Dance Matters: ABT in Cuba

January 11, 2011

Since 1960, the International Ballet Festival of Havana has attracted top names in ballet: Carla Fracci, Mats Ek, Sylvie Guillem, Julio Bocca. But because of the U.S.-imposed embargo, few Americans have appeared—among them, Cynthia Gregory, Virginia Johnson, Damian Woetzel, and Judith Jamison (!). The only major American company was The Washington Ballet in 2000 (artistic director Septime Webre is part Cuban).


That changed last fall, when American Ballet Theatre performed in the 5,000-seat Karl Marx Theater as part of the 22nd biennial International Ballet Festival—the company’s first trip to Cuba in 50 years. Artistic director Kevin McKenzie greeted the audience warmly and declared that Alicia Alonso (the ABT star who went on to found Ballet Nacional de Cuba) had always stayed in their hearts. He recalled that when he guested in BNC’s Swan Lake in 1986, a talented 15-year-old boy named Jose Manuel Carreño played Benno to his Siegfried. On the stage translating his remarks was that same Carreño, now a ballet superstar.


With all the warm feelings going around, and cameras clicking away, it was surprising that the performance got only scattered response that first night. In honor of Alicia Alonso, the program opened with Theme and Variations, which Balanchine had made on her in 1947. The casting wasn’t pitch perfect and the music wasn’t played well. The Corsaire pas de deux, with Carreño and Paloma Herrera, and Sinatra Suite, with Carreño and a ravishing Sarah Lane, fared better. But Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas and Robbins’ Fancy Free also fell flat—though both were danced superbly.


ABT didn’t tap into the famous Cuban enthusiasm until its second night, when David Hallberg stepped into Theme, and Carreño and Cuban-born Xiomara Reyes wowed ’em with Diana and Acteon. And for two later mixed-bills shared with dancers from other international companies, Herrera and Hallberg’s fabulous Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux roused the Cuban audience to their peak fervor.


The exchange went beyond the stage into the studios. McKenzie taught a two-hour master class at the National Ballet of Cuba’s school (demonstrating every step full out), after which about a hundred students practically smothered him for a photo op. Then executive director Rachel Moore presented the school with more than 500 pairs of new ballet slippers, courtesy of ABT and Payless.


McKenzie said later that he was impressed by the athleticism and determination of the students. (One boy was so determined that during his manège he accidentally rammed into McKenzie, clipping him on the shins.)


And some of the ABT dancers took the international classes offered by BNC. After a class taught by one of Alonso’s “jewels,” Loipa Araújo, David Hallberg approached Araújo to help him with the pirouette in Theme that ends with a grand rond de jambe.


Simone Messmer, an ABT soloist who speaks Spanish, said she loved performing for “an educated, hungry audience” and became “addicted” to the rigorous classes. But more than that, she found the Cuban enthusiasm everywhere. “When Cory Stearns came off the stage in Theme, a stagehand told him, ‘You can do it!’ ” And her cab driver, who had coincidentally driven her to the theater the night before, exclaimed, “I watched you on TV last night!”


But the person who may have been most gratified was Jose Manuel Carreño, who had taken a group of fellow dancers to Old Havana. “It was a dream come true,” he said. “A dream I’ve been living with for years.” —Wendy Perron


Jose Manuel Carreno, Alicia Alonso, and Kevin McKenzie take a bow.