Cuban Audiences Slow to Respond to ABT

November 8, 2010

ABT was not an instant hit in Cuba. But after two performances, a master class given by Kevin McKenzie, and two shots of David Hallberg and Paloma Herrera doing
Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,
the Cubans were hooked. And even better, there was a real exchange.


The first performance fell kind of flat, maybe because of all the buildup.
Kevin McKenzie gave a warm welcome, translated by Jose Manuel Carreño, saying how he Alicia Alonso has always been in their hearts, and that he felt the company’s tour to Cuba was like visiting relatives. Dozens of cameras were clicking away, and Alicia Alonso and Carlos Acosta were in the audience. Although American dancers have appeared at this biennial festival before, this was the first time an American company had come in ages—maybe since ABT was there 50 years ago.


ABT’s opening ballet, Balanchine’s
Theme and Variations,
got a tepid response. And Fancy Free didn’t elicit any laughs or even a sense of delight—though Carreño, Ethan Steifel, and Craig Salstein were superb. Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, which had looked so beautifully elusive when it premiered at Avery Fisher Hall last year, had no impact. The pianist playing Scarlatti sounded faint, the stage at Karl Marx Theater looked too big, and the ballet seemed long. Twyla’s Sinatra Suite, with the charismatic Carreño and an enchanting Sarah Lane did well, but the response was more for him (of course) than for the ballet.


But the second night audience warmed up to ABT. First of all, David Hallberg stepped into
and secondly Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes pulled out all the stops in Diana and Acteon. Julie Kent joined the cast of Fancy Free. (I wasn’t able to see this performance but heard about it.)


And for two later mixed-bill performances, Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg’s
Tschai Pas
roused the Cuban audience to their peak of enthusiasm. He was just bounded, with clean landings, and clearly enjoyed himself; she kept the delicacy of the slow parts even as she was strong and clean. They danced it so beautifully that I’m still humming the music.


The Cuban ballet audience likes strong drama and the thrill of virtuosity. They don’t seem to be big on humor—at least not American-style humor, like when Carreño steals the girls pocketbook in
Fancy Free
and struts like a girl. But when they love something, they actively participate. They cheer and yell and even clap on the beat along with the dancers


The downside to the vocal
of the Cuban ballet goers is their vocal enthusiasm. Ballet is as popular as sports there, and behavior in a theater can be as noisy, unruly, and contagious as in a stadium. Talking during the performance, yawning loudly, humming along with the music, reading the program notes aloud are not uncommon. It makes one appreciate the hallowed quietness of an American audience. And yet, well, it’s just more fun to be in a Cuban audience.


The exchange came in the fact that Kevin taught a rigorous master class at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba school, after which some ABT donors presented the school with piles of new ballet slippers. Also, some of the ABT dancers took the international class offered at Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Not to mention that this trip completed the circle of Alicia Alonso being a star of ABT in the 1940s, being feted at ABT last June, and now hosting ABT in her home country.


Next up: Other tantalizing highlights of the Havana International Dance Festival: Viengsay Valdes, Tamara Rojo, and a surprise piece of choreography by two young Spaniards.