Trent: Some kids are going to do only what other kids are doing.
David: Also, maybe they’re not talented.
Trent: Everyone’s talented at something. My dad plays accordion. And if you work enough you can get what you want.
David: Maybe …
David’s parents met in Havana in 1991. Yanek, already a successful young actress there, was onstage when she spotted David Sr. in the audience. In one of their first conversations they confided their desire to leave Cuba, where his prospects as a young scientist seemed dim and hers as an actress limited; they couldn’t even read a Milan Kundera novel in public without wrapping it in a socialist magazine.
They developed a plan worthy of Lubitsch. Yanek would start a theater company whose sole, secret purpose was to get a foreign impresario to invite them abroad so they could defect upon arrival. For two years the troupe toured Cuban cities performing a play for Communist youth. David Sr., who appeared as “The Russian,” was terrible: “I was supposed to be funny but never got one laugh,” he says. Eventually, an invitation came from Montreal. Not until a day before their departure in July 1993 did they tell their parents the plan, which came with a terrible price. Though they could smuggle out their books as props in the play, they would have to leave everything else behind, including Yanek’s 4-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
David Sr., 37, narrates this story in accented but very good English. He is small and adorable, like his son. Yanek, 40, only occasionally interjects, usually in Spanish. She cuts a more dramatic, voluptuous figure, dressed all in black, not like a New Yorker but like a character out of Chekhov or Lorca.
“It was four hours on the plane,” David Sr. continues. “We barely spoke; we just held hands. We didn’t know what would happen, or what to do once we got there. But the Canadians—we were shocked to hear them talking in French—processed us and took care of us. We were taken to a hotel on Ste.-Catherine Street, with lights and people and freedom everywhere. We had never seen a bank or a pay phone. In Cuba they say that in capitalist countries, people shoot each other in the street all the time. When we heard a car backfire, we thought it was a shooting. But we quickly realized that we were safe. Canada gave us welfare and sent us to school to learn English and French. I was so very happy! I was able to study and say and read what I wanted and move ahead in my work. But for Yanek … ”
Yanek looks away.
“It was not all happy. She could not really do her work in Canada, because of her accent. She had a … harder time integrating.”
Perhaps it was in some sort of sympathy that David, born a year after his parents’ arrival in Montreal, did not utter a word except mami or mima or meme until he was 5. They didn’t mind; he was very physical and communicated perfectly just using his body. That’s why they started him in ballet class, where he immediately flourished. When he did finally begin talking he had an accent that uncannily recapitulated his family history: French cadences overlaying Spanish consonants. He has been hard at work with the show’s vocal coach to remove it.
Used to starting over, the family—including Yanek’s daughter, retrieved from Cuba after two years—moved to San Diego in 2003, where David continued dancing. In 2006 he was offered a full scholarship to come to New York and further his studies at American Ballet Theatre. Soon after they arrived, Nora Brennan saw a picture of David on ABT’s Website and called to ask him to audition for Billy Elliot.
“At first we say no because it’s Broadway,” recalls David Sr., now an assistant professor of biotechnology at Kean University in New Jersey. “But Nora was insistent. ABT got in a panic because it would take his focus away. But Baryshnikov has done a Broadway show! So we said yes. It was a year of hard work. Sometimes he felt anxious because maybe they would say at the very end, ‘No thank you.’ Maybe because he was so quiet, or has an accent, or never studied tap. We comforted ourselves that even if he didn’t get it, it would have been worth it. But we really wanted it.”
When they finally got word, on March 1, Yanek turned to her son and said, “You look like Napoleon. Now you need to conquest.”
Their history has taught the Alvarezes that no gift is forever. Though they hope to spend some of David’s earnings on a bigger apartment, beyond that they do not make assumptions. David may be learning the same lesson. In accordance with industry standards, he spends fifteen hours a week getting what the tutoring company calls a “parallel education.” The ensemble kids are taught in a rehearsal studio ten blocks away; the seven principal kids in a grimy room above the Imperial’s lobby. During a recent giddy science class there, in which partially eaten atomic models (made from gumdrops) moldered in a corner, David was disappointed to find that the prize for winning a game of Elements Bingo was merely “a sense of achievement.” In English class, some of the boys were reading Flowers for Algernon, a book perhaps too on-the-nose, being the story of a childlike man with a gift that is immense, inexplicable, and fleeting.