DT caught Xiomara Reyes in early October, just a few weeks into her new job as head of The Washington School of Ballet in Washington, DC. The former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer had recently relocated from New York City with her husband Rinat Imaev, and immediately begun working long days and nights in an effort to get to know the institution better.
Asked about her future plans, she graciously admitted that she had yet to see how the budget might allow for certain changes and was still a few days away from the first meeting of the board. She was already formulating plans, though, likening the experience of learning on the job to getting comfortable with a new ballet. "Right now, I see a problem, and I just try to solve it," she says. "But I look forward to the moment when I can begin to walk through it, and maybe a year from now, when I have learned more, I will eventually have more control over all of the steps."
Xiomara Reyes is the new head of The Washington School of Ballet. Enrollment: nearly 1,900. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Two months after Septime Webre announced in early 2016 that he would be resigning as artistic director of The Washington Ballet, a press release announced the near-simultaneous departure of longtime school director Kee Juan Han. Though one event had nothing to do with the other—Han had, in fact, given his resignation to the board weeks before Webre, out of a desire to return to his native Singapore—the outcome was nonetheless the same: The new director of TWB, Julie Kent, would need a new school director to oversee two busy locations, a trainee company and various community outreach programs, come fall. Reyes, with her mix of Vaganova and Cuban-style backgrounds, exemplifies the classical style of ballet Kent is after for the school, and Reyes' nurturing personality dovetails with TWSB's mission of shaping young lives through the practice of performing art.
"I had seen Xiomara work with children at IBStage summer program," says Kent. "I saw her commitment, how moved she was when the students made progress. And when we were teaching together, I could tell we felt similarly about how impactful the study of a classical art can be on young lives."
Reyes' instincts have developed out of a prestigious ballet pedigree. She grew up in Cuba, training at the Cuban National Ballet School and performing with Joven Guardia de Cuba under Alicia Alonso's daughter Laura Alonso. "I was influenced by very strong, loving teachers who felt the passion for dance, like Laura Alonso," says Reyes. "She worked extremely hard but had such a charismatic personality. I was glued to her. She was demanding, but you wanted to do it, and there was a feeling of wonder always that has shaped the way I teach."
As Kitri in American BalletTheatre's Don Quixote.
Reyes eventually performed as a soloist with the National Ballet of Cuba and won several awards at International Ballet Competitions in Luxembourg and Peru and IBC Varna before moving on to the Royal Ballet of Flanders, where she first met her husband, and American Ballet Theatre, where she danced for 14 years and made a name for herself in expressive roles, such as Giselle and Swanilda. "Everybody tries to follow her when she is teaching, because she can show the movement alive and how it is supposed to be danced," says Imaev of Reyes, noting how her approach in the front of the room mirrors her gifts as a dancer and storyteller. "It is not just an exercise for her. She insists on positions and musicality, asks for every moment to mean something."
Performing the title role in Giselle
Imaev has also joined TWSB as senior faculty and company teacher and will focus on developing the trainees and upper levels of the school. With a joint background that spans both Vaganova and Cuban training methods, as well as classical and contemporary ballet repertory, Reyes and Imaev are also well-versed in the extreme positions, turnout, delicate port de bras and core strength required of dancers today.
Kent had a long list of reasons for appointing Reyes to help her manage the school, beyond the trust that developed between them over years spent sharing roles at American Ballet Theatre and as friends. Her humble and hardworking temperament—Reyes is known in the professional ballet world as anything but a diva—balances the strict demands of ballet training with the kind of humanity and nurturing care young dancers need to become both successful artists and respectable citizens.
"I am not a mother, but somehow that maternal instinct is there," Reyes says. "I am there to give boundaries but with a loving touch. I love kids and want them to do better, and I hope they can feel that from me."
With a faculty of 40 and staff of 11, Reyesmanages campuses in Northwest DC, Southwest DC and The Joe, which houses adult classes. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Both Reyes and Kent also have a desire to foster a closer relationship between the school and the company, from pre-ballet to the stage, and to continue shaping lives in the DC area in the tradition of school co-founder Mary Day. "I knew that I could express to Xiomara and Rinat the very particular circumstance we have here as a school with a 75-year history," says Kent. "The role of the ballet school is important in the lives of these dancers, less so as a career vehicle and more so in shaping lives, and we want their hours here to be beneficial and supportive."
And for those on the career track? Reyes sees the closer relationship as a chance to provide valuable role models in addition to pre-professional training and performance opportunities. "When I was in school, I could look up to my idols in the company," says Reyes. "It is important for aspiring professionals to have a person in front of them who is walking that path, a person to idolize and a path to follow."
As she settles in to her new post in the nation's capital, Reyes is not looking to emulate any particular school. "I just want to be as creative as I can," she explains, feeling unfettered from strict adherence to any one ballet tradition. "If you try to follow a model too much, you miss out on an opportunity that this particular place has to offer and develop."
Photo by Jim Lafferty
But as she ponders the future in general, her tone is at once more urgent and impassioned. "While alignment and core strength are really important, I also think how you educate young dancers to not only be good at their craft, but good people in general, who can find happiness in their own little bodies and also be happy for the successes of others, is important," she says. "I want to stand for being a good human, and given the world right now, I take that mission very seriously."