The American Dream

April 30, 2015

Many U.S. dancers dream of dancing abroad—of spending time experiencing cities and companies that, to us, seem “exotic.” But at the same time, dancers from around the world fantasize about joining our hometown troupes. What is it that draws them here?

photo by Lucas Chilczuk for DanceMedia LLC

Mayara Pineiro

Corps de ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet

Originally from Havana, Cuba

Growing up at Cuba’s National Ballet School, Mayara Pineiro knew very little about the ballet scene in America. She’d heard about Cuban dancers joining top U.S. companies, but mainly, she dreamed of leaving Cuba. Her family was very poor—her single mother struggled to support Pineiro and her siblings. Pineiro, who had the opportunity to travel abroad to dance at festivals and competitions, saw a different future for herself.

In 2009, when her school left for a Canadian tour, Pineiro decided she would not return. “I always wanted to be in the U.S. and to dance here,” she says, “but I didn’t expect anything.” Just before her tour group left for the airport in Niagara Falls, she excused herself to go to the bathroom. There, she recorded a video message for her mother, before leaving her luggage and everything she owned and crossing the bridge into the U.S. side of the city.

Although American law offers asylum to all Cuban citizens as soon as they set foot on American soil, Pineiro was still a minor—which meant she could not defect, and could not claim asylum, without a parent’s permission. The stakes were high: In Cuba, defecting is a serious offense, and those who do, or who try unsuccessfully, are severely looked down upon socially and may have a hard time finding employment. For 17 days, Pineiro waited at a detention center until her mother could send a recorded video message offering her permission.

Finally, with immigration papers in hand, Pineiro made her way to Orlando, where an uncle lived. “I surprised him—he didn’t know anything,” she says. “I called him and said, ‘I’m here! I need your help.’ ” He gladly took her in, but the first six months were tough. “I believed I wasn’t going to dance again, because I couldn’t afford it,” she says. Just when she had nearly given up, the Ballet Academy of Central Florida and the Art of Classical Ballet in Pompano Beach offered her free training, helping her to get back in shape and audition for companies.

From there, her career became a decidedly international one. Pineiro’s first contract came from National Opera of Bucharest, in Romania, where she expanded her classical roots. The next year, she was a guest artist with Balletto del Sud, in Italy, and got a feel for touring with a small company. But she wanted to be closer to her family in Florida, so she joined Milwaukee Ballet for two years before Angel Corella invited her to join Pennsylvania Ballet last fall.

Pineiro’s career has given her a taste of the differences in dance culture from one country to the next. For instance, she performed The Nutcracker in March in Romania, where the ballet has no holiday connections. She says that in no country has she spent as much time on technique as was the norm in Cuba, where the training is thoroughly classical. But she appreciates U.S. companies’ benefits, like health insurance and the abundance of pointe shoes available—in Romania she needed to make two pairs last a whole season (Gaynor Mindens were required).

However, her strongest impression is of the similarities that she finds. “Wherever you go, you’re in the studio working every day,” she says. Ballet’s steps, and much of the choreography, are the same. “And it’s the same thing, to perform.”

Now that she’s back in the States, she plans to stay. “I feel a freedom here, you know?” she says. “I’m so happy in this company—Angel Corella brings amazing positive energy into the studio every day.” Pineiro loves the openness and friendliness, as well as the international nature of the company. “There are people from all over the world,” she says, “so we translate and learn from each other—we’re like a team.”


photo by Lucas Chilczuk for DanceMedia LLC


Mai Aihara

Corps de ballet, American Ballet Theatre

Originally from Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

Growing up in Japan, Mai Aihara set her sights early on American Ballet Theatre. She’d seen photos of the dancers and watched videos of performances, and, to her, ABT was the pinnacle. But it wasn’t until her first visit to New York City at 15 for Youth America Grand Prix that she got a taste of the U.S. dance scene. “Everything was so vibrant and exciting,” she says. She remembers being impressed by the enthusiasm of the audience cheering for contestants, which was very different from the quieter audiences she was used to in Japan.

After placing as a semifinalist at the 2010 Prix de Lausanne, she moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to study at the John Cranko Schule. She was shocked by how much taller and longer-limbed the dancers were. The stages in Europe also seemed so vast—as a petite dancer, she wondered if her own lines would be long and clean enough. Nonetheless, she got her professional start as an apprentice at Dresden Semperoper Ballet, where she was able to meet and dance the work of luminaries like Jirí Kylián. And she learned how to “move big,” eventually coming to terms with her own smaller frame.

Yet she still dreamed of dancing more classical ballets, and in the spring of 2013 she landed an audition—and a corps contract—at ABT. Even though her days are longer than they were in Germany, she still can’t get over dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House. “When I was a child I could only see it in magazines. I am very honored to stand on this stage,” she says. “It’s like a dream.”

photo by Lucas Chilczuk for DanceMedia LLC

Stuart Shugg

Dancer with Trisha Brown Dance Company

Originally from Red Cliffs, Australia

As a student at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Stuart Shugg found that there was an intangible quality about some teachers and choreographers that attracted him. “I remember going to performances and wondering what it was,” he says. “There was a certain use of weight, gravity and momentum in their bodies.” He eventually realized they all had one thing in common: They were from New York City.

In 2010, while on tour in New York, Shugg met Carolyn Lucas, associate artistic director of Trisha Brown Dance Company (at that time Brown’s choreographic assistant). He’d been a fan of Trisha Brown from his first glimpse: “Her work just made sense to me,” he says. “There’s a very shrewd, undeniable fact that the body is dealing with gravity all the time, and there’s kind of a truth, a physics.” Shugg soon returned to New York to hang out with the company for three months, determined to learn everything he could. Brown offered him an apprenticeship, which soon turned into a company position.

Coming from a small country town in Australia, Shugg admits the transition into New York’s fast-paced culture was a sharp adjustment. “Even trying to order coffee here, oh, my god, you can’t take your time and say, ‘I think I’ll have, um.’ Everybody is going somewhere and everyone is pressed for time. Australia is so laid-back and we have a lot of sun and just a completely different way of living.”

The full-bodied artistic atmosphere makes the move worth it. “In Australia, the dance community is so small and everyone making work is your friend, so it’s difficult to be critical,” he says. “Here, there’s a real openness just to put things out there and to talk about them. The sheer size of the dance scene can be tough, but that’s also why so much has come out of it.”

When you first moved here, what was the most surprising part of dancing in the U.S.?

Elena D’Amario with Ian Spring, photo by Lois Greenfield, courtesy Parsons.

The respect for each other’s art. It’s still a competitive field, like in Italy, but there’s a base of healthy positivity here, and a real dance community. When there was a blizzard the night of one of our shows, the dancers from Ailey came, so it was sold out! Now that’s support.”

—Elena d’Amario, Parsons Dance,

originally from Pescara, Italy


“The accessibility: No matter what time of day, there’s a class available. And there is so much variety; you can really expose yourself to as much as possible.”

—Lara Spence, Nimbus Dance Works, originally from Cape Town, South Africa


“My first thought when I moved here was, Wow, they do so many tendus at barre! I wonder why? I couldn’t believe how long barre was (and still is!).”

—Nathalia Arja, Miami City Ballet,

originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


“Hearing ‘Take 5’ during rehearsals. In Korea, I rarely had a full day of rehearsal. Physically, I almost died when I first came here. Those five minutes felt like five seconds.”          —Hyonjun Rhee, Tulsa Ballet,

originally from Seoul, South Korea

Nathalia Arja with Kleber Rebello, Photo by Daniel Azoulay courtesy MCB

“The larger-than-life quality of the dancers—on- and offstage. There’s a sense of urgency to perform in every class.”

—Stephanie Van Dooren-Eshkenazi, Buglisi Dance Theatre, originally from Amsterdam, the Netherlands


“The ability to dance with individual expression. In Japan, the emphasis was placed on discipline and perfection of technique.”

—Nao Kusuzaki,

Houston Ballet,

originally from Ehime, Japan

Stephanie Van Dooren-Eshkenazi with Jason Jordan, photo by Nancy Long, courtesy Buglisi

“Speaking onstage was terrifying for me because English is not my first language. But it helped me understand American humor.”

—Michel Rodriguez Cintra, Lucky Plush Productions, originally from Havana, Cuba

“I came to the School of American Ballet from the Paris Opéra Ballet School when I was 17, and adapting to the Balanchine style felt like starting all over again.”

—Jerome Tisserand, Pacific Northwest Ballet,

originally from Lyon, France

“The way the crowd reacts. Different cultures show their appreciation in different ways. In Brazil, that means being very vocal during a performance. In the U.S., that means listening quietly. That was an adjustment for me.”

—Augusto Cezar, Nashville Ballet,

originally from São Paulo, Brazil

“What’s amazing is that you just have to have a creative idea and a will, and you can potentially have your own dance company here. It’s the true ‘American dream.’ ”

—Asya Zlatina, Koresh Dance Company,

originally from Moscow, Russia

Jerome Tisserand, photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.

“How fast the footwork is in pointe class.”

—Carolina Tavarez, Ballet Arizona, originally from Santiago, Dominican Republic

Ashley Rivers is a Boston-based arts writer.