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HAVANA (Reuters) - As Britain's Royal Ballet wrapped up a five-day stay in Cuba on Saturday, it was not just the end of a tour, but the end of a career for dancer Alexandra Ansanelli.
The 28-year-old American who joined the New York City Ballet at age 15, then made the leap to the Royal Ballet in London in 2006, said she was suffering ballet burnout after so many years of performing and was ready to give up one of the top jobs in the world of dance.
"I feel good about what I've done in the field of dance. I'm just ready to grow in a new way, intellectually and emotionally," the dark-haired dancer told Reuters during the Royal Ballet's first visit to the communist-ruled island.
The life of a big-time ballerina requires such complete dedication, so many long hours of practice, that it leaves little time or energy for other things, Ansanelli said.
"The physical demands, every moment, is draining. I would literally work until I dropped," she said. "I would like to find more balance."
Balance in this case means doing something she never had a chance to do while building her dance career -- going to college. She does not know what she will study, but hopes to enroll at New York University or Columbia University in her native New York as soon as possible.
Ansanelli's casualness about her dance career may be attributable in part to the fact she fell into dance at the relatively advanced age of 12 when she really had her sights on a soccer career.
She was already being touted as a possible college soccer player when her mother suggested she take dance classes in summer camp.
She stood out and it was recommended she audition for the School of American Ballet, which, to her surprise, selected her ahead of hundreds of other girls who had been taking ballet lessons almost since they could walk.
"It was a complete shock. My nickname was 'Ziti,' for the big bowl of baked ziti I ate after every game. I was the little Italian noodle, but not so little," she joked.
So what did school directors see that they liked?
"My feet, they liked my feet. I had good arch," she said.
It turned out she also had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and secretly wore a brace to correct it for six years. There were also almost two years, after she joined the New York company, when she could not dance because of a foot injury.
Her natural athletic and dancing ability enabled her to overcome the physical problems and move quickly up the ballet ladder.
She was a principal dancer in New York until she quit in 2005. The next year, after auditioning for director Monica Mason, she joined the Royal Ballet.
She made the move because she wanted to dance the dramatic roles in the classical ballets that are the Royal Ballet's bread and butter.
Now, 2 1/2 years later, she has danced her last, closing out her career on Thursday night in Havana's Gran Teatro with the lead role in the ballet "A Month in the Country."
When it was over, Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso gave her a bouquet in front of an appreciative audience.
"The audience's reaction was very moving," she said. "I feel so blessed to have been on this tour and see the rare quality of Cuban existence -- of passion, of life without materialism, without all the excess, is something so uncommon, especially in the life I've been exposed to."
Saying goodbye to ballet has not been easy and there are things she will miss, Ansanelli said.
"When you can work on something and totally understand each other without speaking ... sharing those experiences on stage with different members of the company was just beautiful," she said.
But "I'm really in a place where I'm ready to leave dance," she said. "I've given everything to it."
Editing by Peter Cooney