Hola! From Cuba, where I'm attending the 21st Festival Internacional de Ballet de La Habana.

October 28, 2008

Prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso certainly knows how to throw a party: invite 700 dancers, choreographers, and critics from places scattered across the globe, open with a gala performance, chaired by Cuba’s new president, Raul Castro, and put hundreds of students onstage from the famed ballet school that has produced some of the most celebrated ballet dancers of our time. (Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carrena, Lorna and Lorena Feijo…) She also knows how to make an entrance: come from upstage, part a sea of girls and boys of the National Ballet School on the arms of two dashing gentlemen (Ms Alonso is blind) to a standing ovation, and take a seat in the first balcony tier next to Castro.

The opera house last night was filled to the rafters (metaphorically speaking, as there is nothing quite that rudimentary about the elegant architecture of the Gran Teatro de La Habana) as the 21st Festival Internacional de Ballet de La Habana opening gala celebrated the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 60th anniversary. The enthusiasm of the audience rivaled that of people at ABT or NYC Ballet galas. The gowns may not have rivaled them in terms of sparkle and designer labels, but the Cubans are a refined and fashionable crowd: men in dark suits and ties, women in cocktail dresses. From all appearances, it could have been 1960, when the first Festival took place.

Havana is a study in contrasts, and the opera house audience is one case in point. The ballet company is a national treasure. Though I’m told that many struggle for the everyday conveniences we take for granted in the U.S.—shampoo, toothpaste—and food prices have skyrocketed since Hurricane Ike, people can attend the ballet for very little money. Cubans follow the ballet the way Americans follow baseball.

Last night I got my first glimpse of dancers Viengsay Valdes and Joel Carrena (yes, he’s related) as they performed Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (created by Balanchine on Alonso in 1947). But my favorite moment was before the curtain went up. I was wandering the opera house and stumbled on the student entrance, where little girls in turquoise leotards and pink tights were running up the stairs giggling and vamping for my camera lens.

Tonight is Sleeping Beauty. I’ll tell you about it manana.