In Cuba, the ballet is something of a national treasure. The dancers recruited into Alicia Alonso's storied company Ballet Nacional de Cuba, for example, reportedly make more money than doctors and enjoy a level of fandom reserved only for pop stars in the United States. The Cuban government not only funds ballet training but also subsidizes tickets to ballet performances. Lovers of Cuban dance like to say the adoration and skill is in their DNA.
"You can find anyone in the street here in Havana who can dance as well as most professionals," Cuba's Ballet Rakatan choreographer Nilda Guerra told The Guardian.
And in a country historically associated with machismo, it's not just women enjoying the allure of ballet. "Before, ballet in Cuba was a marginalized extravagance," the New York Times wrote in 2005. "Now, men in one of the world's most macho countries clamor to put on dancing tights." Cuban-born Royal Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta reiterates the sentiment: "I wanted to play football and I was like this reckless child. But when I saw the professionals of the National Ballet School of Cuba perform for the first time, it changed my life forever."
Photographer Omar Robles has long been entranced by the country's legacy of dance. He recently traveled to Cuba to explore the men and women who have made ballet such a staple of their lives.
"Over the past two years I’ve devoted my work almost exclusively to photographing ballet dancers within urban settings," Robles wrote on his blog. "Cuba has one of the top ranked ballet companies, thus why I dreamt of visiting the island for a long time. Their dancers are just some of the best dancers in the world. Perhaps it is because movement and rhythm runs in their Afro-Caribbean blood, but most likely it is due to the Russian school of training which is part of their heritage."
The resulting photographs, featured on his Instagram, capture some of Cuba's best talent jumping, twirling and stretching in the streets, providing a beautiful and even surreal glimpse of just how deeply rooted Cuban ballet is. Below is a brief interview with Robles on how he came to photography and how his trip to Cuba impacted his work.
What is your background? Where were you born and how did you get into photography?
I was born in Puerto Rico August 1980. I moved to the U.S. in 2011, first to Chicago then to NYC in 2013. I started doing photography when I was finishing my bachelor's degree in visual arts and communications. Photography was part of my curriculum. When I started photographing, I realized that, like mime theater, photography was an amazing nonverbal communication medium. Yet it allowed [me] to capture fleeting emotions and tell a story for a much longer time than mime theater could.
Speaking of mime theater, can you tell me a little bit more about how Marcel Marceau has influenced your photography?
Marceau had a lot of things to say, amongst them, he would often tell us: "Never get a mime talking, he will never shut up." It was a joke, but what he meant to teach us from that was that as artists, we needed to be eloquent within simplicity. To be economical with our movements and to be able to evoke emotion rather than to show emotion. This was woven into my artistic DNA, and it is still the way I try to create even when I photograph.
How and when did you decide to pursue street photography with dancers?
It was about two and a half years ago. I had been building a portfolio shooting street and documentary photography. Part of me missed my performance background. Shooting dancers started to be a way of conciliating my performance background with my photography.
What brought you to Cuba?
I was able to go to Cuba thanks to a grant from the Bessie Foundation. I had dreamt about going there for quite some time. Historically, Cuban dancers are some of the best in the world, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to go there. At the same time, Puerto Rico and Cuba have a strong connection.
How would you describe your experience there, in the country and with the dancers?
I can only describe it as life-altering. Their philosophy and respect toward each other is incredible. Culture and art are highly valued and you can see how that makes a difference in the country's perspective. In spite of all their struggles, the general atmosphere in Cuba remains optimistic. It was that optimism that stuck with me the most. The dancers have a great a sense of self-respect and pride, mostly due to the country's attitude toward the arts. This also stuck with me.