Principal Dancer Nelson Peña on dancing Fokine masterpieces

Nelson J. Peña Núñez. Photo by Nikolay Postnikov

Cuban born principal dancer Nelson Peña left his home country and home ballet company to dance with the Abay Kazakh State Ballet Theatre in Kazakstan, Central Asian. The company has been leading a campaign to showcase their culture and ballet to the world, bringing Nelson to London to perform two of Fokine’s masterpieces Chopiniana and Scheherazade. Nelson gives us a glimpse into his dance world:

You were born in Cuba, when did you start dancing?
I started dancing at the age of 9, at the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana.

What inspired you to become a professional dancer?
When I first saw the Cuban National Ballet as a child – at that moment I knew that I wanted to be a professional dancer.

Nelson J. Peña Núñez. Photo by Boris L. Muriedas
Nelson J. Peña Núñez. Photo by Boris L. Muriedas

You moved to Russia, what led you to the move from Cuba?
Russia is a country with more tradition and quality in terms of ballet. It is the country where more theatres and ballet companies exist. I tried it and it worked out well. In Cuba the level of the ballet is good, but there are very few options and opportunities for dancers.

What was your experience of moving from warm Cuba to freezing Eastern Europe? 

The difference is huge, especially in the people. In Cuba, they are much warmer and more sociable. As for the cold, personally I like it. But when temperatures are extreme, I think it is not pleasant for anyone.

Describe your typical day?
My training starts every morning with stretching and exercises that help me warm up and prepare my body to start the daily class. Then I start class. Then rehearsal. The number of trials depends on the workload you have at the time.

As a dancer, what are the differences between the two countries and the dance scene?
In Cuba, the public works a lot for their dancers and rewards the technique a lot. However, in Russia or Europe, they are less effusive and value the artistic part more.

Nelson J. Peña Núñez and Nargiz Ulanovna. Photo by Askhat Nurekin
Nelson J. Peña Núñez and Nargiz Ulanovna. Photo by Askhat Nurekin

What’s your favourite role that you’ve danced and why?
Sword (bullfighter) in Don Quixote, because it has a lot to do with me and my culture.

What has been your greatest challenge as a dancer and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge has been to reach countries like Russia or Kazakhstan, without anyone knowing me and gradually make a career and reputation in the companies where I have worked.

Describe dancing in Fokine’s classics, Chopiniana and Scheherazade, which Abay Kazakh Ballet performed in London?
They are two completely different ballets. I have danced both as the protagonist. The first Chopiniana, is a purely classic romantic, very traditional and ethereal. The second Scheherazade, is a ballet with oriental culture, that I like the most. It is more earthly, less fanciful, more real. Both are interesting to dance. But I like Scheherazade more.

Nelson J. Peña Núñez. Photo by Nikolay Postnikov
Nelson J. Peña Núñez. Photo by Nikolay Postnikov

What makes Abay Kazakh Ballet special to you?
Abay has made me a better dancer and a better artist. I am very grateful to the excellent teachers who have worked and work in this theatre. All are very competent and professional.

What’s life like in Kazakhstan?
Life in Kazakhstan is more or less like in most western countries. Only with less standard of living, but much better than many imagine.

Read our review of Abay Kazakh State Ballet Theatre.