June 2, 2011 4:00 AM EDT

It’s the day before the premiere of Swan Lake on May 12 at Havana’s Grand Theater, and backstage, the dancers of the Cuban National Ballet (BNC) corps are vibrating with nervous energy. The final rehearsals are a prologue to more than just a local premiere: in June, the company will perform Tchaikovsky’s ballet and other classics in the U.S.—its first tour of America in eight years and the first time many of these young dancers will set foot on American soil. While Cuban-American diplomatic relations show few signs of thawing, visa exchanges for artists, writers and performers traveling between the U.S. and Cuba have increased, following tight restrictions during the Bush Administration.

In Havana, the legendary ballerina and BNC director general Alicia Alonso has settled in to watch the last rehearsals. Alonso founded the BNC (then known as the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company) in 1948; she is 90, has difficulty walking and is nearly blind. Yet she follows the dancers’ movements and the sounds of their bodies with close attention. After less than a minute, she claps her hands twice, and silence falls instantly. The grande dame is not happy. “Your movements are too slow,” she says. “Remember that you represent happiness and joy. A spectator in the last row must feel it.” As she speaks, her hands fly through the air, her face lights up, and she taps the wooden floor with her feet in rapid succession. The dancers watch her, rapt. They seem to hold their breath. And then they go again.

Dance is one of the greatest source’s of inspiration for TIME contract photographer Peter Hapak, who studied the work of legendary art director and photographer Alexey Brodovitch. In 1945, Bordovitch immortalized the art form in his unforgettable book Ballet. Hapak traveled to Havana to photograph the company before their US tour. Watching Hapak at work one feels that his passion for dance. On his knees and sometimes tiptoeing, he captures the spirit of ballet.

–Abel González Alayón

The BNC begin their US Tour with performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC through June 5th. On June 8th to 11th they perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and then travels to Costa Mesa, Calif., and Los Angeles.

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