MIAMI (Reuters) - Six dancers who defected last month from the National Ballet of Cuba, one of the country's proudest and most prestigious institutions, auditioned at a Miami ballet group on Thursday.
"They are so talented and we are thrilled to see them," said Pedro Pablo Pena, founder of the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, a nonprofit dance organization.
After an intense two-hour workout, the dancers explained that they were looking to advance their careers outside communist-led Cuba, where dancers enjoy privileged lives but earn modest salaries of $10 to $30 a month plus bonuses for foreign tours.
"Our goal is to train hard to achieve our dream of dancing and helping our families economically in Cuba," said Annie Ruiz Diaz, 24, who began dancing in Cuba at age 6 and had been with the National Ballet for almost seven years.
The defectors are staying with friends and relatives in Miami until they can find work.
"We expect to put on some events with them for the community here, but I don't have the budget to employ them full-time, unfortunately," said Pena, the host of the audition.
"But they are talented and I imagine they will find spaces in companies here in the United States," said Pena, a former dancer who came to Miami from Cuba in 1980.
The National Ballet of Cuba confirmed on Wednesday that seven members of the group had abandoned the company while touring in Mexico last month.
The dancers said they made their way to the U.S. border, where they were allowed entry under the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants special immigration privileges to Cuban exiles as well as financial benefits to help them get on their feet.
One of the dancers stayed behind in Mexico with friends, they said.
There was no mention of the defections in the state-run media in Cuba, which has seen periodic defections of artists and athletes since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959.
Speaking at an event in Washington, the chief of the Cuba Interests Section, Jose Cabanas, blamed the defections on the Cuban Adjustment Act because he said it makes it easy for any Cuban to enter the United States.
"The press is going after the defections - but the real questions are related to those pieces of legislation that create those situations that are nice for the cameras and the microphones," he said.
The dancers - five men and two women between the ages of 20 and 24 - quit the company at the end of a nine-day tour performing "Giselle" in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
After a night of emotional farewells with fellow dancers, they said they left their hotel before dawn on March 25 and headed by bus and car to the U.S. border.
"There were a lot of tears. We loved dancing for the company and we have a lot of friends," said Arianni Martin, a 20-year-old soloist who had been with the company for two years and was earning $10 a month.
She said she was paid $225 for the Yucatan tour.
The Cuban national ballet, known for its classical style and for producing world-class dancers, regularly makes international tours.
Over the years, many of its dancers have defected and joined other companies abroad, often saying they want to explore contemporary dance forms and build more lucrative careers outside Cuba.
Others have been allowed to leave Cuba on contract to foreign ballet companies. They include Carlos Acosta with the Royal Ballet in London and Jose Manuel Carreno, who retired in 2011 as a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in New York.
"Artistically I felt stagnant and economically I couldn't help my family," said Martin.
Her parents have government jobs - her father drives a delivery truck and her mother looks after the elderly. But Martin said she was not worried about reprisals against her family.
"So many dancers leave, and I think the company understands that's part of the risk of our touring abroad," she said.
Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso founded the National Ballet of Cuba in 1948 and, at the age of 91, despite being nearly blind, continues as its artistic director.
Cuba provides free training to thousands of young dancers around the country from the age of 9, with the elite graduating to the National Ballet.
The company has struggled financially in recent years and now accepts fee-paying dance students from abroad.
The school's Havana headquarters, located in a colonial-era former palace, is also undergoing expensive repairs after parts of the ceiling collapsed.
The 120-strong company is likely to overcome the loss of seven members, said Octavio Roca, a Cuban-American philosophy teacher and author of the book, "Cuban Ballet."
"It hurts them of course, but they have a great farm system, so much young talent coming up. It's an incredible program," he said.
Additional reporting by Jeff Franks and Nelson Acosta in Havana and Deborah Charles in Washington; Editing by Kieran Murray and Xavier Briand