"We have this one problem with the company," says choreographer Vincente Nebrada, artistic director of the Ballet Internacional de Caracas, which made its first appearance in a major U.S. city last night and continues for a week's run at the National Theatre.
"Not so much the audiences - they seem to love us but the critics. They're always saying, what is this, ballet, modern dance, what? Some of them almost go so far as to imply 'how dare you' mix the styles this way.But ballet has evolved from things like the circus, and acrobatics, and folk dance, as well as academic dance - so why put limits on it, I say."
Some of the reasons for the troupe's ecrectic repertoire fall into the realm of business considerations. Venezuela has not had a long tradition of classical ballet performances and hence no cadre of devoted fans to draw upon. "We don't do the classics," Nebrada says." 'Swan Lake' and 'Giselle' and all that. Actually, the most classical things we have in the repertoire are Balanchine ballets, like 'Allegro Brillante.' For our audinece in Caracas, it just wouldn't work to go back to tutus and ballerinas with little coronets on their heads.
"And we need to play to full houses - we have only a small subsidy and some foundation grants, and we are always facing terrible debts. If our ballets were too sophisticated, it would be disaster at the box office."
The company of 22 dancers, mostly recruited from among former Harkness Ballet dancers, was founded only three years ago.
About half the company's repertoire of 15 or so works are being shown here, including Alvin Ailey's "The River" (given its premiere by American Ballet Theatre during the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971), John Butler's popular "Carmina Burana" and a ballet by Margo Sappington, "Rodin Mis En Vie," inspired by the celebrated statues of the French sculptor.
The rest are by Nebrada himself, who retired from dancing about a decade ago (he's 46), but who was a leading choreographer with the Harkness troupe, as well as its ballet master, for a number of years before his return to Venezuela. Nebrada's pieces range from the neo'romantic ("Our Waltzes") to the unashamedly popular ("Batucada Fantastica").
Nebrada has seen all sides of the dance experience in the course of his own distinguished career. He came from a poor family in Caracas and never saw a ballet until his teens. "The closest I came was Yvonne de Carlo movies," he recalls. "I remember one where she came out of a shell and danced in toe shoes."
Out of curiosity more than anything else, he attended some ballet classes given one year at his high school by two former Ballet Russe dancers, who encouraged him greatly. "At first, my parents were very enthusiastic about the idea, it was a fantastic novelty for them. But when they realized I was actually serious about it, they were horrified. In those years in Venezuela, to become a dancer was like a mortal sin."
On a visit to Caracas, the great Alicia Alonso spied Nebrada in class and urged him to come to Cuba. After some studies in New York with Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske, he joined Alonso's Ballet de Cuba in 1948 for two years. "At the end of that time," he says, "I was a walking skeleton, practically starving. I learned much, but at that time even the company soloists earned only $60 a month - prices were cheap, but it was hardly enough to live on."
He managed to get a Venezuelan scholarship for further ballet study and took off for Paris, where he danced with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, among other companies. Then John Taras, later an assistant to Balanchine, invited Nebrada to Monte Carlo to join the newly formed "Les Etoiles de Monte Carlo" ("Stars of Monte Carlo").
"In some ways," he says, "it was the best job of my life. We played in a chic restaurant and did musical comedy-style things. The girls were all beautiful, and they had evening clothes custom-made for us - we were supposed to mingle with the patrons in between shows, people like Marlene Dietrich. And we had loads of free time. But when they invited us back for the winter season, I suddenly said to myself, "Omigod, I can't face this again, it's so dull."
He returned to Paris and took some classes with, among other notable teachers, the legendary Olga Preobrajenska, once the idol of St. Petersburg. It was a curious kind of washout.
"She was wonderful," he says, "but she was also over 80 by then. She'd stand on a chair, and after we'd already done 16 ronds-de-jambes twice in a row, she'd say, 'Now we'll do 16 ronds-de-jambes,' until the pianist turned to her to say, 'Madame, they've already done that twice.' And her combinations were very strange - she'd stick pantomime passages right in the middle of the exercises, and stop us so often to talk that by the end of the class you weren't even warmed up."
A glimpse of the New York City Ballet in action in Paris spurred Nebrada to come to the United States in 1957, where he was to become an outstanding dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and then the Harkness company.
Just before the Harkness company folded for good, Nebrada put heads together with a fellow Venezuelan, dancer Zhandra Rodriguez, with the idea of establishing a ballet company in their native Caracas. A trial performance there in 1975 at the old (1880) Teatro Municipale proved a whopping success.
Since its founding, the Ballet Internacional de Caracas, with cofounder Rodriquez as prima ballerina, has dance in Latin America, Paris, the Spoleto Festival, London, Barcelona and Montreal, as well as once before in the United States in Florida. And already on schedule for next year is the company debut in New York.