The official theatre of the National Ballet of Cuba, the neobaroque Gran Teatro de la Habana, stands proudly on the main strip of Havana, its ornate 1914 architecture promoting the grandeur of its evening performances. Across the ocean, Brisbane’s QPAC exteriors offer modern, minimalist flair, inviting its audiences into a hidden world of extravagance and beauty. Cuban-born QB Principal Artist Yanela Piñera has graced the stages of both many times in her 15+ year-career and says regardless of location - and experience - that special nervous energy before curtains up still ignites at every performance.
To lose it is to have lost interest, she feels.
“It’s such a special feeling. Once I go onstage and become the role I’m playing that night I’m more calm and I really enjoy the moment, but of course every time before a show, before the curtain goes up, I will always be nervous,” she laughs.
“I think that if you lose that, your career isn’t interesting anymore, you know? It’s something magical.”
Producing magic is a skill Yanela has perfected throughout her cross-Pacific career. Born and raised in Havana amidst a culture of creativity, art and music, with a landscape of pastel colonial architecture and vintage cars, and where ballet dancers hold the same status as rock stars or sporting ‘heroes’ in other countries, her ballet journey began at just four years of age and almost by chance.
A non-dancing role in a children’s TV show spurred a family friend’s encouragement to join a ballet class – for fun and the discipline rather than a career. But it led to a career anyway, and the ballet world is all the better for it.
“Once I started at the school, after the first year, I fell in love,” Yanela says.
“In Cuba, once you get into a ballet school you do everything at the school – academia in the morning and ballet in the afternoon, and after class I would always continue at home. I’d put on some music and just dance around by myself. That was pretty much how it started.
“I knew it was my passion – I wanted to become a dancer and have the career.”
It’s a charming visual reminiscent of those ‘work hard to achieve your dreams’ classic movies: Yanela as a small child practising dance in her bedroom. With the International Ballet Festival of Havana a bi-yearly backdrop, Yanela continued to develop her love of dance as she grew, drawing inspiration from the city’s arts focus. Havana would come alive with the splendour of Festival season, and the stream of visiting global ballet stars provided a constant inspiration.
“We would spend 10 days watching different companies from all around the world. All the different superstars – live, every two years,” she recalls.
“And I remember going straight from school in my uniform with my friends for the evening performances, and I grew up in that environment. The dancers were my idols.”
By the time she joined Alicia Alonso’s National Ballet of Cuba in 2004, skill and passion had truly taken hold. Yanela would perform with the revered company for the next decade, touring the world in roles such as Giselle in Giselle, Juliet in Romeo & Juliet, Cinderella in Cinderella, and, arguably the pinnacle of all ballet roles, Odette and Odile in Swan Lake.
“I remember my mum and dad taking my younger sister and I to watch the National Ballet of Cuba perform Swan Lake when I was little, and I was fascinated,” she says.
“It was the first full-length ballet I ever saw, and when I finally did my debut my sister helped me the interpretation of the role as at the time she was studying drama at the National Drama School in Cuba – she’s an actress. My dad also loved Swan Lake… it’s a special ballet in my family.
“And every time I dance it I discover something new, it’s like a work in progress. Technically it’s so, so difficult and challenging and exhausting, but I love it, I really enjoy it every time. And when I’m finished with the season I want to do it again and again.”
Yanela premiered her dream role as Odette/Odile at London’s Coliseum Theatre in 2010.
But it wasn’t until 2017 at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre that the ballet would take on a more serendipitous meaning.
In the summer of 2014, Li Cunxin, three years into his Artistic Directorship at Queensland Ballet, watched Yanela along with her partner in dance and life, Camilo Ramos, rehearse in Cuba. That week he offered them both a contract with QB – Yanela as Principal Dancer, and Camilo as Soloist.
“We actually toured to QPAC in Brisbane in 2010 and it was such an amazing experience. Camilo and I had just started our relationship and Brisbane was the first place we went together as a couple so it was a special place for us,” she says.
“And during that flight from Cuba to Australia we had watched Mao’s Last Dancer, so we knew about Li.
“I remember the email we received from him inviting us to join QB and he described Brisbane as a beautiful place and we were like, ‘yes we know and love Australia, and we’d love to join the company – absolutely.”
When Yanela became Odette/Odile again it was 2018, at QPAC with Queensland Ballet. Before the show her thoughts were with her family, who she hadn’t seen since she left Cuba. Afterwards, as the curtain fell and she ran offstage, Camilo hugged her and said they had a surprise.
“They flew my mum and sister out, and they were in the audience that night. It was so, so special, and it’s something I will never forget,” Yanela says.
Just as Li had once been surprised with a secret family visit while performing with Houston Ballet, he and QB board member Amanda Talbot had surprised Yanela with hers.
“That night – I will treasure it forever. It was such a generous gesture.”
QB was scheduled to tour Swan Lake to Melbourne this year, before the season was pulled due to the global pandemic. Yanela hopes the company will perform it again in the future.
“With Tchaikovsky’s score, it’s embracing all the beautiful things – it’s very special,” she says.
“But every year here is amazing – the repertoire is incredible with new productions and different works as well as the classics. And next year is something to look forward to – it’s going to be really exciting.”
— Yanela will perform in upcoming Queensland Ballet productions, and in our 2021 Season next year.
For more in-depth features, read our latest edition of Pas Magazine here
Photography by Jason Starr