She was sitting in the back of the studio rummaging through her dance bag while Tchaikovsky played on tape. Suddenly, when the right music came on, she sprang up to do the 32 fouettés of the Black Swan coda, sprinkling them with triples and quadruples. I was in awe.
This is one of my memories of the astonishing Viengsay Valdés last fall when I visited the International Ballet Festival of Havana. All the centeredness, energy, stamina, and skill it took to pull that off was typical of a Ballet Nacional de Cuba principal. And then seeing her onstage in Swan Lake, with thousands of people screaming during her long balances and clapping along with her hops on pointe, was to witness the joy shared between the Cuban audience and its favorite performers.
It’ll be interesting to see if Valdés creates the same frenzy in American audiences when BNC comes to the U.S. this month. After almost eight years, the company makes its first visit here with—no surprise—Don Quixote, plus a program of assorted classical excerpts. Don’t expect any new choreography, but do expect glorious dancing. Even though the company has continually “leaked” dancers, as Michael Crabb puts it in his story “Passion and Pride,” it still has wonderful interpreters, with Valdés topping the list.
What’s special about BNC dancers? A combination of being born into a music-rich culture and an intense work ethic. With her strict hand and excellent training, Alicia Alonso, the force behind Cuban ballet, has provided the international ballet world with colorful virtuosos. They’ve left Cuba and fanned out, enriching American, British, and Canadian companies.
From The Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta to American Ballet Theatre’s Jose Manuel Carreño (who, sadly, retires this month), from the Feijóo sisters to Miguel Angel Blanco at the Joffrey, from Joan Boada at San Francisco Ballet to Octavio Martin at Sarasota Ballet, Cuban charisma has energized ballet on an international scale.
The latest Cuban to find shelter in Canada’s Alberta Ballet is Elier Bourzac, our cover girl’s partner till he defected last winter. But don’t worry, Viengsay has already trained a new partner—she’s done it before. Read my interview with her, “Cuba’s Favorite Daughter,” to find out what keeps her in Cuba when so many of her compatriots choose to leave. She’s got a mission—or two.
Photo by Matthew Karas.