Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

Ballerina in Chief: Viengsay Valdés Takes the Reins at Ballet Nacional de Cuba

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.


Were you expecting this appointment?

Not at all. The decision came from the Ministry of Culture. Because of her delicate health, Alicia Alonso had been forced to delegate much of the significant responsibility of running the company, and so they thought of me. I'm in charge of all the artistic and technical aspects: casting, organizing tours, programming.

How will you mark Ms. Alonso's centenary in 2020?

I've been communicating with several companies in New York City and elsewhere. We will be celebrating all year, culminating in next year's International Ballet Festival of Havana.

Alicia Alonso, in a long=sleeved black leotard, dark tulle skirt, and headband smiles at out of focus dancers and spectators seated around her as she stands in the middle of a ballet studio.

Alicia Alonso teaching in Mexico City, 1991

Alida Kent, Courtesy DM Archives

You've spoken of your desire to update the company. What are some of your ideas?

We need to preserve our legacy, all that history and tradition. There are more than 700 works in our repertory. Many are by Cuban choreographers, including Gustavo Herrera and Ivan Tenorio, whose works haven't been seen for a long time. Maybe some are old-fashioned, but some are absolutely recoverable. It's a question of finding videos and going through them to see which works can realistically be restored. I also want our dancers to be exposed to the work of international choreographers.

What do you think international choreographers can bring to BNC?

New ways of moving, of attacking a step or of learning choreography. They will make us more nimble. We Cubans tend to dance a little more slowly. These new works will help us acquire a new sense of attack, rhythm and dynamics.

You've invited Alexei Ratmansky to set his Concerto DSCH. Why him?

I've admired his work for years. I've been trying to get him to come to Cuba for a long time. He suggested DSCH, and I think it's a good choice. I want ballets that will show off the whole company.

What else will be performed?

One program will include a work by the Brazilian choreographer Ricardo Amarante, Love Fear Loss, inspired by the life of Édith Piaf, as well as El poema del fuego, by the Cuban Alberto Méndez, which has been out of the repertory for almost 20 years. One program will open with Les Sylphides, which was on the company's first program in 1948. Another includes Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Celeste, her first work for the company.

What other choreographers are you bringing to Cuba?

Next year, we'll have Justin Peck, Kyle Abraham and Gemma Bond. Gemma will create a new work for us for the International Ballet Festival. And there are others that I can't announce yet.

Can you say which Justin Peck piece you'll present?

Not yet! [laughs] Maybe next time we speak.

Are you planning to continue dancing?

Of course! Time will decide for how long. For now, I'm doing my best to shoulder both of these great responsibilities.

Vald\u00e9s, in the white tutu and headpiece typical for Swan Lake's white acts, balances in first arabesque on pointe.

Valdés in Swan Lake

Jhon Rowe, Courtesy Ballet Nacional de Cuba


The company is funded by the Cuban government. Is there a budget for the ambitious plans you've laid out?

There is a lot of official support. Most of the budget for our work will come from the government, but some will also come from outside. There are sponsors who are prepared to help.

Are you involved with the Escuela Nacional de Ballet?

The two are separate entities, but I think there should be closer collaboration. We should pay more frequent visits to follow the development of the dancers who will eventually enter the company so that they don't develop bad habits or defects.

Do you think the teaching methodology will have to evolve as well?

Our methodology is strong, well-structured and well-paced. We just need to make sure that there is a little more oversight.

How would you describe the Cuban dancer of 2019?

The essence of the Cuban dancer is a technically virtuosic dancer, who is always looking to execute more turns, more jumps, greater complexity of steps, but at the same time an expressive, musical dancer. The new generations are more intrepid, bolder, and take even more risks, which is always welcome. But we have to guide them well, so that they know how to respect the traditions and the style of each ballet—this has always been one of the great lessons of our Alicia.

Vald\u00e9s leaps in a first arabesque position onstage. She is wearing a long sleeved gray leotard with a bright floral pattern and matching gray skirt and gray tights, which partially cover her pointe shoes. Out of focus in the background are several dancers in practice clothes, awaiting their turn to do the jump combination.

Valdés in class

Jhon Rowe, Courtesy Valdés

What has been the reaction of the company to your appointment?

They are very excited. I want to give them confidence, a sense of security and, above all, justice. I think there are dancers who haven't had an opportunity to prove themselves. I believe now is the time to give them those opportunities. We have to channel their energy, effort and desire to dance. They're so young, so impatient, and if you don't motivate them, they lose their drive. You have to know how to lead them, how to be just. There are roles for everyone. That way, the company will feel loved and cherished.

And, in this way, perhaps fewer dancers will leave than in the past?

Of course. If you stimulate them, so they're doing what they love, they don't leave.

Alicia Alonso smiles as she tips her head to touch her forehead to Vald\u00e9s' temple. Vald\u00e9s, also smiling, grasps Alonso's hand with her own. Alonso is in fancy clothes in reds and grays, with one of her signature headbands. Vald\u00e9s is in a black and red costume with poofy sleeves.

Alicia Alonso and Viengsay Valdés

Todd Lechtick, Courtesy Valdés

Latest Posts


Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021