(Reuters) -- From a dilapidated Havana mansion run by a nearly blind legendary ballerina, Cuba is turning out some of the world's finest ballet dancers who are hotly sought by leading international companies.
Trained by 83-year-old ballet great Alicia Alonso at the National Ballet of Cuba, the dancers blend joyful Cuban sensuality and a superb classical training combining Russian, French and English techniques. The combination has stunned audiences and won them critical acclaim.
Their success reflects the remarkable development of an elitist art form in communist-run Cuba, an island of 11 million where defections have added to a drain of talent.
Carlos Acosta, a lead dancer with London's Royal Ballet, was named Britain's best dancer last season by ballet critics.
The 31-year-old, who rose from the streets of Havana to dance his own choreography on a London stage, has been acclaimed as a bridge between Nureyev and Baryshnikov for his technical virtuosity and raw athleticism.
Jose Manuel Carreno, a principal with the American Ballet Theater of New York, was called "a cross between a cat-like animal and a prince" by the company's director.
Several top U.S. companies have Cubans among their principal dancers. Lorna Feijoo and her husband Nelson Madrigal perform with the Boston Ballet and her sister Lorena Feijoo is with the San Francisco Ballet, where Cuban Jorge Esquivel is one of the ballet masters.
"We have something different. We were trained to be very virile and gallant," Carreno said on vacation in Havana.
Carreno won the 2004 Dance Magazine Award for contributions to ballet. The U.S. magazine praised his "incredible magnetism and astonishing technique" and said the 36-year-old was as "sensually passionate" as Nureyev.
He was the first Cuban to win the award since Alonso, Cuba's prima ballerina assoluta, did so in 1958.
Born to dance
One of ballet's greatest, Alonso danced in New York in the 1940s and virtually owned the role of Giselle at her prime. Despite failing eyesight due to detached retinas, she danced until she was almost 70.
With the support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro since 1959, Alonso and her former husband Fernando Alonso turned the national ballet of Cuba into a world-class company which she continues to direct, even though she does not see and has trouble walking.
"We Cubans were born to dance as a people, thanks to the mix of races, the Spanish and the African, both lovers of dance," she said. "Cuban dancers immediately stand out with their expressive way of performing the great classics or the moderns."
At a rehearsal of "Cinderella," a Cuban concoction based on Johann Strauss's score, dancers soared through the air practicing jumps on the linoleum of her company's dance studio on the top floor of a century-old mansion.
With her trademark scarf and dark glasses, Alonso directed the rehearsal from an arm-chair with the aid of an assistant who whispered in her ear.
"Comrades, to one side. I want to see the scene with the carriage and horses," she said to the company.
Last year, Alonso toured the United States with new dancers in her troupe and impressed audiences with an exuberant version of "Don Quixote" in New York and other cities. The lead roles were danced by Viengsay Valdes, 27, and Joel Carreno, Jose Manuel's brother, whom Dance Magazine called a "master premier dancer in the making."
The tour's brilliance was overshadowed by the defection of five lesser-known dancers. Two of them, Adiarys Almeida and Cervilio Miguel Amador, both 20, were taken up as soloists by the Cincinnati Ballet.
For Alonso, the defection of dancers who had received nine years of free training, was "painful."
But there is no shortage of up-and-coming dancers in Cuba, where children are hand-picked for free ballet training at an early age following the Soviet system and the National Ballet School turns out 40 professionals a year.
The opportunity to join foreign companies is a big incentive for members of the National Ballet of Cuba, where a top dancer's pay is about $50 a month.
Stars like Acosta and Carreno, who earns up to $10,000 for a one-night gala appearance, recognise their debt to Cuba. Most left legally and maintain ties to the homeland, returning to perform at the Havana Ballet Festival every two years.
"Classical training is very expensive in other countries. I come from a poor family and had the good fortune to go to ballet school in Cuba," said Carreno.
He started dancing at 10 and joined Alonso's company from high school. He will dance Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Milan's La Scala opera house with Alessandra Ferri in January.
"Everywhere you go you will find a Cuban doing something well on stage," said 18-year-old Canadian dancer Carolyn Rose Ramsay from Vancouver auditioning to join the National Ballet of Cuba for a year to boost her resume.
"Cuban ballet is so good. All the Cubans who are going out into the world have strength and vitality."
Please note that we do NOT sell tickets to the ballet in Cuba.