SAN FRANCISCO — Jorge Esquivel should have been an international superstar. Balletomanes everywhere should have thought of him when they thought of Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Extraordinarily lithe, eminently Latin and macho-muscular, he exuded what the hypesters like to call animal magnetism. He was a firebrand, in the best sense. But he also was a cavalier, a disciplined stylist and the most self-effacing, most considerate, most reliable partner a ballerina could dream of.
He had the touch of a poet. Even better, he had the touch of a tall poet.
Like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, Esquivel came from a Communist country. Unfortunately for him, perhaps, it wasn't the country of the glamorous Kirov and Bolshoi.
Esquivel was, in more than one sense, a product of Fidel Castro's Cuba. As such, he also was the protege and, for most impractical purposes, the property of Alicia Alonso, the legendary dancer who created a world-class company in her own image with the total support of the Castro regime.
Born in 1950, Esquivel was chosen for glory while still a boy. Carefully trained, studiously nurtured and painstakingly groomed, he rose from a modest background to become the premier danseur of the \o7 Ballet Nacional de Cuba\f7 and, as such, the primary partner of its aging, nearly blind, eternally compelling \o7 prima ballerina assoluta.\f7
He was, from 1972 to 1986, the leading male dancer in Cuba. That virtually made him the leading male dancer in Latin America. He earned spectacular triumphs wherever the Cuban ballet was allowed to tour, even, as the iron curtains eventually began to open, in America.
Still, his repertory was confined to the Havana repertory, and his opportunities for professional expansion remained slim. A Cuban dancer--by political, social and artistic definition--could not be an independent dancer.
In 1986, after 18 years with the National Ballet, he decided to abandon both his alma maters--partner and company. After a brief sojourn with a lesser Cuban ensemble (this one run by Fernando Alonso, Alicia's former husband), he made the big break. While visiting Italy, he went to the U.S. consulate to request asylum. The erstwhile role model for Cuban youth opted for a precarious new life and a difficult new occupation in the dangerous world of capitalism. Now 44, he resides in San Francisco and works quietly for the San Francisco Ballet, which he first joined in January, 1993. When he isn't teaching classes, he performs character roles. The noble Siegfried has become the evil Rothbart.
When Helgi Tomasson's San Franciscans bring "Romeo and Juliet" south to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, Esquivel will appear as the menacing Tybalt. In his prime, he could have been an ideal Romeo. Sadly, those days are over.
Esquivel may harbor regrets about the limitations and detours of his career, but he refuses to admit them. During a conversation in the lavish offices of the San Francisco Ballet, he remains steadfastly philosophical about the past and bravely optimistic about the future.
He answers questions with humor and self-deprecating candor, sometimes in halting English and sometimes in the rapidly tumbling sentences of Cuban-flavored Spanish. Antonio Castilla, a principal dancer from Madrid and fellow teacher, generously volunteers to serve as interpreter.
Somehow Esquivel isn't prepared for the inevitable first question: Why did he leave the National Ballet of Cuba?
"\o7 Bueno\f7 ," he pauses. "Why? I don't know."
Of course, he does know.
"I had been there so many years. I needed to be free, and I was tired. For seven months I didn't dance at all. Then I wanted to do more, to do different things. I knew that I didn't have much time."
He made a lot of guest appearances--in Buenos Aires, in Perm, in Brazil, in Italy. He danced with diverse divas--Ghislaine Thesmar, Eva Evdokimova, Cynthia Gregory and Carla Fracci (all, incidentally, older women, but none as old as Alicia Alonso, who was born in 1921).
Significantly, he had turned down an offer from Lucia Chase to join American Ballet Theatre years earlier. "I was not ready then," he explains. "I had a wife and young daughter. I felt I could not leave the country and the company that had given me everything. It would have caused too much pain."
He acknowledges basic, ultimately fragile loyalties.
"I would not have been anybody without Alicia and without the revolution. I knew that, and I knew what ballet meant to everyone in my country. It was not the time to think of leaving."
In the interim, the declining political and economic fortunes of Cuba have taken a drastic toll on the National Ballet. Esquivel's marriage has been dissolved, and his daughter is virtually an adult.
"Now everything is different," he says. "My daughter is 18. I haven't seen her for two years, but it isn't so bad. We can talk on the phone, and I know the situation in Cuba will change."
Obviously, he is not here with his country's blessings, or with those of Alicia Alonso.