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Gian Carlo Perez still gets jitters in the moments before a performance. He waits in the wings while stagehands and set pieces move around him. When his nerves get the better of him, the Cuban dancer retreats to the bathroom until his cue. But his audience would never know. When Perez dances, he is completely at ease.
Classically trained in the Cuban ballet technique, Perez does not misstep; nor are his movements robotic. His 6-foot frame glides through his combinations with athletic grace. Perez has warm brown skin, dark brown eyes, and a countenance that changes to match the tone of each ballet he dances.
His whole body is a clue to the dance’s sentiment; its story. This sensitivity of expression, particularly striking in a man of such physical strength, makes Perez memorable.
A case in point is his recent performance as the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor’s Company B with the Washington Ballet last fall. As the number began, Perez bounded onstage to a bright tune accented by cymbals and horn blasts. He leapt through the air, always sticking his landing, always with a smile. But his performance came across as superficial, more acrobatic than artistic—not his usual, stirring performance.
But the Bugle Boy, to Perez, was not a poet or prince. He was a happy guy and entertainer; an optimist who is perilously blind to the reality of war depicted in Company B. In the last measure, a bang cuts the tune short. The boy falls, shot dead.
Perez conveyed exactly the story he intended.
What makes Perez such a stunning dancer is how he ties himself to his characters. In any good ballet, there’s a moment famed dance critic and poet Edwin Denby wrote about in which the line between performance and real life is blurred, “where you actually saw a real person moving and felt the relation to your real private life with a sudden poignancy.” This golden thread between dancer, dance, and audience is the enduring magic of ballet.
“That’s what makes a good artist. It’s not about how high you can jump or how much you can turn,” Perez says. “It’s how you represent a character, how people are going to believe what you’re doing.”
Audiences believe the dancers who make them see not a complicated series of steps, but a story. A dancer must bring their own stories to bear in a ballet to make what Denby once called “points of contact” between the dance and the drama of one’s own personal life. Through these connections, the ballet becomes not a faraway tale of fairies and princes, but a very personal account of seeking, losing, and remembering love
But the form today has fallen out of favor with American culture—particularly as the New York City Ballet reckons with allegations of sexual harassment and violence, and ballet’s model of men partnerning women on pointe struggles to accommodate society’s expanding view of gender.
Still, ballet—a centuries-old performance art form—has endured much death and rebirth. And it’s artists like Perez, who can reach the heart of the dance night after night, that can reignite the popularity of ballet.
Perez was born in Havana, Cuba, with dance in his blood and music as his heritage.
His father performed with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the country’s government-sponsored ballet company, for two years before he took his career to Spain. But a motorcycle accident forced him to quit when he was 29—the height of a dancer’s career and only five years older than Perez is today.
Perez’s stepfather played bass in a traditional Cuban band. While he kept the rhythm on stage, Perez and his mother danced son cubano—one of Cuba’s popular dances—and salsa in the crowd. His mother, a contemporary dancer, often brought him along to her rehearsals. A teacher noticed Perez playing around and encouraged her to have him audition for the BNC’s school, the Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet. The week before the audition, she taught her son the five basic ballet positions and prepared him to do a split. He had never taken ballet before. “I suffered like crazy,” Perez remembers. But he made the cut.
Perez entered the program at age 9, taking dance classes in the morning and traditional subjects in the afternoon. Over time, the school came to embody his ambitions, and he set his sights on joining the BNC upon graduation.
As part of his audition for the company, Perez danced the second act pas de deux from La Bayadere, which tells the story of Nikiya, a temple dancer in ancient India, and Solor, the warrior who swore his love to her. Solor is tricked into promising marriage to another woman, a princess. The princess, jealous, schemes to have Nikiya fatally bitten by a snake. Nikiya dies in front of Solor and the entire court, and he retreats to his chambers, overcome by grief. There, in an opium haze, he imagines Nikiya back to life and dances with her, achingly and indulgently.
The challenge of taking on Solor’s part is to embody the role with both power and fragility—a warrior undone by grief. For 17-year-old Perez, there was the added pressure of dancing with his then-girlfriend, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. They struggled to master a duet about eternal love until Alberto Alonso, a co-founder of the school, dropped in on their rehearsal.
Perez recalls that the 95-year-old ballet master said, in Spanish, “OK boy, let’s do this.” After the pair danced, Alonso ordered Perez to leave the room.
“Excuse me?” Perez replied.
“Yes, get out of the room,” said Alonso.
“Why? What did I do wrong?”
“I didn’t believe what you were doing,” came the verdict.
Alonso explained that Solor was supposed to be high on opium, fearful his beloved could vanish. He should be gentle and soft but unwilling to let her go. Alonso saw nothing of that story in Perez’s performance.
“Go to the bathroom, wash your face, and come back,” Alonso ordered. “We’re going to do this again.”
Perez correctly performed the steps but hadn’t danced the character. He hadn’t yet understood Solor; connecting the warrior’s pain to the experience of holding someone you loved but lost. He then returned to the studio and the pair mastered the piece.
Perez joined the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 2012 as an apprentice, with six months to prove himself worthy of a long-term position. That’s a challenge, as new recruits spend much of that time watching the principals rehearse.
Unwilling to waste those moments, he set out to learn each part in every ballet the company performed—in addition to his own. His reasoning was twofold: The ballet master would see him as a professional, and he’d be prepared to step up whenever injury sidelined another dancer.
His opportunity came during the company’s tour of Spain. Before the last act of Coppélia, the principal dancer twisted his ankle. “Nobody wanted to step in. Nobody wanted the responsibility,” Perez recalls, “and I was like, ‘Can I?’”
When he returned to Havana, the company promoted Perez to soloist.
As a soloist, Perez had more time and space to develop his roles, to understand his characters’ stories. One of the company’s prima ballerinas invited him to partner her in the USA International Ballet Competition held in Jackson, Mississippi. Perez leapt at the chance—for dancers outside the U.S., competitions are a way to be noticed by American ballet companies.
Perez prepared to compete and traveled to the States with high hopes—so being disqualified after the first round was a surprise. He didn’t expect to be knocked out so early, so his return flight wasn’t booked until the competition’s close. With nothing else to do, he attended a class offered to competitors, which the USAIBC opened to ballet company directors—one of whom was Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet’s former artistic director. In Perez, Webre saw a magnetic dancer who could make ballet inviting.
“He’s filled with that factor X that draws us to him, we relate to him, and we want to be him,” Webre says.
After the class, Webre approached Perez to recruit him. The director explained his contract and showed him several ballets in the company’s lineup, including Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort—which greatly excited Perez.
Perez signed the contract, stepping off the fast-track to becoming a BNC principal, and moved to America. In August 2014, he began his career with The Washington Ballet, the company he now calls his family.
Since then, Perez has been a highlight for the company. Webre’s successor at the Washington Ballet, Julie Kent, nominated Perez for the 2017 Princess Grace Foundation’s Award for Dance—one of the most prestigious awards in dance—a mark of his progress and her trust in him as the company’s nominee. He submitted samples of his work, including the Petite Mort duet, for the award, and won.
This past fall, Perez danced a principal role in Serenade, a lyrical ballet of women dancing in the night choreographed by George Balanchine, himself an immigrant to America. Perez’s role begins in the second act. EunWon Lee, one of the principal female leads, waits for him at the stage’s edge, above the orchestra. She stands still, as if frozen.
Perez steps into the light and strides toward her. He touches her shoulder, she comes alive. As they dance, the story extends into the crowd, stirring old memories of falling in love. In that moment, the moonlight illuminates them all.