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By Barbara Newman
A trim woman who radiates complete authority as she patrols her classes, Loipa Araújo gives corrections at the barre with the firm touch of a finger, and her alert gaze opens a private conversation with each dancer in turn. Born in Havana, where she studied with Alicia and Fernando Alonso (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” April 2008), she joined the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1959 and led that company as a first dancer and prima ballerina until 1997. Known as one of the “four jewels of Cuban ballet,” she was among the first Cuban artists to appear in international competitions. She won a gold medal at Varna in 1965 and a silver in Moscow in 1969. Today she shares her knowledge eagerly, as a master teacher at home and as a guest of the world’s leading companies, including The Royal Danish Ballet, where she will be teaching again this month. Last fall Araújo taught at The Royal Ballet, where Barbara Newman watched one of her classes before talking to her.
Were Fernando and Alicia your most important teachers? I had a very critical eye on myself, even as a young dancer. You solve all your problems just facing them, without hiding yourself from them. Fernando would come after a performance and say, “You danced very well but…” And then the “buts” started, and they never ended. That’s one of his teachings that has had a profound meaning in my life, not only as a dancer but also as a teacher. He said, “You can never be satisfied. You can be happy, but after that moment you always have to look for the things that didn’t go well.” Alicia wasn’t teaching, really. She was the living example. She took a lot of classes with us. Even when she was not dancing in Cuba, she would come and rehearse with us and show us how to do things.
Have you transferred anything from Fernando’s class to your own teaching? Yes, many things. He made us feel that the class was meant for us individually. So one of the first things the teacher should learn is the personalities of the people they’re working with. That’s what I try, to connect with people one at a time, and to respect all the personalities, because you cannot make people dance the way you would dance. The only thing a teacher can do is to make them dance in their own way.
And also Fernando would change exercises, he would always have us alert. You cannot do the same class for a whole week, because when you know what’s going to happen, you can sleep while you’re doing it. Class should be a challenge of the teacher giving the students something they have to surpass, so they finish the class having done better and more.
Cuban dancers bring confidence, ease, and a beautiful finish to their pirouettes. How do they learn to do that? You achieve this by working on a very high demi-pointe. You cannot turn on a low demi-pointe; the less contact you have with the floor, the easier to turn—it’s like a screw. And you always have to feel that you’re going up. The passé should be even higher than the knee, almost the sensation that the foot is pulling up. This helps you lift your weight. When you turn there are always two forces on you, pushing in and pushing out. So when you close your arms, you have to feel that you’re holding air. And you keep that air, because as soon as you open your arms, the outward force will take it away and you will fall. So pirouette is a technique of getting into position and holding that position until the end. And always Fernando said, “Pirouette finishes up. Then you can open wherever you want, but you have to finish up.”
Is there also a technique for developing strong, flexible feet? Yes, working a lot in fifth at the barre and making the feet come and go and come and go. And a lot of relevés—everything in relevé—to give you strength in your ankles and your toes. And pointing. In the school we do a lot of tendus and make them hold for four or eight counts, then flex and hold again, just to feel the sensation. Fernando and Alicia would say, “Everything is out.” You don’t shrink. On the contrary, you dance up, always, and out, long legs, long knees, working the muscles that start in the toes and finish at the top of the head.
What goes into the Cuban style that makes the dancers so distinctive? It’s a little bit of everything. First, being born in a sunny place in a country whose people’s characteristic is being gay and happy, we even make jokes out of our problems. We suffer, but we’re very positive for life, and we always think that things can be solved. We don’t let things push us down. That’s the natural characteristic of the country. And then the school. Noverre explained the technique long ago, tendus and everything. But the school has been very well put together, picking up what kind of arabesque would be better for us, the position of the hips, the high passés, the high relevés, that would suit our personality and the way our bodies are made.
We are very sensual; as Latins we have African and Spanish and Chinese blood inside. The women are very sensual and the men are very strong, so that makes a good combination doing a pas de deux.
We love dancing. We say that the little ones start first to dance, then to walk. As soon as they hear music they start moving. And everything we do, we just go for it, 100 percent.
Photo by Andrej Uspenski.