Enchanted by Cuba

March 2, 2007

Havana is a city where, when you tell a taxi driver to take you to the theater to see a ballet, he (or she) asks, “Who is dancing tonight?” Tickets for the biannual International Ballet Festival of Havana are sold out weeks in advance. The audience, a mix of all economic classes, bursts into applause when their favorites appear. There’s yelling and clapping even before the dancers enter the stage-just the first notes of familiar recorded music can drive the crowd into a frenzy.

In this country where buildings are made of ancient stone and the cars hark back to the American fifties, ballet is king. Or rather queen. When Alicia Alonso, the former Ballet Theatre superstar who founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, arrives to take her seat in the house, she is greeted with applause befitting a people’s heroine. There’s even a popular ice cream called Coppelia-so named in her honor.

During the 20th edition of the festival last fall, stars from around the world-except, of course, the U.S.-came to share in this feast of dancing. Carlos Acosta, Julio Bocca, Carla Fracci, Jose Manuel Carreno, and the latest young partners from the Bolshoi, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, added luster to the festival, which spread out over several venues.

The Company

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the world famous company that produces the festival, occupies a building of light-filled studios in the lively Vedado district. The doors and windows of the rehearsal rooms are wide open in this tropical climate. Sunlight streams through the stained glass transoms, projecting aqua and red patches on the floor. In the second floor studio, dancers can step outside onto a narrow terrace and take in even more sun.

American Ballet Theatre’s Jose Manuel Carreno, who comes from a ballet family here, takes class from ballet mistress Carmen Hechavarria, a former classmate. Fresh from class, he told this visitor, “I love the energy here. I always recharge my batteries when I come.”

What is that energy? How does the Cuban training produce so many exciting dancers? There’s Acosta, Carreno, Lorena and Lorna Feijoo, and younger ones like Rolando Sarabia, now at Houston Ballet. The short answer, I would say, is the combination of a culture that loves to dance and the ironclad discipline of Alicia Alonso.

Clean lines and fast footwork lie at the heart of Alonso’s approach, says Hechavarria, who has written a book on her technique. For example in passe, the toe must point to the knee and never cross it. But she also teaches dancers to interact onstage in a way that makes the characters as real as everyday life.

What is the secret of the super-long balances of the women (most spectacularly reigning star Viengsay Valdes) and the endless pirouettes of the men? “Alicia taught us to concentrate with our eyes closed,” Hechavarria said through a translator. (Alonso started losing her eyesight at a young age.) She also pointed out that the body type of the Cuban women necessitates lots of pulling up.

Undoubtedly, this training accounts for the exquisite effect of BNC in Fokine’s Les Sylphides during the festival. With feather-light billowy arms, the corps de ballet breathed as one. They were constantly, subtly, in motion-a rapturous vision of femininity in a forest.

The company also gave a strong performance of Don Quixote in a plaza with a real 18th-century cathedral as backdrop. Although the choreography did not take advantage of the potential humor of the ballet, Anette Delgado’s saucy Kitri and Romel Frometa’s Basilio showed stunning virtuosity. The biggest surprise was the last three seconds: Delgado bolted high in the air with a lighting-fast split leap before falling into the final fish dive.

A dramatic situation unfolded when Viengsay Valdes danced Diana and Acteon with Carlos Acosta even though she was sick. She managed the turns and lifts in the first half, but only marked the coda. After a long delay, the two finally came out for their curtain calls. Her audience cheered her on as she took a humble-and prolonged-bow alongside the fantastic Acosta. Apparently she had collapsed backstage. But she made a quick recovery. On the last night of the festival, she danced Swan Lake and then rushed across town to appear in Pas de Quatre for the gala.

The company showed several new works, including Alonso’s own rather quaint fantasy ballet, A trip to the moon. In a more contemporary vein, Spain’s Goyo Montero created the starkly dramatic El dia de la creacion (Creation Day). While some dancers sat on the edge of the proscenium, others performed Kylian-inspired duets in which you could feel the electricity pass between each couple through touch. In conversation later, Montero enthused about the dancers. “They have the will to learn new things,” he said. “There’s an excitement about new choreography. They were there 100 percent.”

The Festival

Since 1960, when the festival started, it has attracted top ballet dancers including Kevin McKenzie and Martine van Hamel, Cynthia Gregory, Sylvie Guillem, Nina Ananiashvili, and Alina Cojocaru. This year Acosta and Leanne Benjamin, both of The Royal Ballet, bowled us over with an excerpt from Mayerling, MacMillan’s ballet about a drug addict. With slicked-back hair and a mustache, Acosta looked like-and had the easy charisma of-Clark Gable. The partnering was wildly precise and more than suggestive. Audiences cheered the most graphic moves boisterously. (Acosta, like Carreno, enjoys the rare privilege to come and go as he likes.)

The choreographer Mats Ek and his wife, Ana Laguna, both of Cullberg yore, gave us two witty and poignant duets: Memory and Potato. These vibrant, no-longer-young dancers partnered each other with wistful and wise humor. I wanted each five-minute duet to stretch to 50.

Other fare included Cisne Negro from Brazil, Nafas from Spain, and the fiery flamenca Maria Juncal. Julio Bocca brought his company from Argentina, Bocca Tango, and he danced his last Siegfried on earth, only slightly upstaged by a cat that crept into the third act.

The School

The National Ballet School, training ground for the BNC, is newly housed in a pre-Castro commerce building with 20 studios. Through annual auditions, it accepts children at the age of 14 from elementary schools around the country, and the competition is stiff. The school has only 292 students, most of them ballet majors, and of those, half are boys. All tuition is paid for by the government.

Fernando Alonso, who started the school in the 1960s along with Azari Plissetski (see “A Touch of Class,” Feb), greeted our small group of journalists. An elegantly serene man, he exuded a love for ballet with every word. When asked why the training in Cuba has produced so many stellar male dancers, he chose to ignore the gender reference and answered, “Behind all good dancers are good teachers.”

As we were filing in to observe a men’s class, one 17-year-old boy instantly caught our eyes. Yonah Gonzalez Acosta looked heaven-sent, with a lithe body and beautiful feet. He is Carlos Acosta’s nephew, and he radiates the same extraordinary grace his uncle has.

Last thoughts

Cuba is a poor country but is rich in dance-on the streets and in the theaters and plazas. It’s not surprising that some Cuban dancers leave home for more prosperous shores. (There have been about 20 defections in just the last two years.) Whether you agree with the U. S. embargo on Cuba or not, once you get here, you see an oasis where spirit transcends ideology. It’s amazing how much talent is cultivated with so little financial resources. Perhaps, without the distractions of a consumerist culture-instead of billboards outdoors you see miles of clothes on laundry lines-dancers can more fully strive toward excellence. And the passion of the public matches the passion of the individual dancers. In any case, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba is as busy as ever. The day after the festival ended, the company left for a tour to South America.


Modern Dance in Havana

The modern dance in Havana is only tangentially connected to the Festival. The government-funded Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, housed near Revolution Square, got a master class from Ana Laguna, who taught a terrific excerpt of Mats Ek’s powerful version of Swan Lake. These swans travel in aggressive herds, bringing out the rhythmic power of Tchaikovsky’s score. The movement requires vigorous use of backs and hips as much as legs. The 37 young dancers of Danza Contemporanea, which is directed by Miguel Iglesias, were up to the task.

On another occasion, Iglesias’ son Julio showed an out-there multimedia piece with group work influenced by Contact Improvisation (father and son had both worked with Steve Paxton).

Danza Contemporanea draws some of its dancers from Instituto Superior de Arte, just outside the city. This is an arts school and conservatory for the performing arts similar to Juilliard. A few of us trekked out there to watch a modern class taught by Lourdes Ulacia, who has danced with Eduardo Vilaro (the Cuban born director of Chicago’s Luna Negra), Louis Falco, Sasha Waltz, and David Zambrano. Her exercises include curving or undulating of the back during every combination-even tendues! Rotating the hips inward and outward, in difficult positions, for instance, while on the floor in a wide second, showed unusual core strength and flexibility. In the last diagonal the students seemed to spurt across the floor, tumble into a capoeira lift on an arm, and scoot back up to leap. Clearly Ulacia is willing to demand the most intense work. —W. P.