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Cuban ballet dancer who defected leaps onto Tampa stage

TAMPA

The scene opens in the forest, in the fairy world. Girls in colorful leotards flit about, pointing toes and swooping arms and twirling all in synch. And then, with a grand leap, enters Puck. A servant nymph, Puck is a go-between for the human and fairy worlds in the dance production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The other dancers don't seem to notice him much of the time. Though a crucial character, he's often alone. An outsider. Stuck somewhere in the middle.

• • •

Playing the character for the Patel Conservatory's Next Generation Ballet production is a 21-year-old professional dancer named Nieser Zambrana.

Four months ago, Zambrana was part of the strictly classical National Ballet of Cuba, living off $20 a month in a dorm-style dance company apartment in Havana and itching for freedom.

If only he could get to America, Zambrana thought, he could perform any number of dance styles with any number of dance companies. He could live on his own and support himself and a future family.

Cuba was home, but America was opportunity.

The big break came with a company tour in Canada. Defecting, Zambrana said, would be as simple as making his way to the border and setting foot on U.S. soil.

It also would mean never returning.

Two weeks before the trip, Zambrana called his grandmother and asked her what to do.

"Go," she told him.

"Now."

• • •

Back in the forest, Puck had just gotten into trouble.

Meddling in both the fairy and human worlds, he mistakenly mismatched three couples by doling out doses of love-potion nectar to the wrong recipients.

Despite his coy smiles between pirouettes and grand jetes, Puck doesn't come off as intentionally mischievous.

Impulsive, maybe. And prankish. But not malicious.

He jumps in and out of scenes, dodging punches from slighted suitors, leaving the characters in their commotion and awaiting further instructions from the fairy king.

Ready to set things right.

• • •

When the company finished its last show in Canada, Zambrana snuck out of his hotel, grabbed a cab and headed to the border.

Before patrol officers were the wiser, the young dancer leapt from the car and onto U.S. soil.

Inspections and interviews followed, and soon Zambrana was on a plane to Tampa to stay with an aunt and uncle.

Also waiting in town was friend of the family Ivonne Lemus, a ballet instructor at the Patel Center for the Performing Arts. She left Cuba in 1998.

Through Lemus, Zambrana met Next Generation director Peter Stark, who promptly proclaimed Zambrana "perfect for this role."

"He has a perfect leg line," Stark said, again using the P-word seldom spoken by dance instructors. "You could cast his leg in bronze."

Now four months into rehearsals, Zambrana still speaks little English. But he has learned the words for the numbers one through eight — the typical tempo-count of a dance combination.

Outside of that, language has never been an issue.

Ballet, with its French-named steps, is common ground.

• • •

Finally, Puck had the solution.

He and the king worked out a plan to cast a magical fog over the forest, entrancing both worlds and giving Puck a window to mend what went wrong.

The spell came down, and everybody froze. Puck and the king sprinkled love-potion nectar on the rightful couples, then disappeared.

After all the drama, it seemed both worlds were settled, and Puck glided offstage.

• • •

When the curtain closes on the May 14 show, Zambrana will get back to sending out audition tapes.

By then, companies across the country should have an idea of how many new dancers they need. Professional dance company contracts run seasonally, typically from September to May.

Maybe Zambrana will go to Boston. Or Chicago. Or Seattle.

While Stark said he couldn't be happier to feature Zambrana as a guest in the Midsummer production, the Next Generation company is intended for less experienced dancers.

For the first time, Zambrana has a world of possibilities, which is so exciting.

And frightening.

• • •

At the end, the human lovers frolicked, then the fairy king and queen performed a pas de deux.

There was a marriage scene, hugs and kisses, and everyone back in their proper places.

A happy ending.

Puck came on stage for the last time, executed an impressive series of pirouettes, shrugged, then skipped out of view.

CLAP!

"Okay, everybody. Take five," said director Peter Stark, signaling the end of the rehearsal.

Dancers splintered off into groups, chatting, laughing. A few left the room to hang out in the hallway.

Zambrana stayed behind to ice his calf muscles. A couple of dancers smiled as they walked past him. This is the happiest he's been in awhile.

Here, dancing, he is home.

An outsider, but part of something.

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or 813-226-3337.

Cuban ballet dancer who defected leaps onto Tampa stage 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 10:07pm]

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