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By Michael Crabb
Until a few years ago the roof in the upstairs studio routinely leaked. Buckets were placed to collect the drops during rainstorms. Not that the floor—uneven, pitted, and rotting in places—wasn’t wet anyway. With no air-conditioning and a tropical climate, hazardous sweat pools needed occasional mopping up. Yet when the light streams through the stained-glass windows, this is a magical sanctum of dance.
Welcome to the Havana headquarters of one of the dance world’s most astounding and improbable achievements, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Renowned for its passionate commitment to classical dancing—with a stylish Latin inflection—it has produced some of today’s most dazzling artists. Cuban dancers now spice up companies worldwide, including San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey, and Sarasota Ballet.
Conditions at the company’s home on a tree-shaded street in Havana’s once fashionable Vedado district are greatly improved after last year’s completion of a lengthy renovation. Still, in terms of facilities and resources, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba defies all odds.
Its operating budget comes from the Caribbean island’s communist government, supplemented by revenue from overseas touring and various gifts from friends abroad. But it’s never enough.
Domestically produced pointe shoes would make most ballerinas blanch and are worn to extinction. Only Cuban ingenuity—the same that keeps fume-belching, 1950s-era American automobiles operative in Havana—explains how Ballet Nacional craftsmen create sets and costumes from often recycled materials. The dancers, even if they do better than some of their fellow citizens, are poorly paid.
There are compensations. Cuba boasts free universal health care and education. And the people adore ballet as much as baseball. Book a cab to take you to the Gran Teatro—the ornate, neo-Baroque opera house in downtown Havana where the Ballet Nacional performs—and chances are the driver will not only know what’s playing but who’s dancing the lead. He may even offer an opinion on whether she’s any good.
Audiences throng to see classical story ballets filled with princes and princesses, rooted in an age of aristocracy. You won’t find Cuban equivalents of Soviet or Chinese Cultural Revolution–era dance dramas extolling the virtues of the working masses. Homegrown ballets such as A Night in the Tropics or Man in the Moon reflect an unabashed Cuban preference for dance as entertainment and romance.
Those who can’t get hold of a ticket for a live performance—priced for locals at a fraction of the cost to foreigners—can often watch their ballet on television, beamed to the island’s 11.3 million inhabitants by the national broadcaster.
Cubans don’t just relish ballet. They’re proud to know their national company has made an indelible impression in major capitals. When superstar alums such as Carlos Acosta or Jose Manuel Carreño return home to perform, they’re greeted like conquering heroes.
Now, after nearly a decade’s absence, American ballet fans have a chance to rediscover what makes the Ballet Nacional so special. From May 31 to June 26 the company is touring four cities. One program, “La Magia de la Danza” (The Magic of Dance), offers classical excerpts: Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote, plus the cheery, samba-inclined Gottschalk Symphony. It comes to Costa Mesa, Los Angeles, Washington, and New York. The last three cities also get to see the effervescent, full-length Don Quixote, staged by artistic director Alicia Alonso in the Petipa/ Gorsky tradition.
The repertoire showcases the fabled glories of the Cuban female corps—an instinctive cohesion of spirit that surmounts precision drilling—and the eye-popping virtuosity of today’s generation of leading Ballet Nacional dancers. These include such women as Sadaise Arencibia, Anette Delgado, and she of the impossibly long balances, Viengsay Valdés.
Cubans clearly embrace the nobility of the classical ballet idiom. A soaring jump is not merely athletic display; it is an expression of higher emotional aspiration, a reach for the sky. Those legendary pirouettes—and Havana must surely be pirouette capital of the world—exemplify how dedication, will, and spirit can achieve the seemingly impossible. “Dancers must convey an emotion, a feeling,” says Alonso, “or the classics are empty and meaningless.”
The Cuban training distills all that Alonso absorbed during her years training as a teenager in New York, where, at age 15, she eloped with her first husband, Fernando Alonso. And she never stopped. From Alexandra Fedorova to Vera Volkova, “I was like a sponge, always ready to learn.”
There’s a clear Russian foundation in the openness and expressiveness of the upper body of the Cuban style. But its lyrical potential is governed by a rhythmic impulse embedded in Cuba’s Afro-Iberian-Caribbean culture. It gives the Cubans—the men as well as the women—an unforced yet beguiling sensuality.
But what of the repertoire? A hunk of it is the sight-impaired Alonso’s handiwork and tends toward a time-warped aesthetic that’s quaintly attuned to her experience as an international star of the 1950s and ’60s. Her own ballets channel any number of Ballet Theatre choreographers—Fokine, Massine, de Mille, Tudor—yet are more valuable as vehicles for her dancers than as art in themselves. As foreign critics attending the Ballet Nacional’s biennial international festivals in Havana have often observed, new work is not the company’s strong point. Try naming a contemporary Cuban ballet choreographer of international repute and you’ll quickly come up short.
Much as they adore the classics, this is not a reflection of narrow Cuban taste. Foreign troupes that bring unfamiliar, sometimes startlingly modern ballet to Havana are often surprised by the enthusiastic response. When The Royal Ballet danced in Havana in 2009, the biggest hit, according to principal dancer Tamara Rojo, was Wayne McGregor’s starkly beautiful Chroma. Iconoclast Mats Ek and his wife, Ana Laguna, were loudly cheered for their quirky performances at the 2006 festival.
Cuban audiences are sometimes wrongly accused of responding to ballet as something akin to a circus act, applauding technical feats over artistry. In fact, they seem pretty much up for anything new, so long as it’s choreographically intriguing and well danced. The Ballet Nacional, however, continues to reflect the 90-year-old Alonso’s devotion to classicism—as she teaches it.
Of course, without Alonso there would be no Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She is clearly Cuba’s cultural monarch. Even President Raúl Castro has bowed to kiss her hand in public. She did not create a ballet-loving society and an acclaimed ballet company alone. Nevertheless, it is the combination of will, guile, ruthlessness, and political savvy that has enabled Alonso to turn her own artistry and stellar reputation into an institution of positive impact.
She has bestowed the gift of ballet on Cuba and is justly worshipped for it. However, Alonso seems reluctant to pass the torch and somewhat unsympathetic to those who crave the kind of artistic stimulation that dancers today in other companies take for granted.
Ballet Nacional has been leaking dancers for decades. A handful (including Acosta and Carreño) have been granted permission to come and go. Others have either languished or taken matters into their own hands.
Since 2007 the company has been making annual visits to Canada, a social democracy that has never treated Cuba as a pariah. Almost invariably dancers have fled on each occasion. In February, during a tour to Montreal, five, including principal Elier Bourzac, former partner of Viengsay Valdés, made the achingly difficult decision to stay.
Hayna Gutierrez, who left during a 2007 tour, now dances with Alberta Ballet. “If you’re a dancer, choreography is your food,” she says. “You can’t eat spaghetti all the time. Most of the dancers are looking for new repertoire, new artistic input, and new challenges.”
Anyone who has followed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba will easily understand Gutierrez’s viewpoint. At the same time they can only applaud what Alicia Alonso has accomplished, even as they worry about the future of a company that deeply stirs the heart.
Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.
Top: Viengsay Valdés in costume for Luc Bouy’s El Perfume. Photo by Matthew Karas. Bottom: Canto Vital by Azari Plisetski, with Yanier Gómez, Serafín Castro, and José Losada. Photo by Nan Melville.