Cuban defector stars in Yellowstone Ballet Nutcracker

Luis Gonzales joins national and regional talent Dec. 18 in company's 31st production

On Stage

Luis Victor Santana Gonzales, formerly of the National Ballet of Cuba stars in Yellowstone Ballet Company’s 31st annual production of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic The Nutcracker. He will perform the roles of the Nutcracker Prince and the Cavalier at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Willson Auditorium in Bozeman.

Luis Santana Gonzales made a treacherous escape from Cuba to dance in the U.S.
Luis Santana Gonzales made a treacherous escape from Cuba to dance in the U.S.Photo © Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico

Gonzales joined the Ballet Nacional de Cuba after completing his ballet training at the National Ballet School in Havana. He rose to the level of soloist before a fateful tour to Mexico where he and six other company dancers defected.

According to a New York Times article, “To reach the United States, where as Cubans they could gain privileged entry, the group rode buses from the Yucatán to Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, 1,600 miles in all. In transit and while crossing the bridge over the Rio Grande, they tried not to talk, fearing that their accents might encourage thieves to steal their passports.”

Gonzales remembers spending up to 16 hours on a bus, worrying about getting caught. “We had to ride the buses in silence, without talking to not call attention to ourselves. We’d heard rumors that there were people in Mexico, along the border, who wanted to steal Cubans’ papers,” he told the reporter.

Gonzales ended up in Miami with no job, no money and little knowledge of American life or command of colloquial English. He knew he was leaving everything behind but his desire for artistic freedom was greater than his fears.

For a country with barely 11 million people, Cuba has an unusually prominent profile in the international ballet world. The country is known for producing some of the world’s best. However, touring internationally is a double-edged sword for Ballet Nacional de Cuba – they lose dancers almost every time.

While touring allows the world to see Cuba’s renowned ballet company, it also gives the dancers a glimpse of the reset of the world, and for some – like Gonzales – a brief look isn’t enough.

A stage packed with talent

Joining Gonzales in Yellowstone Ballet’s Nutcracker is Nicole Assaad of Tampa City Ballet as Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Assaad captured gold and silver medals from the American Dance Competition and a bronze medal from the World Ballet at age 15, before moving to New York to finish her training under Gelsey Kirkland, and joining the Hong Kong Ballet at age 19.

Raising the barre for the Yellowstone Ballet production are professional dancers from Bozeman’s artistically passionate Raison D’être Dance Project under the direction of Erin Levi and Genevieve Trygstad-Burke with their well-honed performances of the Waltz of the Flowers, Snow Scene and the Chinese Dance. Rancher/ballerina Annie Valle, of Martinsdale Ballet, performs as the Snow Queen and Aerial Arts of Bozeman joins in with a heavenly dance up on the silks for the angel’s opening sequence in Act 2. “You won’t want to miss the spectacular flying angels!,” says artistic director Kathleen Rakela.

Fifty dancers and actors from Yellowstone Ballet Academy and Gallatin, Park and Meagher counties compliment the professional cast.

Every adult ticket purchase qualifies for a free child’s ticket as part of YBC’s efforts to encourage families to attend. Children can also come attired as a Nutcracker character and compete for one of three gift certificates from the Rocky Mountain Toy Company. The costume contest will occur during intermission and every participant will receive a small gift.

Reserved tickets for YBC’s The Nutcracker are available at or with cash or check at the door. It is advised to get tickets early as last year the show was almost sold out. For questions email [email protected], text 406-220-0096 or call 406-222-0430.

YBC is under the artistic direction of founder Rakela, a recipient of the Montana Arts Council Fellowship for the Performing Arts. The company has been featuring local, national, and international dance talent in the Park, Sweet Grass, and Gallatin counties since 1990.

Rakela also runs the Yellowstone Ballet Academy. Her students have received scholarships to world-class ballet training centers and have danced professionally around the world.