Gian Carlo Perez
Gian Carlo Perez bids Washington adieu as he dances his way into Texan hearts; Credit: @Procopio Photography, Washington Ballet

Gian Carlo Perez can’t go to Cathedral Heights Starbucks or the grocery store without being recognized by fans. At least that’s what the Cuban ballet dancer tells City Paper on a stroll through Bishop’s Garden. As genuine as Perez seems, I don’t believe him—at first.

In the ballet world, Perez is well known. Septime Webre, the former artistic director at the Washington Ballet, personally recruited him to join the company’s ranks in 2014. And in a poignant full circle, Webre’s successor, Julie Kent, invited Perez and four other company dancers to leave with her for the Houston Ballet, where he starts as a first soloist this fall season.

Six years ago, at 22, Perez won the prestigious Princess Grace Award supporting “extraordinary” early-career performers; it’s an honor bestowed on just three or four dancers each year. He’s been a guest artist at companies all over the world, including Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, South Korea, and U.S. cities Miami and Buffalo, New York. In Washington, the company has cast Perez in principal roles for every show since 2019. Hollywood actor Jennifer Garner even dedicated an Instagram post to Perez that same year and shared a clip of him dancing that received more than a million views. 

But ballet is a niche universe. Only 3 percent of the U.S. population reported seeing a ballet performance in 2016, the last time the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey on national arts participation. The odds that one of these balletgoers would recognize Perez in the aisles of Wisconsin Avenue’s Giant seemed smaller than the tip of a pointe shoe.

Yet, as Perez and I turn onto Pilgrim Road NW, a sedan slows down beside us, and the driver rolls down his window. “Love your work!” the driver says.

Perez thanks him. “It happens a lot,” he tells me later.

When Perez joined the Washington Ballet in 2014, he didn’t speak English. He spent much of rehearsals at the back of the studio, absorbing as much as he could from the company’s leading men: Rolando Sarabia, Jonathan Jordan, and Brooklyn Mack in particular. Within four years, though, these dancers had moved on, and the company started giving Perez main character roles in every production. 

What changed? Why Perez? When I interviewed him in 2018, he told me his Cinderella story: One day a leading dancer got injured and couldn’t perform; Perez got called to replace him and, luckily, he’d been learning the part all along. 

Today, he tells a fuller, messier version of the story, one that gets into the business and the loneliness of being a performer. As Perez departs for Houston, his formula may be one for the dancers he’s leaving behind in D.C. to follow—if not to become internationally famous, then to become locally beloved.

First, Perez built his own marketing machine. Ballet dancers at established companies of the past could rely on the press office to handle their publicity. But these days ballet company budgets are smaller than ever. In 2021, the top 150 companies in the U.S. (including the Washington Ballet) are collectively operating on budgets that are about 32 percent lower that the previous year, according to a Dance Data Project analysis published in August. The Washington Ballet currently employs one part-time press representative who’s tasked with supporting more than 30 dancers.

So Perez turned to Instagram, where he posts daily stories and publishes five to seven reels and grid images each week. In marketing terms, his 11,000-follower count classifies him as a micro-influencer, but he rarely works with brands and prefers to share snippets from his daily dancing life. 

On Aug. 21, for instance, he posted six stories: a Penny & Sparrow song, the daily horoscope for Capricorns in Spanish, a reel of the classic ballet Le Corsaire, a reel of Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” a birthday post for his aunt, and two reposts from other dancers. Perez runs a photography business from Instagram as well (@true_lens_gc12), where he sells moody, well-composed digital prints for $10 to $21. All in all, he’s far more active online than most of his fellow dancers, who seem to watch with a mix of admiration, amusement, and light irritation. “It’s too much!” another Washington Ballet dancer jovially noted with an eye roll earlier this summer when asked about Perez’s social media commitment.

But for Perez, finding ways to connect with his audience has meant survival in a sometimes-isolated art form that demands a lot of dedicated and introspective solo practice. When performing, dancers can’t see past the end of the stage—a physical reality of dark theaters that’s become a lonesome metaphor for Perez.

“It feels sometimes empty because it’s just like I’m giving so much of my energy and love and passion to all these people that I’m never even going to know their names,” Perez says. “You work for three weeks, giving it all, going through drama, stress, tiredness, soreness, pain, and when you get there, you dance 15 minutes. People clap. That’s it. That three weeks of your life are gone just like that.” 

This loneliness is part of what motivates his over-and-above outreach outside of Instagram as well. For instance, nearly 100 local dance students perform in the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker shows, and Perez is known for cheerfully engaging with the children involved.

And he makes an effort to remember reporters’ names.

I’ve made roughly 20 reporting trips to Washington Ballet’s studios over the past six years, interviewing dancers and watching rehearsals. In the winter of 2022, I observed a company class. The dancers smiled politely; others kept at their warm-up routines. As one shared later, “We all thought you looked familiar but couldn’t place you.” 

When Perez arrived, he interrupted my conversation to say hello, kissed my cheek, and asked how I’d been. Later he snapped a photo of me interviewing a group of dancers, which he later shared with a note: “Very nice to see you today.” 

If his overtures come across as slightly excessive, they’re also endearing—to the sedan driver, to Jennifer Garner, to the Washington audiences that regularly gave him standing ovations, and to me. 

Gian Carlo Perez with Adelaide Clauss, another TWB dancer who departed for Houston; Credit: ©ProcopioPhotography

Perez announced his departure for the Houston Ballet in April, days before his last Washington performance in The Sleeping Beauty ballet. During his nine years at the company, he danced some of ballet’s biggest roles for men: Prince Albrecht in Giselle, the Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor’s Company B, the Waltz Man in George Balanchine’s Serenade, and Apollo in Balanchine’s Apollo

Although he’d planned to retire from Washington, Perez felt he couldn’t turn down Kent’s invitation and the potential he sees in Houston’s bigger budget, cast, and repertoire.

“You can only go higher when you have more room,” Perez says. “I would like to do different roles that implement maybe 10, 20 more times than what we have here. Those ballets [in Houston] are way bigger, more commercialized. You have to be an actor.”

Washington Ballet will miss Perez—sorely. The company declined City Paper’s interview requests and asked in early June not to publicize his departure. But interim managing director Karen Shepherd provided a statement later that month: 

“Dance is all about movement. We will certainly miss the joy, beauty and professionalism Gian Carlo Perez brought to his extraordinary dancing during his tenure. It has been a great pleasure for The Washington Ballet to play a role in his artistic journey for the last nine years. We wish him the very best and know that Houston audiences will adore him as much as we do.” 

To reset, the company announced on Aug. 11 that Spanish choreographer Trinidad Vives will step in as acting artistic director through December. Vives performed as a principal ballet dancer in Europe; she then spent eight years teaching dance, ironically, at the Houston Ballet, where she eventually became co-artistic director for the 2001–2002 season. She and Washington’s outgoing director Kent are essentially swapping roles. Kent is becoming Houston’s new co-artistic director, and Vives is backfilling Kent’s position. Russian dancer Vladimir Tapkharov, who trained in the Buryat Republic and East Siberia, and most recently performed with Manassas Ballet Theatre in Virginia, will help fill out the company’s roster of men.

Perez, meanwhile, is finishing his first month in Houston. “The first week at @houstonballet has me [living] a dream,” he wrote on Instagram on July 28. Houstonians aren’t stopping him at Starbucks yet, but give it a few weeks.