At the end of the season, PNB bids a heartfelt adieu to Karel Cruz – a beloved principal dancer who has been with the Company for 16 years. He’ll go out with a bang at our Season Encore performance in celebration of his dance career, but first, learn more about Karel’s beginnings in dance.

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.

Karel Cruz in Agon, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; photo © Angela Sterling.

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 in Cuba. 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.

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Karel Cruz and Lesley Rausch in Diamonds, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; photo © Angela Sterling.

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 or friends, and spoke no English. He gave up a professional career to be a student again. It was all just a little too much.

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Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz in Don Quixote; photo © Angela Sterling.

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.

Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz; photo © Lindsay Thomas.

Last year, Lindsi and Karel began a new venture – Solu, a dancewear company intended to give dancers a positive mindset with what they wear. “We wanted to create a line of dancewear for every type of dancer – to provide a unique, edgy yet elegant look to which dancers could relate,” Lindsi and Karel said. Solu aims to create “garments that followed the fluidity of our movements and catered to the versatility of jumping, turning, and partnering.”

On April 26, Karel announced his retirement from Pacific Northwest Ballet; his final performances with the Company will take place in Paris, where PNB will participate in Les Étés De La Danse festival. In Seattle, audiences say goodbye during his Season Encore performance.

Following his retirement in July, Karel hopes to focus on Solu. The company received its initial seed money from PNB’s Second Stage program, which provides support for dancers to achieve their goals following a career in dance.

Karel will also continue coaching and giving private lessons to aspiring dancers.

Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz; photo © Jason Deetz.