Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the Kennedy Center
By Lisa Traiger
Thursday, May 26, 2011
The world-renowned dancers of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba have long been admired for their pure connection to ballet’s classical Russian roots. But Cuba is not Russia, and the Cubans don’t dance like the Russians. These days they’re better, says dance and music critic Octavio Roca, author of “Cuban Ballet.”
“It’s a gift that the New World can give to the Old,” Roca says. “Many critics assume because of the Soviet and Communist influence that Cuban-trained dancers must be very much like the Russians. They’re not at all.”
Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which is returning to the Kennedy Center next week for the first time since 2001, shares the speed of the style promulgated by New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine, but the dancers’ upper bodies tend to be more elegant, with strong backs and subtle, graceful necks. Most compelling, Roca says, is that Cuban ballet dancers seldom just dance a part; they inhabit a role.
“In the Cuban tradition, it’s always drama, it’s always theater,” he says. “When they’re dancing they mean it. With their whole bodies they dance.”
These attributes come directly from Ballet Nacional’s founding mother, the famed ballerina Alicia Alonso, who at 91 still rules the 150-member company with a velvet fist. Alonso left Havana for New York in 1938, performing with the company that would become City Ballet. She was known for her interpretations of the great Romantic and classical works and, besides Balanchine, danced for Mikhail Fokine, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. In the 1940s, Alonso suffered a detached retina and, despite several surgeries, was legally blind for much of her performing career. Attentive partners and tricks such as special lights at the end and sides of the stage helped her manage.
“When I was in the United States and I was dancing,” Alonso said by phone from her Havana home recently, “the critic John Martin wrote that he could tell that I was a Cuban, a Latina. I kept thinking, I don’t move my shoulders, I don’t move my hips, I’m a classical dancer. What he meant was the way . . . I project the melody of the music [and] the way I dance with a partner [and] my expression. So that’s the reputation we have — the way we dance with a partner, we express a romanticism, even a sensuality.”
Alonso founded the company and its school in 1948, and she is clearly proud of her accomplishments, saying the school produces more successful professional ballet dancers than any in the world. Alonso is quick to gloss over the hardships of nurturing ballet dancers in an impoverished and isolated nation, but many truly suffer for their art.
“I know dancers there who live on black beans, and to do that grueling practice and performance schedule, it’s not pretty,” Roca says. It’s hard to get pointe shoes and fabric for costumes, and power outages and balky phone connections are common.
Yet Alonso has elevated ballet there to the point where Cubans follow it like Americans follow football.
“You have a ballet company that has managed for 50 years to be the one thing that works in Cuba,” Roca says.
The classical repertoire Alonso favors is popular, but safe. Many of her dancers, though, dream of performing works by living choreographers, Roca says. On tour in Canada earlier this spring, five Cubans defected. Asked about it, Alonso skirted the issue, saying simply: “We have been [training dancers] since the revolution in Cuba. We take the children from preschool, and now we have work for dancers. Now we have, like a river coming up, very strong dancers.”
Alonso remains wedded to the classics. In Washington the company will dance her staging of the Petipa classic “Don Quixote” and “The Magic of Dance,” excerpts from some of the great ballets — “Giselle,” “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.”
“If you want to know what 19th-century ballet looked like,” Roca says, “the best example is to simply go see the Cubans. It’s exactly the right style — beautiful, alive. It’s not a museum piece.”