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By Margaret Willis and Reny Martinez
Some like white, others prefer black. But Viengsay Valdés, Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s dazzling ballerina, likes both colors of swans. “When I’ve danced a good Act II Odette,” she says with a grin, “I know that my Odile will be good too. It’s like a reward to myself.”
The dynamic ballerina is the darling of the Cubans. For them, she is the face of today’s ballet—and Cuban people love ballet as much as baseball and cigars. They pack her performances or watch live broadcasts on TV to see her create sparks onstage with multiple pirouettes, or stay on balance “forever and a day.” With her amazing technical abilities and her bubbly personality, she enjoys the fame of a pop star in Cuba.
Outside of Cuba, international critics rave about her. British critic Ismene Brown called her “glorious, one of the great ballerinas of our time.” Mary Ellen Hunt wrote in these pages, “Viengsay Valdés could be justly famous for her rock-solid eternal balances, thrilling multiple turns, and bravura technique. But in an age of superlative technicians, it’s the passion and heart that Valdés brings to her dancing that has captivated audiences from Havana to Paris.”
During the International Ballet Festival of Havana last fall, she was dancing different roles every night. “It’s a special moment for me, this festival,” Viengsay (pronounced VEE-eng-sai) begins. “I love all my roles, but Kitri in Don Quixote is like water for me.”
She started performing Kitri at age 19. Other roles she slips into are Esmeralda, Swanilda, and Lisette (a.k.a. Lise) in La Fille Mal Gardée. “I think the hardest to act is Giselle in the mad scene.” She’s had help from the best—BNC founder Alicia Alonso, known as a great Giselle in her day. Alonso coached her in how to combine virtuosity with dramatic performance. British critic Clement Crisp wrote that her Giselle moved “from beguiling innocence to heart-torn tragedy and then to vaporous compassion with sweetest grace and displaying radiant technique throughout.”
She is phenomenal to watch for her joie de vivre, sheer abandonment, and incredible technical abilities. But it is her ability to stay serenely on pointe for longer than would seem humanly possible that adds mysetery to her performances.
How does she achieve those gasp-inducing balances? She attributes this ability to strong muscular control, “mastering of the axis—the vertical posture to the floor,” and containing her breathing. If there is more to it than that, she is not saying. But she has mathematical proof of her wondrous achievement. “My friend timed me in the studio and I stood on balance for a whole minute.” She is not shy about her prowess in turns, either. “I can do 10 pirouettes, and with fouettés, I can do five turns and end with six!”
She has toured all over the world with the company—the U.S. (before President Bush tightened the embargo), Canada, Central America, South America, Europe, as well as Egypt and China. As a guest artist with companies like Royal Danish Ballet and the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, she has taken the locals by storm and received glowing reviews.
When Viengsay was three months old, she moved to Laos, where her father was the Cuban ambassador. (Viengsay means “victory” in Laotian.) At 6 she returned to Cuba to live with her grandmother and started gymnastic classes, which she loved. However, when she put on her first pair of ballet shoes at 9 (“I had my first pointes at 11,” she adds), and enrolled at the Alejo Carpentier Provincial Ballet School, she eagerly lapped up the training. At 15 she was accepted to the Escuela National de Arte. There, under the expert guidance of Ramona da Sáa and Mirtha Hermida, she developed outstanding technique.
She admired Cuban ballerinas like Ofelia González, as well as international ballerinas. Watching videos, she has learned from The Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru and Sylvie Guillem, the Bolshoi’s Maria Alexandrova, and Alessandra Ferri. In Moscow she felt fortunate to see Diana Vishneva dance.
Valdés graduated in 1994 with the highest honors and was accepted into the company. She didn’t stay in the corps long because so many dancers were defecting at that time. (See Alicia Alonso’s full statement on defections at www.dancemagazine.com.) There was what she called a “generational hole” with not enough dancers to fill it. “So I got to dance.” She was coached by the late Josefina Méndez, one of NBC’s four “jewels” (hand-picked by Alonso to succeed her as a great ballerina). Ballet mistress Svetlana Ballester calls Valdés “an indefatigable worker” who has extreme physical talents. A year later, she was promoted to principal, and in 2001, Alonso gave her the highest rank—primera bailarina. Alonso calls her “one of the prides of our company.”
She has achieved all this despite suffering from asthma (as a young child, she was warned that she should never consider a dance career). “It all depends on the weather,” she says solemnly. “This year it’s OK, but at the last festival in 2006, I had some bad attacks.” So much so that in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux with Carlos Acosta, he had to carry her around the stage when she couldn’t dance full strength. “It’s so wonderful sharing the stage with Carlos. I told the doctor to give me something to make me better—for just seven minutes of strength. But onstage I ran out of breath.” However, she was cheered more than usual by the audience despite having walked through the last two or so minutes.
With a daily regime that starts with class at 9 am, rehearsals until lunchtime, then more rehearsals from 2–5 pm before performances (and strength training for an hour a day), Valdés has a very busy life.
Of course living in a poor, communist country has drawbacks for dancers—even for a celebrity who is often recognized in the streets. One is the limited opportunities to perform new work by foreign choreographers. “There is so much that I want to dance—MacMillan, especially his Manon, and Balanchine, Wheeldon, Forsythe.” She would like to go to another country for an extended visit if only she could get the proper visa. It’s easy to obtain a “cultural collaboration” visa for short-term gigs at galas and festivals. But to spend real time with another company, she would need a working visa, which is harder to get.
Another problem is the scarcity of pointe shoes. During her eight years in the school and then in the company up to 2004, Valdés was content to use Cuban toe shoes. But now she uses Gaynor Mindens. “When I tried these American shoes, I felt very comfortable in them,” she says. “At the beginning I had my doubts because I have very strong feet. I believed that they were too soft.” But she adapted well to them and continued sustaining incredible balances. Several of her fellow dancers use them too. “Every time we travel we try to get them, because the company doesn’t import them—and the U.S. embargo will not allow it.” They are very expensive for Cubans, but they are unusually durable, and the dancers maintain them well to lengthen their life. “I can use from 15 to 20 pairs a year.”
What does she do to relax? “I like to meet up with friends, perhaps go to a movie. If the weather is good, we go to the beach. But on Sundays, I always play dominoes with my family.”
Clearly her family means a lot to her. “Here I have my family, my friends, and I like my country. I don’t see the necessity to break away. If I have the opportunity to expand my career abroad and continue living in Cuba, it would be the ideal thing.”
And who knows, maybe the Obama White House will open up the artistic exchange between the two countries. “It would be fantastic,” she says. “I remember with happiness the warm response at New York’s City Center in 2003—every night full houses.”
Margaret Willis is a DM contributing editor based in London. Reny Martínez, Cuban dance critic and journalist, is DM’s correspondent in Havana.
Photo: Jacques Moatti, Courtesy BNC