Pedro Ruiz rehearsing with members of Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans de Camagüey

This spring, Pedro Ruiz, the former Ballet Hispanico dancer now a choreographer, was named associate artistic director of Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans de Camagüey. In a lively conversation with Cuban Art News associate publisher Patricia Farber, Ruiz talks about his new position and what it means for him to be working in Cuba again.

The pleasure of meeting Pedro Ruiz comes not only from knowing the talent, intelligence, and longevity he embodies as a dancer, but discovering the deeply committed individual he is at heart.

The call to dance, to choreograph, and now the call to Cuba, to the roots that still speak to him—these qualities inspire artists everywhere.

Ruiz’s recent appointment to Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans de Camagüey is a wonderful sign of the times, and an opportunity for the United States and Cuba to dance together once again.

Pedro, it’s an honor to chat with you after following your career as a principal dancer at Ballet Hispanico for more than 20 years, then as a choreographer, and now as Associate Artistic Director of Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans de Camagüey.

Thanks so much.

It all begins with you. There’s no plan, no recipe for a Cuban American contemporary dance director to follow. What are your first priorities?

The most important things to me are: one, to create; and two, to spread the word.

Pedro Ruiz
Courtesy The Windows Project

For creating, the dancers I will work with in Cuba are so beautifully trained that I’m lucky to be working with them. Being Cuban, I understand the way they are—the way they move, the way they talk, the way they walk. They have an incredible work ethic. They understand what I am looking for. These qualities free me as a choreographer and make creating a pleasure.

As for spreading the word, my goal is to encourage people to see us.

Most people who come to Cuba see Havana first. Camagüey is also a city of incredible beauty, with Spanish architecture, small streets that lead to beautiful plazas, winds that cool you and transport you with their sudden changes of direction, leading you from one poetic life-moment to another. Life there has a gentle flow. That is what inspired the choreography of my piece, “Moments in the Wind.”

The best news is that yesterday, I flew directly from Camagüey to Miami in about 45 minutes on American Airlines.

Cuban Art News has the same goal as you do—to spread the word. You have now inspired me to come to Camagüey! But tell us: What will you be focusing on in your work with Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans?

For sure, contemporary dance. These are perfect circumstances for me. I will work with dancers who have strong classical ballet technique. For me personally, that is very important. But at the same time, these dancers can more with a non-rigid, free and open body.

I’ll quote the affectionate words you spoke when your plane landed at José Martí International Airport in 2011, bringing you to Havana for the filming of the PBS special, “Pedro Ruiz, Coming Home.” You said: “Arriving here is like putting the skin back on my body.”

Every time I return it nourishes me more. The “skin” is not yet complete. I have much to give and much to accomplish.

This is a great time to be working in Cuba, being able to travel back and forth to the United States much more easily. You’re able to collaborate with the best in both worlds.

Yes, this is true. You can have a dance whose choreographer is Cuban American, whose music is commissioned in either place, whose costumes are made in Cuba from fabric purchased in California, whose lighting is done by a New Yorker. This is all wonderful, right?

You’re creating a special evening of dance to be presented at the Teatro Martí in Havana during the 12th Havana Biennial. What can you tell us about that performance?

It will be a mixed program in three parts. The first and third ballets will feature students from the National Ballet School—newly named The Fernando Alonso School. The third piece will feature dancers from Ballet Contemporánea Endedans de Camagüey. The dances are not set as of this time, but all will have a contemporary dialogue with classical roots. I am also honored to be working with commissioned music by the great Cuban composer Frank Fernández.

About the process—do you walk into a studio knowing what you want to do?

No, I usually know only the music.

Is there much collaboration between you and the dancers?

Not much to start, until I know them. Then it is based on what I know they do and how we understand each other.

Will these dances be presented on May 24th only, or will they enter a repertoire?

They will be in the repertoire.

Since you’ll work with students that night, please tell our readers something about the system of dance education in Cuba.

It works the same as many places do. Classes are given to all students in regional schools, and the best in those classes feed more advanced-level schools. Each level has auditions, and the best of the students ascend to the highest levels, such as The Fernando Alonso School in Havana.

Was that your route?

Not exactly. But I got wonderful training in my early life here. I became a dancer here.

What was your first exposure to ballet?

It was here in Cuba. I saw “Carto Vital,” choreographed for four male dancers.

And your first class? Where was that taken?

With Olga Alonso in Santa Clara. That is where I’m from.

Your first time on stage?

The beautiful Teatro de Caridad, in “Peter and the Wolf.” I was the wolf.

Your favorite stage role?

Oh, there are so many. Maybe the blind man in “Eyes of the Soul.”

When did you know you wanted to choreograph?

I always was a choreographer. After I saw my first ballet at age 8, I remember going home to my grandmother’s house and picking the flowers in her garden. I turned them upside down, making believe the petals were the skirts of tutus and the long stems were the bodies of dancers. I placed them in dance formations and made my first dances on them.

That was my first choreography, until my grandmother asked that I stop ruining her garden. Even then, it was a calling.

Members of Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans de Camagüey performing Ruiz’s Moments in the Wind
Courtesy The Windows Project

In your leisure time, what kind of music do you listen to?

Anything that doesn’t make me dance. Anything that helps me relax.

So, no Cuban salsa, no R&B?

(laughs) I spend so much of my life being stimulated in dance studios, I don’t need any more of that in my free time.

I once read that the great American photographer Walker Evans, who spent prolific time in Cuba, felt that Cubans walk down the street as if they know you are photographing them.

Totally true. It is as if they have music playing in their heads. They really know the effect the have on you. They know their own presence, their bodies. They know who they are.

Who are they? What does a Cuban dancer look like?

Oh, you know. You can spot that right away. The bravura, the balance, strong turns, and the passion.

When I was a dancer at Ballet Hispanico, we were on tour performing in Houston, Texas. There, I saw the Houston Ballet perform. They were great, but one male dancer leaped onto the stage and I knew he was Cuban in an instant—his power, his technical mastery, his masculinity. I nudged my friend and said, “He’s Cuban.”

Of course, it was Carlos Acosta.

Anything more you’d like to say to the world?

I would like the chance to open people’s eyes. I hope everyone will open their hearts to the Cuban people, and especially to its beautiful dancers. Do this in any way you can. Make a difference, help people realize their dreams.

This is what I do now, so Cuban dancers can have the things they need. If you want to do this and don’t know where to begin—this is why I created the Windows Project. Helping the arts enriches us all.

Thank you, Pedro. This was a pleasure.

For me as well.

A program of choreography by Pedro Ruiz will be presented at the Teatro Martí in Havana on Sunday evening, May 24 at 8 p.m.