On a dusty, sweltering afternoon last July, a strikingly handsome young Cuban walked across the bridge from Reynosa, Mexico, into McAllen, Texas, and asked U.S. border agents for political asylum. The first sign that he was no ordinary defector came when the agents ran a computer check on his identity. "All of a sudden," recalls the Cuban, "they were shaking my hand, congratulating me, asking for my autograph." Was he a political dissident? A pop singer? A baseball pitcher? In fact, in his own realm he was an even bigger catch. He was Rolando Sarabia, 23, a star of Cuba's National Ballet, whose spectacular performances have won him a reputation among dance aficionados as another Mikhail Baryshnikov.
A generation ago, during the Soviet era, defectors like Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova were galvanizing the dance world. Russian dancers and the historic tradition they sprang from were the gold standard in international ballet. Today, however, the buzz is all about Latins.
Sarabia is only the latest of a long line of Latin dancers, especially Cubans, who have joined top U.S. and European troupes, infusing them with a new warmth, sensuality and flair--what in Spanish is called chispa, or spark. There have been individual Hispanic stars before, like the great mid-century ballerinas Alicia Alonso of Cuba and Lupe Serrano of Chile. But now rosters from San Francisco to Houston to Cincinnati are studded with Latin names. Roughly half the principal dancers in the Boston and Miami City ballets are Latins. American Ballet Theatre (A.B.T.) features so many that one of its principals says it "should be called Latin Ballet Theatre." Lynn Garafola, a dance historian at Barnard College, summed up the shift in a Dance Magazine article whose headline proclaimed LATIN IS THE NEW RUSSIAN.
The dancers come from all across the Spanish-speaking world: from Argentina, Venezuela, Spain, and, above all, from Cuba, in a contingent that ranges from the veteran Carlos Acosta of the Royal Ballet down to newcomer Sarabia (who is considering a stack of offers while staying in Pompano Beach, Fla., with a former teacher, also a defector). Three other standouts:
•José Manuel Carreño, 37, A.B.T. When Carreño decamped from Cuba in 1990, the move was almost unprecedented. "I'm kind of a pioneer," he says. He set a high standard for other expatriates to follow. Identified mostly with princely, heroic roles in "tutu ballets" like La Bayadère and Don Quixote, he won Dance Magazine's 2004 award for contributions to dance, the first Cuban to do so since Alonso in 1958. The citation said, "He thrills audiences with his powerful leaps and glorious pirouettes, and breaks their hearts with his vulnerability."
•Lorena Feijóo, 35, San Francisco Ballet. Feijóo doesn't so much dance her roles as attack them with a torrid, all-out intensity, yet she never loses precision and control. Her fiery virtuosity blazes in such ballets as Giselle and Don Quixote. Unlike Carreño, she left Cuba over the objections of Alonso, who still rules the National Ballet (see box). As a result, Feijóo has not been welcomed back, despite her requests. Alonso, she says, "has never said no, but she has never answered. I never lose the hope."