Highlights of Havana Ballet Festival

November 14, 2010

The Havana Festival is like a summit for the international ballet world every two years. This year was the first that ABT was part of it (see my previous

on the ABT exchange .) It was also a chance to see the stars of Ballet Nacional de Cuba as well as from Stuttgart, National Ballet of Canada, and The Royal Ballet.


Viengsay Valdés of Ballet Nacional de Cuba, was beyond superb in
Swan Lake
— and not just because of her superhuman balances. Her Odette was transfixing, hypnotizing really. She moved legato, as if under water, but imprinted with the mark of sadness. Her Odile was evil in an underhanded way. Here are three amazing moments:


• She kicked off her 32 fouettés with a quadruple, and she threw another one of those babies every 8 counts.


• During one balance, she was on top of the world for about 10 seconds, and instead of coming down, she slowly changed her shape into an Odile-like attitude.


• After her hops on pointe—by which time the audience was in such a frenzy that they were clapping along with each hop—she hit an arabesque on pointe, stayed up there, then finally threw her head back in a wild silent laugh, which finally brought her down. We all went wild.


Now here’s the insane thing. After her astonishing
Swan Lake
at the Karl Marx Theater, she hightailed it over to the Gran Teatro for a mixed bill, and danced the lead in Alicia Alonso’s quaint 40-minute ballet, The Magic Flute. Her character was sort of a Kitri/Swanilda/Lise combo, and she performed it with charm and energy.


I didn’t get to see Tamara Rojo in her MacMillan excerpt
(Winter Dreams)
but watching her rehearse Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan was another highlight. From the first breath that lifts her out of her lounge postition on the floor, she was gorgeous and dynamic. A long, red scarf, billows behind her while she skips in the wind, but soon turns into a banner waving for the revolution. Rojo is earthy when Isadora was earthy, carefree in her skips, and trotting out revolutionary fervor at the right moment. A young Cuban musician, Aldo Lopez-Gavilan Junco, played piano beautifully, and Rojo didn’t need to correct him on anything during this, their first rehearsal together.


a quirky, hard-edged duet by Francisco Lorenzo for himself and Luciana Croatto (an exquisitely sharp-outlined dancer with a pixie haircut) was one of the few contemporary ballet pieces. (They are both from Compañia Nacional de Danza, España.) She gets dragged by him and also does a bit of dragging, but mostly she’s a postmodern marionette.


A surprise came in the form of a new piece that won the Havana choreographic competition (actually it shared the prize will a less stellar entry), a duet called
An insect dance to end all insect dances, it was created and performed by two very cool guys from Madrid: Elías Aguirre and Alvaro Esteban. The duet is sharply observed, ingenious, playful, and stunningly cruel.


Agnes de Mille’s
A Rose for Miss Emily
(based on Faulkner’s gruesome short story) depicted this tale of murderous jealousy with succinctness. BNC’s Barbara Garcia performed the role of the pathetic and pathological Miss Emily with dignity. Javier Torres was strong and simpatico as her lover/corpse. I also enjoyed him as Apollo in a resuscitation of the old Apollo, bathing caps and all.


And then there were the pure ballet pas de deux, with Guillaume Coté and Heather Ogden of National Ballet of Canada, Steven Macrae and Roberta Marquez of The Royal Ballet, and Jason Reilly and Sue Jing Kang of Stuttgart.


This particular festival celebrated the 90th birthday of Alicia Alonso ( though she doesn’t turn 90 till December), the 80th of conductor Richard Bonynge, and the 70th of Vladimir Vasiliev (see my “Dance Matters” on the YAGP tribute to him

  At the party for this triple header, I got to dance with Vasiliev for about 10 seconds. A defnitel highlight.


Certain conversations were highlights too. Carlos Acosta didn’t perform till after I left, but he was in the audience for ABT. I chatted with him at intermission, and he expressed his admiration for President Obama. He was very curious about how the Democrats had done in the elections, which had been the day before.


I also visited the Museum of Dance, a few blocks from the hotel where journalists and some dancers were staying. One heart-warming thing is that they have bound volumes of Dance Magazine back to—further than we have—1925! I also learned a lot about Alicia Alonso, for instance that she studied with, and had great admiration for, Alexandra Fedorova. The sister-in-law to Michel Fokine, Fedorova was also the mother of my ballet teacher in NJ, and we saw her often. Later, at lunch Alonso said of her that she would make them get on pointe even in ballet slippers. “Oh that must be bad for your feet,” I blurted out. “No,” said Alonso, “my toes grew very strong with her.”


I leave you with one intriguing bit of information. Jose Manuel Carreño stayed on after the end of the festival to work with Danza Contemporánea, the terrific modern dance company in Havana. He, along with Tamara Rojo and Herman Cornejo, will be guest artists in their upcoming gig in Mexico City. The company is coming to the Joyce in May. And Ballet Nacional de Cuba comes to BAM in June!



Viengsay Valdes rehearsing
Swan Lake