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Ballet found eight year-old Karel in his native Cuba. His family had recently moved to Pinar del Rio and his aunt, a ballet teacher at the local arts academy (Escuela Vocacional de Arte), suggested he audition. Baseball was his thing, not ballet, but he decided to try it. Most of his classmates were studying at the arts academy after being screened for proficiency in the arts (dance, music, visual). They lived at school, going home on weekends. Karel was fortunate; his family lived close by and he went home every day.

At 14, things started to shift. He moved from a smaller school to a big school. He started to really LIKE ballet. Ambition took root and at 17, after a round of school roster cuts, he joined the National Ballet of Cuba. Karel had arrived.

Professional ballet dancers were universally adored. They worked very hard, danced all the classics, and were also very hungry. There wasn’t enough to eat, and Karel says you wouldn’t recognize him because he was so skinny. At nineteen he was let go—too tall for the corps, they told him. Devastated but ambitious, he turned to his aunt, the ballet teacher, for help. She had relocated to Venezuela and she thought Karel would like it there. The National Ballet of Cuba wanted to help, too, and expedited his paperwork so he could leave Cuba. Karel was hired by Ballet Clasico de Camara and later Teatro Teresa Carreno in Venezuela.

Venezuela brought Karel to the US. He liked what he saw, but knew a move to the U.S. would need to be a legal one. A friend in Pennsylvania connected him to the Rock School and a plan materialized—Karel would return to Venezuela, file paperwork for a student visa, and return to Philadelphia as a student at the Rock School. The Rock would help him audition and find a job in an American company.

Pennsylvania in January exposed Karel to his first snow and more cold than he had ever known. His apartment wasn’t ready when he arrived—he had no electricity, no friends, and spoke no English. He gave up a professional career to be a student again. It was all just a little too much.

He challenged himself. In the studio, he danced everything that came his way. In life, he committed to learning English and taught himself a new word every day. He auditioned for Kent Stowell and Francia Russell in 2002 and was offered a PNB corps de ballet contract. Another dancer, Lindsi Dec, was also offered a corps contract that year. For fun, they would rehearse classical ballets together in empty studios—learning new roles and falling in love. Invited to dance Don Quixote in Eastern Washington sealed their on- and offstage chemistry. They were in love. In a perfect, full-circle ballet moment, Lindsi and Karel reprised their Don Quixote roles to great audience and critical acclaim during PNB’s production—in January 2015. A year later, they welcomed their son Koan to their American love story.