Xiomara Reyes is truly one of the most inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and there is a warmth and honesty to this conversation that I know will be a source of comfort to all who read. She shares the intricacies of her illustrious performing career that spanned the globe, useful insights to the mind of a teacher and choreographer, how culture can enhance our art, and so much more. In recent weeks, I have kept coming back to this conversation whenever I’m in need of hope and a reminder of the beauty waiting to be discovered and appreciated in this world (even in 2020), may it provide the same for you.
Disclaimer* all of Xiomara’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of her answers have been slightly condensed with her approval.
What has your career path been?
I began training in Cuba’s vocational school at nine years old, and upon graduation entered the National Ballet of Cuba where I danced for two years. My next contract was with Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium, where I remained for eight years dancing soloist and principal roles. After leaving Flanders I spent some time freelancing and guesting before landing my dream job at ABT. I danced with ABT for 14 years as both a soloist and principal, and after my ballet retirement, joined the faculty of The Washington School of Ballet. I’m currently the TWSB Professional Training Division Head.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art?
I adore a painting by J.M. Waterhouse titled ‘The Soul of the Rose’, which is also sometimes referred to as ‘My Sweet Rose”.
I feel it exudes sensuality and enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures. For me, it is the epitome of being present. You get the feeling that it’s not just a woman smelling a rose, it’s so much more. It’s like a communion. She’s tasting life.
Do you have a standard morning routine?
I would love to say that I do, because I have been trying to get into one. However, whilst I don’t have a set routine for everything, I make sure to practice Qigong exercises for 30 minutes every morning. This consists of a guided 25 minutes of exercises and a five minute meditation. For me, it is important to start my day off with something that is so good for my physical and mental wellbeing as I feel it sets me up for the day ahead. The rest of my morning is spent just generally getting ready for what the day holds which usually means administrative work.
Do you feel your art influences your day to day tasks, and visa versa?
Yes, I do feel they influence each other. As an artist, I’m attuned to beauty and believe that makes me pause and enjoy it mindfully wherever I find it. I believe that one of the most amazing gifts of being an artist is the sensitivity it gives us to being present to the beauty of the moment. For something to be beautiful to me it doesn’t need to be happy, I can see beauty in anger, sadness, or any of the emotions that comprise human experience. Emotions, movement, and art, are intertwined in my mind. When I’m present to the moment, all those aspects become alive to create the dance that is my life. I believe it’s the ability to be present that allows us to notice the beauty around us, and then hopefully bring that beauty back into our art.
Do you believe your Cuban Heritage gave you qualities/values that you’ve called on throughout your career?
Cuban people are generally very open and warm, and I feel these qualities have been a part of me both in dance and life. I don’t always feel I’m the ‘cliché Cuban’ (for example, I never got into salsa), and believe that’s partly because I was such a bunhead in my youth and very protected, therefore perhaps naïve to other things in the world. However, I sensed the warmth and openness and I always try to carry that with me. I feel these qualities definitely helped me to embrace others and learn from them, as well as to portray characters and emotions to audiences.
Have you ever experienced the different cultures you’ve lived in influencing your art?
I believe different places have different vibrations and energies. Of course, people’s temperament, character, their traditions and heritage vary in different places and all becomes part of the ‘soup’ of that place’s ambience. When you are somewhere for a while, you start assimilating that place’s vibration and adding it to your own internal ‘soup’. Living in Europe I found every country had its very specific taste. For example, when we would travel to Paris you could feel the old time beauty; a sensuality and decadence. That was a general energy I drew on when performing Manon, a Je ne sais quoi (illusive/charming feeling). It was not a conscious thing but more of an energetic feeling. An artist needs to be able to swim in those vibrations and sensations and acknowledge them to a certain degree, in order to convey the feelings and create the ambience they want the audience to experience.
What influenced you to leave Cuba and pursue ballet opportunities elsewhere?
I fell in love with the kind of movement I saw in MacMilan ballets, and wanted to explore that for myself. The company in Cuba was beautiful and had wonderful dancers, however young artists had to wait a long time to dance principal roles and I knew that wasn’t the case elsewhere. The ballets performed in Cuba were amazing, however I personally found the repertoire a bit repetitive, so my artistic curiosity led me to explore beyond the boundaries of Cuba.
My life has been a series of leaps, and at that stage I knew a leap had to be taken because I wanted more. Whilst I could say I left for economic reasons, truly I left for the career opportunities. That was my first big leap!
Did you know it would be so long before you returned to Cuba when you left?
I honestly had no idea that I wouldn’t return till 2010. I have a very close relationship with my mum and lived with her the whole time I was in Cuba, so in that way going to Belgium felt like cutting a cord. After leaving I didn’t see my mother for 2.5 year and my father for even longer. I remember not crying for the first three months in Belgium, but once I started crying it was hard to stop. I had lived quite a sheltered life till that point, and all of a sudden I was in a situation where I just had to grow up fast; but I was curious and ready for that growth. In all honesty, I think the situation called for more courage on my parents behalf than mine. When you’re young, I feel you have this intent to fly built into your DNA and I was following that instinct, my Mum was the one who had to cope with letting me go and not knowing. This was before iPhones or FaceTime, so it was not easy on any of us.
Do you feel your spirituality has taught you anything that enhances your art?
It taught me the concept that we are all energy, and that changed everything for me. My dancing changed when I realised I was made of energy and energy needs to flow. Ballet and dance in general are a refined expression of the flow of energy. I was blessed to have trained with the Cuban school that gave me a solid technique, so when I learnt about energy I was able to apply those concepts of flow, and know my technique was supporting me. One of my biggest inspirations growing up was Makarova’s ‘Ballerina’ documentary. I found those videos around the same time I started to learn about the flow of energy. I saw energy very clearly flowing through Makarova’s body and she was allowing that flow. It felt very serendipitous that I began learning about energy and discovered the way I wanted to move in ballet at the same time. That video showed me that balance between beautiful ballet technique alignment and flow.
Whilst ballet is a form of sincere beauty in today’s world, it has its tough moments. Could you give a specific example of a low point you experienced and what inspired/helped you through it?
I had an amazing life dancing and it gave me so much, however the tough times were definitely there. In all honesty sometimes those ‘rough patches’ would go for years. There were times when It took a lot of faith to continue pushing, but I guess those times never quite affected me deeply enough to make me truly want to get away from ballet… that thought never crossed my mind honestly. On my path I experienced injuries, doubts, and other challenges, as well as times where things felt amazing. For me, the love of dance was always bigger than everything else. I don’t believe anyone can truly love something that doesn’t give them any joy, and I love ballet because of the joy it gave me. Ballet gave me a freedom and way of expressing myself; letting the music go through my body was an amazing feeling. I took class because you need to, but my highlights were always the rehearsals and performances. Using those rehearsals as performing opportunities (even with no audience) helped me enjoy the whole process of being a dancer. I think it’s important to remember that life is a school and no matter what path you take, there will be tough times. So whilst there were hard moments, the thing I always came back to was that innate love for ballet and staying present in the enjoyment of what I was doing. For me, that was always stronger than whatever strife was going on.
On the flip side, what helped you stay fully present in the highlights of your ballet journey, opposed to being caught up in fear of the past/future like many young artists do?
I can’t say I was 100% present in all my performances, as there were pieces I enjoyed less than others and let’s face it, we are all humans, but I was lucky enough to live in the moment for most of them. Again, it was about recognizing the joy and love I had for the stories I was telling and remaining in that energy. I also remember some beautiful experiences when I was coming back from injuries and would go into an empty studio, put on music, and let the energy and movement flow; in those moments I felt truly myself.
You have found great benefits in Chinese medicine and often use taping exercises at the beginning of classes you teach. Was anything specific happening in your life when you found these techniques and what drew you to explore them further?
When I got injured I wanted to play a strong role in my healing process. I felt energy in myself and in my dancing, so it made complete sense to me that part of my healing needed to be allowing the energy to flow again. Chinese medicine is all about supporting the flow of energy, and I was fascinated by it. I honestly feel I returned as a better dancer after injury, because I used energy medicine to explore and expand myself. That’s not to say injuries aren’t hard, you can’t dance sometimes for months and it’s a tough thing to experience. Nevertheless, I decided that if I was going to have to go through it, I wanted to come out of it stronger.
Social media and YouTube facilitates so much exposure to art of every kind for today’s budding creatives. How do you feel they can cultivate discernment when navigating this online landscape?
You have a right to make up your own mind about what moves and inspires you, no matter other people’s opinion. However, I would love people to use discernment by going deeper to understand why you are drawn to that particular thing. Why do you like it? What is it telling you? What about this particular dancer inspires you? I would love people to understand and notice when a body is moving full of awareness, full of energy, and with expansive movement, and then also be able to see when someone is just putting a smile on their face that is ‘fake’ and not coming from somewhere deeper. The beauty of humanity is that we are all different and will approach things from very different places, that means you will find all kinds of people on social media. I’m certainly not going to ask my students to agree with my views, but I for sure am going to ask them to tell me why they love something on a deeper level.
Do you recall any specific moment in your childhood that introduced your heart to the idea of pursuing ballet?
I was only 2.5 years old for my first performance and though I was very young, I loved it straight away. There was a magical feeling to performing, aided by the stage lights and backstage energy. I went through a period of wanting to be an actress, and my Mum encouraged me to keep training for ballet in order to learn how to move and portray a story for an acting career. In the end, I feel I got both careers in one! I also have to talk about the inspiration Makarova gave me to answer this question. I found her to be such a natural artist and at the same time she had a body filled with flow. I wanted to imitate her, but I realised I was more interested in how she felt rather on how she looked. I could see the freedom she was feeling and wanted to feel that too. I wanted to imagine what it would feel like to have her long lines as I danced, and incredibly enough I feel this sensory visualisation did improve my lines. You need to use empathy to feel what that person is feeling within yourself. It’s fascinating, because it’s not always about how much you do physically, but rather about how your mind can help your body and movements to reach their full potential.
As a choreographer and Professional Training Division Head, what are the most important qualities you feel artists need to develop in order to continue honing their craft?
Artists need to embrace their unique energy and their own life experiences, hence embracing the uniqueness within themselves. I want my students to be at home in their own bodies, and explore how much energy they can flow. I want to see in their eyes that they are present to the journey.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
When I left Belgium I thought I was walking into another job, however that contract fell through. All of a sudden I was without a job and had to start freelancing. If I had gone to the company I had planned to, I wouldn’t have joined ABT. That journey taught me that everything happens for a reason, and sometimes that reason is that something much better is coming your way. You have to trust the process. This lesson really helped me during my retirement. It was of course hard to leave a career I had given my life to and loved so much, but I had the maturity to understand that though one thing was finishing, there could be something else just as right for me waiting in my path.
You use painting as a creative outlet and do so beautifully. What aspects of painting drew you to it?
I love getting lost in a painting, placing a ‘seed’ or idea into a blank canvas and then giving up expectations and going on the journey to see what that seed grows into. Often the end result is not at all what I first had in mind, and that lesson has guided me so much in all aspects of life. It has helped me stay separate from perfectionism, as I’m more interested in the journey and the wonder of what can be. I must say I’m also drawn to the textures and colours in painting.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
Find and explore the light in this world and your own life. Let it illuminate your darkness.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
I hope not just dancers, but everyone, feel curious. We are not only flesh and bones, we have fascinating mental and emotional bodies, energetic systems that run through us, and I would love for people to explore that concept. You don’t have to believe in it, just be curious about it. That curiosity may help you feel the energy and the light flowing through you when you move or dance. I have found this experience has opened wonderful worlds to explore.
You can find Xiomara on IG @xiomarosa
Featured picture credit: Fabrizio Ferri