Not many professional male ballet dancers happen to be Jewish. In fact, Alexander Castillo, a member of the corps de ballet for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, only knows four besides himself.
Being Jewish is not the only thing that makes Castillo a bit atypical in the world of the arts. On Instagram, the native New Yorker describes himself as an “American Patriot,” “Israel Supporter” and “Conservative.”
“Even before I converted, I saw the necessity and importance behind supporting the nation of Israel, and it only intensified after I converted, and after I put more time and effort into really delving into these modern political issues,” he said. “I would definitely say I’m a rare breed, in the arts especially, just because I don’t fit into that political realm at all. I grew up in a very conservative household, and I share a lot of those values.”
After spending six years dancing with the Los Angeles Ballet, Castillo moved to Pittsburgh in 2016 to join the PBT, and to be closer to his family in New York and his wife’s family in Hollidaysburg, Pa., near Altoona. The couple has since found a home in Brookline and are members of Beth El of the South Hills, where Castillo regularly attends Shabbat services.
Castillo met his wife, Dina, while they were both training as dancers at the School of American Ballet in New York City, and they began dating while they were dancing for the Los Angeles Ballet. Dina has swapped ballet for a career in real estate, although she still teaches from time to time.
Castillo converted from Catholicism to Judaism shortly before he and Dina were married, but his impending marriage did not influence his decision to become Jewish, he said.
“I know it’s common that people convert for marriage, but I always make it really clear to people — and I think once they get to know me they realize that my conversion had nothing to do with me marrying my wife. There was just something that clicked, and I just found the beauty of Judaism, and it has really become a very, very important part of my life.”
Castillo came to ballet a bit late in the game, not taking up the discipline until he was almost 14.
Influenced by his mother, who he referred to as a “recreational dancer,” Castillo was initiated into the world of dance with tap lessons when he was a child. When he was first introduced to ballet, he “hated it,” he said. Fortunately that feeling did not last too long, and after spending a summer with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, Pa., he knew for sure that he was headed to a professional career as a ballet dancer.
The deal was sealed that summer when he saw a VHS recording of one of his peers performing in the ballet “Petite Mort” by Jiří Kylián.
“That ballet starts off with these strong male dancers, no music, just bodies, and it really captured me and drew me in and impacted me in a way that just … right there I thought, ‘I want to do this,’” he said.
Coincidentally, “Petite Mort” is included in this season’s PBT lineup as part of its “Mozart in Motion” program, running Oct. 26-28. “Petite Mort” juxtaposes the slow movements of two Mozart piano concertos with dancing that integrates baroque dresses, fencing foils and black silks.
While the dancers for the PBT’s production of “Petite Mort” have not yet been selected, Castillo said he is “keeping my fingers crossed” that he is chosen to dance that piece. “It’s a dream ballet. It’s what, I can easily say, started the whole thing for me.”
Another dream of Castillo’s is to visit the Jewish state, he said.
“I have not yet been to Israel,” said the 27-year-old dancer, noting that he recently heard that Birthright had added a trip for those aged 27-32. “I am desperately trying to look into finding the time to go on Birthright.”
In addition to “Mozart in Motion,” the PBT’s five-ballet season also includes: “The Nutcracker,” “The Great Gatsby” with the PBT Orchestra, “Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre + Dance Theatre of Harlem,” and “The Sleeping Beauty” with the PBT Orchestra.
“This season offers something for every palette,” said PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr. “Audiences will see masterworks by George Balanchine and Jiří Kylián alongside great classics like ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’ We also look forward to continuing our partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem and retelling ‘The Great Gatsby’ through the fresh eyes of choreographer Jorden Morris.
“I think this season speaks to ballet’s versatility of technique, musical influences and meaning, and we look forward to sharing it all with our audiences.” PJC