Pittsburgh Ballet's five new dancers landed here through circuitous routes

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The new crop of dancers at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre come from Japan, Cuba, the West Coast and New England. Now, with help from PBT veterans, the five young artists are preparing for the ensemble's annual outdoor performance at Hartwood Acres tonight.

The journey was more difficult for some. Damien Martinez has no doubts about his decision to leave Cuba with Cynthia Castillo, whom he met at the National Ballet of Cuba when they were preteens. The world-renowned ballet training center begun by legendary ballerina Alicia Alonzo has produced numerous performers such as England's Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta and American Ballet Theatre principals Jose Manuel Carreno and Xiomara Reyes.

Although Martinez has a twin, David, who is still in the company, Martinez and Castillo were much more daring. They were heartened when Castillo won a visa lottery and was permitted to emigrate to Florida near Miami. But Martinez was left behind.

One day he began talking with a man he encountered in the street and learned that he was building a boat to make the 90-mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Key West.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
  • Program: George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" and Dwight Rhoden's "Step Touch."
  • Where: Hartwood Acres amphitheater, Hampton.
  • When: 7:30 tonight.
  • Admission: Free.

"I've got to do this," he remembers thinking.

He broke contact with his family and helped finish the boat. It was a dangerous proposition -- some Cubans have lost their lives in the process.

"The weather was so bad," Martinez recalls of his 21-hour trip. "The sea was crazy."

The group of men landed on a deserted island in Key West where they spent three days before the Coast Guard found them. The Coast Guard called Castillo, who arranged to pick him up.

She was elated, but the couple had no money and spoke little English. Except for an occasional ballet lesson, they had to give up dancing for a year-and-a-half to find work. The couple worked nine hours a day at a supermarket, where Martinez was a butcher and Castillo worked in the bakery. In their spare time they took English classes.

Then their fortunes began to change. They connected with Vladimir Issaev, former ballet master of Ballet Nacional de Caracas, and were able to begin performing with a couple of small companies. One day, a representative from Houston Ballet saw them at Issaev's studio and helped them to find openings at Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina.

"We worked so hard in that little company to get in shape," Castillo says with a passionate sincerity.

They bought a car and targeted ballet companies in Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh for auditions. There would be 100 dancers at the first two and the couple left empty-handed. PBT's Terrence Orr offered an audition at a company class.

Though they were exhausted from working the day before and from the drive, Orr offered them a contract, then sent them to a hotel to get some much-needed rest.

Now settled on Mount Washington, Castillo and Martinez are very happy in Pittsburgh, where the hills and rivers remind Martinez of his hometown of Matanzas. Castillo happily notes, "Pittsburgh was the last one and the best."

The other three newcomers got here in circuitous fashion, also, although their journeys were not as long.

On the surface, apprentice Amanda Cochrane was right in place to enter the company; the petite blonde had trained at PBT's grad school for two years. But her trip here was roundabout.

Originally from Spokane, Wash., she "got serious" about ballet at age 14. That year, she participated in a summer dance program in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Then she moved to New York (American Ballet Theatre) and Salt Lake City (Ballet West).

Cochrane met PBT school director Dennis Marshall at her hometown school and was impressed with his "positive attitude." Since arriving in Pittsburgh, she has enjoyed performing in the corps de ballet for "The Nutcracker," "Don Quixote" and "Romeo et Juliette," among others.

When Cochrane is not dancing, she accompanies student classes at PBT. She is a proficient pianist with a full electronic keyboard in her Cork Factory apartment.

Dark-haired Caitlin Peabody comes from Londenderry, N.H. She, too, has done a fair amount of traveling in her young life. After attending a Boston Ballet summer program, she joined the school, commuting 45 minutes each way for four years.

Upon graduation, Peabody became a trainee and then joined Boston Ballet II for a couple of years. Peabody heard about PBT from Bonnie Mathis, director of the company, and decided to audition.

She "felt comfortable right away" with the company, particularly given the fact that fellow Boston Ballet II alumnae Alejandro Diaz and Luca Sbrizzi are members.

Pittsburgh is taking a little longer, although the avid cook of "anything Italian" and "20 different versions of a burger" has an apartment in Friendship near Diaz and Sbrizzi.

"In Boston I could just walk out the front door and go anywhere," Peabody explains. "Here you have to plan, drive and park."

Driving is also an issue for Hiroyuki Nagasawara, who walks to PBT's Strip District studio from Polish Hill, a trip that takes 25 minutes each way. The young Japanese dancer began studying at his mother's school in Tokyo at age 11. By age 15, he was attending classes at the Australian Ballet and received a certificate for outstanding work. After graduation, he decided that he "wanted to dance in America," preferring the American style over European ballet.

He sent out videos and, when Orr responded, flew to Pittsburgh to audition. Already Nagasawara "feels freer in this company" compared to his student days in Australia.

"We had to make the same line there. Here it's not restrictive -- they respect individual dancers."

Although he understandably hasn't seen much of the city, Nagasawara already likes the rivers and bridges. And a bicycle is at the top of his future purchases.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net .


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