Reprinted from yesterday's late edition
The Ballet National de Cuba made its United States debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night with that romantic perennial, "Giselle." It was an inevitable choice, given the public's justifiable adoration of the company's founder, director and prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, as well as the latter's long association with the title role.
The performance was astonishing from many standpoints, and it won both Alonso and her impressive troupe a prolonged ovation at its conclusion. Alonso herself stopped the show at one point in the second act with a stunning series of entrechats and turns.
At the same time - perhaps also inevitably - the evening was less than complete as an artistic experience. As in her performance with American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in January of 1977, her first return to the part in its entirety in five years, Alonso's dancing seemed more a glarious shadow of a glorious past than a replica of the same.
By common agreement, Alonso has been one of the supreme interpreters of the role of Giselle, the peasant girl driven to insanity and death by the betrayal of her lover, Albrecht. In my own experience of the ballet, Alonso's Giselle - in Copenhagen, with the Royal Danish Ballet, the first time I saw her dance in person - was the most profound and spellbindingly ethereal I have yet encountered. She was over 50 then, and her eye trouble was at its most severe.
That, however, was six years ago. Her performance Tuesday night was still a feat, a rare and extraordinary one. But respect for the memory of her artistry at its height compels me to say that Tuesday night's "Giselle" was no longer on the same exalted plane.
Make no mistake - there's no sense on infirmity about Alonso. She still has amazing strength and security, much of the time. Her feet are incredibly nimble - in rounds-de-jambe, for instance, and petit battlement - and she can sustain breathtaking balances. She still has an awesome lightness of step and phrase.
Her performance, whatever its short-coming, was one that only an artist of the first rank could possibly have managed, and dramatically - as in the touching mad scene - it could scarely have been faulted. But what's gone - understandably enough - is exactly that continuity of line and rhythm that made her past performances so sublime.
In stylistic detail and interpretive nuance there were many wonders in Alonso's performance Tuesday night. She'll be dancing in a number of other ballets in the course of the company's two-week visit, and the fact is few roles are as dependent on the illusion of youthful elasticity as is Giselle.
The version of "Giselle" the company dances is Alonso's own staging, based on the traditional Coralli-Perrot but different in a variety of ways from, say, the David Blair production for American Ballet Theatre that contemporary American ballet fans are most familiar with.
Some cuts in the score are opened up, mainly to permit a more expansive treatment of the narrative pantomime than we're used to - Berthe's prescient vision of the Wilis, for instance, which is much clearer in this Cuban edition. There are numerous choreographic variants as well, the most conspicuous being the replacement of the Peasant Pas de Deux by an ensemble dance based on the same steps.
It is too early in the run to generalize about the company as a whole, but at first sight it would appear to have about the same order of facility and theatrical flair as, say, the National Ballet of Canada, which is saying, much about a troupe as young and as distanced from the mainstream as this one.
Jorge Esquivel, Alonso's youthful partner, was a stalwart, convincing but somewhat technically uneven Albrecht Tuesday night. Aurora Bosch was a strong, austere Myrta, but she shared with the corps de ballet some of the same unidiomatic hand and arm contours. Ramon Ortego seemed too stiff and dour as Hilarion, but Amparo Brito and especially Rosario Suarez danced with notable aplomb as Myrta's attendants.