From Toe Shoes to Tenure Track

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

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

“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.”