A few weeks before The Nutcracker is scheduled to open, in a rehearsal studio at the Kansas City Ballet’s Bolender Center, dancers Amaya Rodriguez and Liang Fu run through the steps for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
Rodriguez is dressed in a dark pink leotard, a stiff white tutu, and pointe shoes. Fu wears a gray T-shirt and lightweight sweatpants. They are in step with the rest of the dancers in the ballet's 26-person professional company, but their path here -- from other countries -- sets them apart.
"So, when I was in school, my dream was always coming to America, you know. The 'American Dream,'" says Liang Fu, who grew up in Qingdao, on the east coast of China. Fu has danced in the United States for about a decade and joined Kansas City Ballet in 2014.
Amaya Rodriguez is one of the company’s newest members. She’s from Havana, Cuba, where she danced with National Ballet of Cuba for 11 years.
"I decided to take this step to come here to the United States to continue my career," says Rodriguez in Spanish, "and until now, I feel very happy, very excited to be with this company, the Kansas City Ballet."
Bringing in dancers from around the world is a growing trend among U.S. ballet companies. At the Kansas City Ballet, there are now five international dancers in the company — Fu from China, Lamin Pereira dos Santos and Gustavo Ribeiro from Brazil, and, new this season, Rodriguez and Humberto Rivera Blanco from Cuba.
"I don’t want it to be cookie-cutter, all the same height, the same look — that’s not who we are as a world anymore," says Devon Carney, the ballet's artistic director since 2013. "And I think it’s extremely important that we societally are reflecting who we are. That comes through recruiting as many different types of dancers as possible."
Carney starts to recruit dancers in February and March for the company, as well as the second company of KCB II dancers and trainees. And he says he’s likely to see about 1,000 dancers during the audition process, in Kansas City and other cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and New York.
On U.S. ballet companies offering something new
Often, there are only a few spots at the Kansas City Ballet available each year. But, Carney says international dancers are taking a close look at what American companies can offer.
"One of the reasons that they leave their country is because they don’t get as much as a diverse repertoire to perform," he says.
That’s what appealed to Fu, who’d danced with companies in Singapore and South Korea, before moving to the United States.
"When I was in Singapore, we did a lot of contemporary pieces. When I was in Universal Ballet, it was mostly classical," he says. "So coming here, it was more diverse, which is kind of half, half."
And Fu also knew Carney from his six years dancing with the Cincinnati Ballet. Carney served as the Cincinnati Ballet's associate artistic director before starting in 2013 at the Kansas City Ballet.
"Being a dancer, sometimes you get tired, but you do want to be the best you can, so you want to be pushed. You don’t want to be just doing something comfortable," says Fu. "He’s leading the right direction, so we came here to follow."
According to Rodriguez, she was also looking for a change.
"The difference is that in Cuba we really focused on technique — class was focused on pirouettes and leaps. Here, there's a lot of focus on footwork and speed and musicality, which is really important," says Rodriguez. "This has been a great challenge for my career and it feels like what I was looking for."
On overcoming visa and language challenges
Rodriguez says she’s had a little difficulty with language barriers. She understands English, but she’s not as comfortable speaking it.
"But at the same time there's a good side because in the company everyone wants to speak Spanish — they want to learn Spanish from me, and I want to learn English from them and it's good, it makes the work a little less daunting," she says.
One advantage for non-English speakers: French is a shared language. Think of classical ballet terms like plié or pirouette.
"That’s the language we all have," says artistic director Carney. "I can go anywhere in the world and talk to a dance about dance in terms of the steps."
The biggest challenge in hiring international dancers, says Carney, is dealing with the visa restrictions.
"You can make a commitment to this dancer: 'Yes, we want you to be a part of this company.' But then you can wait eight months, nine months for the visa to go through," Carney says. "But I’m willing to go through that. There’s some wonderful rewards that come out on the other side."
When Fu danced in Cincinnati, Ohio, his work visa had to be renewed by the company each year. But, in 2010, it was denied.
"We had to prepare way more evidence, documentation, it was like so thick," he says. "They said I was not eligible. I had to be the best of the best to be dancing here."
Letters from artistic directors around the country, audience members, and a senator from Ohio helped make the case for Fu to stay. Now, he’s in Kansas City on a three-year visa, and, newly married to company dancer Danielle Bausinger, he’s started the process of applying for a green card.
Amaya Rodriguez has a one-year visa. And, for now, she’s enjoying her life in a city that’s still seems fresh and new. "Wow, quiet," she says in English. "My life is here. It's my city. I like it. I like it so much (in) Kansas City."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.
KCUR's Lisa Rodriquez provided translation assistance for this report.
The Kansas City Ballet presents 'The Nutcracker,' with choreography by artistic director Devon Carney, through December 24, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Muriel Kauffman Theatre, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri. 816-931-8993.