Driven by his humble upbringing in Cuba, Octavio Martin hopes to bring a dance revolution to Brandon.
Martin, the new artistic director of the Brandon Ballet, plans to introduce modern ballets, bring in more professional dancers and hold free classes in schools, all with the goal of building the bay area's first professional ballet company.
"It's the greatest opportunity we have ever had to be a professional company," said Alice Holden Bock, executive director of the Brandon Ballet. "This is the direction we have always wanted to go in and he is giving us that opportunity. We just became an arts institution with the addition of this world-class artist."
Founded in 1993, the Brandon Ballet currently has 38 student dancers from apprentices to pre-professionals. Housed in a small storefront in Bloomingdale, the company hires two or three professional dancers a year, staging two ballets with numerous smaller public performances.
"We have great dancers here now," Martin said. "I would like to bring in more professionals who I can teach every day who then can help the other dancers here learn."
More dancers will also mean more ballets and, ultimately they hope, a professional ballet company.
"After more than 25 years in the profession, becoming artistic director is a big step in my life and career," said Martin, 39. "I am very excited about this."
Martin took his first dance steps at age 9 after his father, a stagehand at the García Lorca auditorium in Havana, took him to audition for a part in children's theater. By 19, after a decade of lessons at the Cuban School of Ballet, Martin was accepted at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1994.
By 2001, Martin was the company's primer bailarin, or lead dancer, performing to audiences worldwide.
Fidel Castro was a regular at the ballet in Cuba and Martin would often perform for the Cuban leader at private parties for international dignitaries.
"He was always there for opening nights," said Martin, recalling Castro as a tall, intimidating man with a strong personality.
Martin's skills also drew the eye of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2005 when he was invited to join the company as its principal dancer. Excited by the chance to expand his repertoire and learn different styles of dance, Martin asked permission to join the Canadian company but was turned down.
After that Martin decided it was time to go.
"I had been with the Cuban National Ballet for 12 years at that point," he said, "and while it is among the top five ballets in the world, I knew I didn't have a future there, artistically or financially."
During a tour of Mexico with the Cuban Ballet in late 2005, Martin and his wife, Yaima, took their chance to defect.
"We were in a hotel room after our last performance of Don Quixote when Yaima and I decided this was the time. It was scary; the biggest risk of our lives."
Late that night, the couple left their room and bought bus tickets to Matamoros, a border town near Brownsville, Texas.
"I hadn't told anyone in my family," said Martin, who left his father, mother, sister and three brothers behind in Cuba.
His family didn't suffer any repercussions because of his defection, he said.
Arriving at the bus station, Martin and his wife boarded the bus to Matamoros while his fellow dancers climbed on a bus to the airport to fly back to Havana.
Twenty-seven hours later and having endured several nervous checks by Mexican police — "We avoided being noticed by acting as if we were asleep," Martin said — the couple arrived at the U.S. border.
Walking across "what seemed like the longest bridge" the couple asked for political asylum at the immigration office in Brownsville. Asylum granted, four hours later they were on another bus to Miami where they met with Martin's brother, Jorge Alberto.
Picking up odd jobs in Miami, Martin traveled from Cincinnati to Colorado for auditions. His break would ultimately come closer to home when he was offered a position with the Sarasota Ballet in 2006. His wife later became the company's ballet instructor. The couple left the Sarasota Ballet earlier this year after a contract dispute.
The Martins, who have a 5-year-old daughter, Arantza, became American citizens in 2011.
Remembering the lessons of his youth, Martin is passionate about bringing dance to Brandon area schools, especially to at-risk students.
"I come from a poor family but because I was given the chance I was able to realize my dream," he said. "I want to bring that to other children. I'll teach the classes myself for free."
The bay area wants a professional ballet company, Martin believes; it's just a matter of knocking on the right doors.
"I know there are people out there who want to support us."
For more information on the Brandon Ballet, call (813) 684-4282, visit brandonballet.org or email [email protected] ballet.org.
Kevin Brady can be reached at [email protected]