At the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, men leap and fly. They jump, they spin, and they carry women around over their heads. They challenge each other to increasingly difficult feats of strength and dexterity. Though they drip with perspiration, they make it all look effortless. And none of these men is from the United States. Because in America, ballet, which is what they are doing, is not rough and tough like soccer or football. It's just not for boys.
The fledgling Carolina Ballet troupe comprises 11 male and 13 female dancers. When artistic director Robert Weiss was looking for candidates for his new company, he held auditions in 10 cities around the United States. With the exception of Miamian Christopher Rudd, who is originally from Jamaica, he could find no male dancers who passed muster.
Are there not even a few good American men? "There are wonderful American male dancers," states Weiss in his gravelly, rapid-fire New Yorker voice. "But the major ballet companies--New York City, American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Miami Ballet, Houston Ballet and Boston Ballet--snap up all the good ones." These companies, Weiss explains, have big budgets, and can pay their dancers far more than he can afford. There is no shortage of female dancers; all of the women in the company were born and raised in the United States. Weiss figures that for every American boy who takes ballet, there are 10 girls, and only one out of every 100 girls who studies ballet becomes a professional. "It's still a stigma in this country for a boy to study ballet," says Weiss, himself a former dancer with the New York City Ballet. He fell in love with ballet at age 5, and began taking classes as soon as the dance school would allow, at age 8. "It's not high-paying, it's not stable, and boy ballet dancers are regarded as sissies. I know many people who don't want their sons to study ballet."
Weiss' sentiments are echoed by members of the company who have left their home countries to dance professionally here. Canadian Dameon Nagel, 21, was teased mercilessly as a child by his classmates. "At that age, they had no idea about being homosexual," says Nagel. "But it was about being a wimp, a girl." Principal dancer Timor Bourtasenkov is a native of Moldavia, part of the Eastern Bloc, where dance is government-supported and a highly respected profession. A veteran performer who dances lead roles all over the world, he exudes an almost royal confidence. He is far more blunt with his opinions on the American attitude. "Are you a dancer? You must be gay! Why kill your body for pennies when you can be a football player, doctor, lawyer? It's a job everywhere, even in China. But here--the income for some of the young dancers is $11,000 to $12,000."
Weiss concurs: "If you're using something that makes beauty, that's artistic, it's not masculine. Besides, you can't make much money, so it must not be important." As the worldwide economic and political climates change, however, so does the world of dance. "Dance is as important in some other countries as sports are here," Weiss continues. "But in Cuba and Russia, they can't earn a living now. I knew two guys who were making $100 a month." Keeping foreign dancers in the United States is not easy. The company retains an immigration attorney who fights to prove to the Immigration and Naturalization Service that the non-principal male dancers, that is, apprentices or members of the corps, are essential to the life of the company. This involves time, money and headaches.
When it comes to visas, reports Lisa Jones, general manager and marketing director for Carolina Ballet, "there is no middle range for the international guest. It's either the apprentice level, or a person of extraordinary ability." That means they must be of a caliber that no one in the United States can match. This places some of the dancers in a bizarre catch-22. They have to remain a student of sorts, because they can't prove themselves to be "extraordinary" enough to work. As apprentices, however, some very talented dancers are unable to earn even the humble salary that the members of the corps are paid.
The rationale is that foreigners shouldn't deprive U.S. citizens of jobs. Spaniard Xavier Pont, a bright, boyish 24-year-old, takes a philosophical stance. "It's hard to work outside the [native] country. Not in Europe, but in the United States. I've had offers, but I couldn't take them because of the papers. You have to hire a lawyer." At Carolina Ballet, Pont explains, his apprentice role makes things easier. "When it comes to work, it's taking someone else's job that's from this country," he adds. "But eventually, I'll be able to have a job in the company."
Recently arrived from Cuba, where dancers are exempt from military service because the boots would ruin a dancer's foot, corps member Isanusi Garcia Rodriguez is dealing with a slightly different situation. A former soloist with the Cuban National Ballet, he was able to obtain a visa that allows him to stay in this country, but it's good for one entrance only. In limited but very animated English, he complains that this means that he can't go back to Cuba at all because, if he does, he can't get back into the United States. And he misses his home and his family very much. He's determined to find a way to wangle a visit.
Although Nagel is North American, he struggles with the same hassles as the dancers from abroad. "I hate going over the border--there are problems on both sides. It's definitely difficult. I'm an apprentice because of the visa. Ricky [Weiss' nickname since childhood] said he'd put me in the corps, but he couldn't." Nagel states that Weiss gives him roles in which to demonstrate his considerable skills whenever possible. Once Weiss works with his apprentices for a couple of years, he can give them major roles. "We hope we can prove they've reached the level of extraordinary ability," explains Lisa Jones. "Because we're a small company, they have more opportunities to have bigger roles."
This makes it worthwhile for several of the dancers to weather the difficulties. The newest apprentice, Hungarian Gabor Kapin, has been in the States only since August. A polite, soft-spoken 19-year-old with impeccable English, Kapin beat out hundreds of boys for a spot in the ballet school back home. He later got a contract with the Hungarian National Ballet. "It's a huge company: 120 dancers," he says. "But I wanted to try something else. Plus there are more opportunities in a small company."
On the other hand, Edgar Vardanian, a tall, dark, lanky Armenian, never expected to be anywhere but his native country. He comes from a family of dancers, most of whom are now here in the United States. "There wasn't much theater in Armenia because of the war. There was no [electric] power for two or three years," he relates. "The theater was cold. You couldn't do anything." Every year here, Vardanian has to sign a new contract and get a new visa. "It's not easy," he says. He, like many of the Eastern Europeans, aren't sure why there are so few American male dancers, but he figures "here, boys do sports."
Weiss has plenty to say on the matter. "Many companies have settled for not such good male dancers. They have two tiers: women on one level, men on another. I wasn't willing to do that. I promised a top-notch company." He goes on: "The attitude toward the arts in America is very strange--if you're a rock star or a movie star, you're royalty, but a famous pianist or sculptor isn't acknowledged. The government doesn't support it." Historically, says Weiss, the arts were supported by royalty, commissioned by kings, princes and dukes. Now, the city of Berlin provides more annual financial support for the arts than the entire NEA budget.
The company members supplement their income by performing in guest roles all over the world. They do it because they love to dance. And they all agree that it is getting better. More American men are studying dance. The company, according to Weiss, is doing "incredibly well." They have 3,000 subscribers, and sell 3,000 more tickets per run. But he's shooting for 10,000 subscribers, which is a small percentage of the residents of the Triangle. (By comparison, he says, 85,000 went to see Phantom of the Opera when it came through town.)
Weiss laments the fact that many Americans, especially men, don't know what ballet is. "They think it's some little girl twirling around in a pink outfit," he claims. "They're afraid of it. But when they actually see it, they love it." If Weiss had his way, he says, he'd do an ad campaign: "Real Men Study Ballet." Let's hope for a time soon when he wouldn't need to.