Cuban Ballet Dancers Circulate Grievance

November 25, 2013 | Print Print |

Letter to Alicia Alonso during Cuban National Ballet’s tour in Spain

Shakespeare and His Masks, staged by Cuba’s National Ballet Company

Shakespeare and His Masks, staged by Cuba’s National Ballet Company

By Ivette Leyva Martinez (Café Fuerte)

HAVANA TIMES — Members of Cuba’s National Ballet Company (BNC) – currently on tour in Spain – have approached director Alicia Alonso with an urgent petition calling for improvements in work conditions and denouncing favoritism and irregularities in the handling of the company’s budget.

An email sent by BNC members to numerous officials at Cuba’s Ministry of Culture describes the poor living conditions dancers endure during performances abroad, demands raises in salary and denounces the privileges enjoyed by the company manager Oscar Perez.

The letter, dated November 18, was prompted by Perez’ decision to withhold a bonus for the dancers on tour and was also addressed to the company’s Human Resources Department.

This week, the text of the letter, forwarded via email, began to circulate around Cuba’s cultural sphere.

No Cut of the Profits

“In a threatening and far from humble tone, [Perez] told us that ‘no one will get any gifts, so stop asking’, as though the money belonged to him and we were not entitled to a cut of the profits made by the company, like the 26,000 euros paid for the Cadiz performance, for instance,” the message reads.

The “gifts” the dancers refer to consists in around 50 euros for each performer, to be paid at the end of the tour, in dependence of the earnings.

“What huge damage could it cause the company to destine 4 or 5 thousand euros to give us a tiny gift, after a three-month tour, where we made our country and, most importantly, our company proud, and without the most ideal working conditions?” the authors add.

A source who worked with the dancers in Spain confirmed the authenticity of the message and said the young performers simply got fed up of waiting for work conditions to improve.

“They used a group strategy. Since no one wants to be the one who rocks the boat, fearing they will be expelled from the company, they did it together. The management has neglected the main performers in the company for many years,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

A Long Tour

The letter also reports that Perez’ wife traveled as a member of the company. According to information obtained by CafeFuerte, Mrs. Perez was in Spain from September 7 to October 28, when she returned to Havana.

Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet

Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet

“Does anyone ever hear that Oscar [Perez] has bought something at the “souvenir shop”? No, no. But you will certainly see him or his wife shopping at luxury malls, going to boutiques like Fossil, Zara, Massimo Dutti and others, stores where 98% of the company has never even set foot in,” the message adds.

The BNC’s Spain tour began on September 7 and will come to an end on December 2, when the company is scheduled to return to Cuba. The performances include Swan Lake, Coppelia and Giselle (the Alicia Alonso versions), as well as Shakespeare and His Masks.

The dancers have performed in Barcelona, Madrid, Alicante, Granada, Murcia, Seville, San Cugat, Pamplona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Albacete, Valladolid. They are scheduled to perform at the Niemeyer Center in Aviles this coming Friday.

The main dancers on tour are Anette Delgado, Viengsay Valdés, Yanela Piñera, Dani Hernandez, Jose Lozada, Arian Molina, Camilo Ramos, Victor Estevez, Grettel Morejon and Jessie Dominguez.

Eating, Shopping and Saving

“Alicia, we have had to dance under conditions you can’t even imagine. We’ve had 14-hour trips in horribly uncomfortable buses and God knows we eat terribly, because the 30 euros we get a day do not remotely give us enough to eat, shop and save up a bit, things we have to do because, as you know, life in Cuba is not free,” the letter reads.

The 92-year-old Alonso was on an international tour, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of her debut in Giselle with the American Ballet Theater Company in New York on November 2, 1943. She returned to Havana this past November 10.

Desertions by BNC dancers are ever more frequent. In May, seven company members crossed the Mexican border to request asylum in the United States. The dancers immediately joined ballet companies in Florida.

The promising young dancer Osiel Gouneo also (though more discretely) left the company while on tour and is today a member of Norway’s National Ballet company, as are his fellow dancers Yolanda Correa and Yoel Carreño. An additional five dancers left the company while on tour in Canada in 2011.

 

TEXT OF THE LETTER BY CUBAN BALLET DANCERS TO ALICIA ALONSO

Dear Alicia,

Our respectable director, the authors of this letter are members of Cuba’s ballet company. We apologize for choosing to remain anonymous. Common sense and the need to maintain the benefits that the tours afford us have forced us to conceal our identities.

We won’t make this letter long or tedious. We will go straight to the point and try to be concise.

We write you this letter and take up your time this way because, since the beginning of our meetings in Havana, Mr. Oscar Perez has been telling us he will not give us the “gift” which dancers have been receiving in recent tours, which we both want and need.

Alicia, all of the members of the company on tour in Spain almost unanimously beg you to intervene and convince Oscar Perez to agree to give us the “gift.”

You should know that we have had to grin and bear how Mr. Oscar Perez, with all the nerve and arrogance in the world, boasts of how his wife (the prima donna, we call her) is taking part in tour. I hope he doesn’t think anyone buys the story that she was invited by so-and-so and all that business.

We would be interested in knowing how many times you’ve heard Mr. Perez talk about what he cooks in his hotel room to be able to save some money, as most of the dancers on tour do. We can assure you that he has NEVER done this, and that he does not return to Cuba penniless, no, no. We can also assure you that Solano [businessman] and Mayda [Bustamante, former BNC official who has been residing in Spain since 1992], are not exactly the most generous people in the world and that they do not pay for all his lunches and dinners.

Does anyone ever hear that Oscar [Perez] has bought something at the “souvenir shop”? No, no. But you will certainly see him or his wife shopping at luxury malls, going to boutiques like Fossil, Zara, Massimo Dutti and others, stores where 98 % of the company has never even set foot in

Nor are you aware that, in a threatening and far from humble tone, [Perez] told us that ‘no one will get any gifts, so stop asking’, as though the money belonged to him and we were not entitled to a cut of the profits made by the company, like the 26,000 euros paid for the Cadiz performance, for instance, or the huge earnings made from ticket sales in Sevilla and many other places.”

We won’t overwhelm you with more details.

Alicia, we have had to dance under conditions you can’t even imagine. We’ve had 14-hour trips in horribly uncomfortable buses and God knows we eat terribly, because the 30 euros we get a day do not remotely give us enough to eat, shop and save up a bit, things we have to do because, as you know, life in Cuba is not free.

We do not know and do not care about the large sums of money that anyone with a bit of brains knows our “great” manager earns – let everyone fend for themselves as they can. But, Alicia, we ask you, what huge damage could it cause the company to destine 4 or 5 thousand euros to give us a tiny gift, after a three-month tour, where we made our country and, most importantly, our company proud, and without the most ideal working conditions?

We hope you will not disapprove of this letter. We have tried to avoid taking this step, but, believe us, we very much need this more than deserved “gift.”

We apologize for bothering you with this and have full confidence you will help us in this matter.

The members of your company.


What's your opinion?

  • Moses Patterson

    The BNC prima ballerina, Viengsay Valdes, just got married to a Spanish businessman who lives in Havana. It is rumored that she may move to Spain and still retain her top job with the BNC. For obvious reasons, she has been a mouthpiece for everything that is wonderful with the Castro regime for many years. Her father was Cuba’s first ambassador to Vietnam. It will be interesting to see how she responds to this letter, if at all. Will she side with management and cover her butt or will she stand with her lesser-ranked colleagues and fellow dancers?

    • Vince Clortho

      You are spreading rumours without basis or knowledge.

      Viengsay will never leave Cuba nor is she a mouthpiece for the Castro regime. She is a hard working dancer who achieved success through her own hard work. There have been many, many, many opportunities and offers for her to leave Cuba and she has declined them all. The primary reason is that, despite its challenges, she loves her country and is fiercely proud of the BNC. If you speak to her privately, she will acknowledge that there are improvements that could be made within the company – as any employee would say of their own workplace. Publicly, she does not criticize her employer. This is the correct behaviour for anyone – especially a world-class talent like Viengsay.

      Why do you think she would respond to this letter? The letter was not address to her but to Alicia Alonso.

      It does the company no service for issues like this to be made public. Clearly there are problems within the company and they need to be addressed.

      • Moses Patterson

        On the contrary, this “rumor” comes from a very credible source that understandably wishes to remain unnamed. I am a huge fan of Sra. Valdes and I agree that her talent has put her among the top ten ballerinas in the world. She has had no reason to leave Cuba given her vaunted position and unrestricted access to travel abroad. Her history of giving voice to the regime’s propaganda while ignoring its many faults is a widespread defect among Cuba’s elite. They know all too well that one misspoken word can end a career or worse. I certainly don’t blame her anymore than I would blame anyone else living at the top of the Castro dung hill. I think that she should respond to the letter written to Alicia Alonso out of ‘solidarity’ with her fellow dancers. Isn’t that the bullsh*t word communists use in these situations. Oh wait, it doesn’t apply when you are talking about problems within the regime. Finally, your last comment sounds like what Edward Snowden’s bosses said when he went public with his comments. Once again, whistleblowing is only valid outside the revolution, is that what you mean?