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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2003

From Toe Shoes to Tenure Track

Ballerina turned Historian of Latin America joins UBC

By Erica Smishek

You’d be hard pressed to find another historian with an acting credit on the Internet Movie Database, the popular entertainment industry Web site.

But check the listing for Nutcracker: The Motion Picture and you can spot Alejandra Bronfman’s name beside the role of Commedia in the 1986 production.

“It was very interesting to see how a film was made,” says Bronfman, one of five new faculty additions to UBC’s history department. “I had never witnessed the process before. It was a lot of sitting around all day, very stop-and-start. We had these extraordinary sets designed by Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are.

“It ended up being a really bad movie. But it was a fun experience -- and I made a lot of money.”

At the time, Bronfman was a soloist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. She had joined the company in 1984 following stints with the Washington Ballet in Washington, D.C., and Finis Jhung’s Chamber Ballet in New York City.

“I felt drawn to it. I guess I’m a tiny bit of a masochist,” she says of her dance career, which began once she completed high school. “It is very hard work and you have to be really self-critical.”

While she loved to perform and travel, Bronfman decided to hang up her point shoes after a decade at the barre.

“I always knew I wouldn’t do it forever,” she says. “I didn’t want to be on the stage longer than I should. It became clear I had to do something else.”

At 28 years old, college beckoned. She completed a Bachelor of Arts in History at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and her Master of Arts and PhD in History at Princeton. After a preliminary interest in early modern Europe, she soon switched to Latin America.

“I wanted to be more connected to what I was researching,” Bronfman explains. “In part it was my background [she was born in Argentina and raised outside Washington, D.C. by a Spanish mother and an Argentinean father, and speaks fluent Spanish]. But when I thought about what kind of writer I wanted to be, I wanted to be more political.

“The cultural history of Latin America appealed to me, the way that people understand the world they live in and how it’s constructed. I was interested in race and racial ideology -- and how scientists write about it.”

Bronfman specializes in 20th century Cuban history and has conducted extensive field research in the Caribbean country, to which travel is restricted for most Americans.

“The access was fine. I never had any problem going there and getting into the archives. I have a strong relationship with Cuban scholars. But when I was teaching at the University of Florida and at Yale, I had to get over people’s stereotypes of Cuba. There are so few really good ideas about Cuba in the United States. People spin these ideas without knowing anything about the country, its people or its culture.”

Bronfman has settled in Vancouver with her nine-month-old daughter and her husband, Alexander Dawson, also a historian of Latin America and a new faculty member at Simon Fraser University.

“I didn’t know much about the city before moving here,” she says. “I had performed here with the Pacific National Ballet and my husband, who is Canadian, had prepped me a little bit. Now I’m interested to discover new places and new cultures. It’s all good.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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