This Dancer Defected from Cuba and Relaunched Her Career in the U.S.
Lisset Santander is adding more contemporary works to her repertoire. Here with Jarrett Reimers in Christopher Wheeldon's Fools Paradise. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.
Santander captivated as Myrtha with her steely grace. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.
Hometown: Matanzas, Cuba
Training: Alfonso Perez Isaac elementary and Cuban National Ballet School
Accolades: 2011 International Ballet Competition in Havana, Cuba (silver), 2011 Mediterraneo Dance Festival in Italy (Best Classical Variation award)
Family business: At a young age, Santander wanted to follow in the footsteps of her stepfather. "When I was little, watching him in his company, Danza Espiral, I wanted to be a contemporary dancer. But after I saw ballet I changed my mind."
Then and now: "Her body is beyond proportioned for ballet," says BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang. "She has beautifully arched feet, high extensions and is strong." But the long-limbed, 5' 8" Santander says her facility wasn't always that way. "I was really bad when I was 10 or 11," she says. "I wasn't flexible and couldn't point my feet."
Defection: During two years in the corps of Cuban National Ballet, Santander found its strictly classical repertoire, low wages and the fact that she wasn't dancing much with the company depressing. This led her, along with eight others, to defect to the U.S. in 2014 during a tour to Puerto Rico. "The company knows it is going to happen on every tour, but they don't like to talk about it," she says.
"She's humble, hungry for artistry and
really wants to dance—I love that."
New home: Santander lived in Miami with family for eight months while waiting for the necessary paperwork and green card to audition for ballet companies. She took class at area studios, freelanced and also met her husband, a non-dancer and fellow Cuban émigré.
Adjustment period: Honed as a textbook classical ballerina, Santander says that BalletMet's contemporary rep, such as Liang's Murmuration and Gustavo Ramírez Sansano's 18+1, challenged her the most when she joined. "I thought, It's so cool, but how am I going to move like that?"
More to come: Heading into next season, Liang feels that she has the skill and sensitivity required to expand her repertoire and perform more leading roles. "Her trajectory can be massive."
James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?