Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The program of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which Tuesday began its second week at the Kennedy Center, included the company's most ambitious contemporary work seen thus far here - "Oedipus," an hour-long dramatic ballet in one after a version by Jorge Lefebre.
It's based on the Sophocles tradegy, and it has a musical collage score by Leo Vanhurenbeck after the work of the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, as well as audacious abstract decor and costumes by Salvador Fernandez. However successful one may feel it to be - and it struck me on first sight as an honorable failure - it is assuredly an imposing and though failure - it is assuredly an imposing and thought-provoking opus.
One thing about the performance should be noted at the outset. Alicia Alonso is cast as Jocasta, the Theban Queen who finds herself wed to Oedipus, her own son. To watch Alonso dancing this role is to see a miracle in action. It is an immensely strenous part, demanding sharp and heated emotional outpourings. Yet Alonso performs it with unflagging energy and intensity, looking half her years all the while, whipping off half a dozen pirouettes at a clip shooting out those incredible legs like javelins. How it is possible for a woman of 56 to do what she does is a secretknown only to Alonso and divine providence.
As the curtain rises, Tiresias, the blind seer, sits motionless at the lip of the stage. Behind him a group of men in briefs are arrayed in gymnastic formation. Behind him on a platform, the women of the corps de ballet slowly execute barre exercises to the grim beat of primitive-sounding percussion.
The work proceeds in a series of semi-abstract scenes, ticking off the major incidents and images of the drama. Jocasts is introduced in a pas de deux of anguished premonition with her husband, King Laius (Hugo Guffanti:. The birth of Oedipus (Jorge Esquivel) follows, then his abandonment and rescue, his welcoming and rejection by the Thebans, the killing of Laius, the defeat of the Sphinx (Aurora Bosch), the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta, and its terrible aftermath.
One thinks inevitably of Martha Graham's "Night Journey," her 1947 masterwork on the same theme, and there are numerous Graham touches in the choreography and conception. This isn't surprising, since Lefebre studied with a Graham disciple. But he also studied with Alonso and with American jazz dancers. Moreover, he himself danced with Katherine Dunham's troupe, as well as the Bejart company.
All these strands of his background are visible in "Oedipus," which is closer in total aspect to Bejart than anyone else, mixing as it does primitive, folkloric and classical elements with a free hand. It's an impressive piece of stagecraft, evolving some powerful imagery along the way, but the mythic-universal significance it so grandly strives for is never quite realized.