,” Serrano says. He laughs and waves his finger at Llorente. “The luckiest one!”
His timing seems perfect, but had it been up to Llorente, he would have defected nearly three years earlier.
He came to Sarasota in 2014 for Serrano’s first summer intensive program at the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, but he didn’t stay.
Serrano defected in the early 1990s through Mexico, where he and his wife were principal dancers in the Ballet de Monterrey.
But for Cuban dancers, ambition carries with it a choice — to abandon one’s home in pursuit of an international career.
Serrano made his choice.
He, along with his wife and three other Cuban dancers, landed in Miami, where news accounts characterized the group as a cadre of brave defectors, forsaking their homeland for freedom.
“I had to play that,” says Serrano. “I did come to the freedom. But I came for that because this was the land of opportunity.”
But opportunity didn’t come easy to Serrano.
“It was hard at the beginning ... We certainly left the family back, we left the career we already had in Mexico,” Serrano says. “To come here and not know what was going to happen, it was ugly.”
But their fortunes changed.
After seeing Serrano perform in Boca Raton, Sarasota Ballet founder Jean Weidner Goldstein offered him a contract with the company.
“Sarasota really saved us,” Serrano says.
Serrano’s story has a happy ending. He has lived in Sarasota for more than 20 years and opened the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in 2013, but his story isn’t without loss. His mother, grandmother and father died while Serrano was in the United States.
“I told (Llorente) don’t do it … I did it too soon,” Serrano says. “I should have stayed longer. Enjoy your family, finish your school, dance in your company, build your reputation.”
So in 2014, Llorente went home.
For two-and-a-half years, he kept going home, until he, too, found himself at the intersection of his ambition and his country.
Llorente’s decision to leave Cuba rested on eight words.
“I’m from Cuba,” he said to an airport official after landing in Miami. “I want to live here.”
The official took him to a room where he waited for three hours until he was handed a card that served as his temporary residency papers.
The process may have been simple, but it was not easy. With those eight words, Llorente left behind his family, his friends and his career, just as Serrano did decades before.
“You leave a lot behind you, but you have to do it to change your life.” -Francois Llorente
“It was so hard to say that,” Llorente says.
But Llorente had a place waiting for him.
“I miss my family, but I am already with another new family,” he says. “For me, the big challenge is to keep working hard. I am really thankful for (Serrano), because he told me what to do the first time.”
Serrano is usually in the business of making dancers, but he says Llorente doesn’t need to be made. The next challenge is to find him a company.
“As soon as he gets (the) opportunity, he is going to go,” Serrano said.
While Llorente searches for a permanent company, he continues to work with Serrano, perfecting his technique.
The pair represents the end of an era — Serrano, a product of a more restrictive communist Cuba, and Llorente, born in an era of increased education, among the last of Cuba’s defectors.
He won’t suffer the isolation Serrano endured during his earlier years in the U.S. He expects to get his formal residency papers in November, after which, he will be able to visit his home country as he chooses.
Still, the decision to leave your life is never easy, but for those like Serrano and Llorente, driven by their art, the choice is clear.
“You leave a lot behind you,” says Llorente. “But you have to do it to change your life.”