Forty years ago, almost to the day, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba made its American debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House. On Tuesday, the company landed on the same stage, marking its 70th anniversary with a U.S. tour.
The evening, part of the arts center’s Artes de Cuba festival, was well supplied with nostalgia. It culminated in a performance of “Don Quixote” that possessed a certain vintage charm, yet despite moments of panache — especially among the men — it was formulaic, as if rendered by a paint-by-numbers kit. The ensemble moved solidly as one, every musical climax had its hurrah, and spontaneity was drummed out of the picture.
But first came a short film tribute to founder Alicia Alonso, the internationally renowned Cuban ballerina who rose to fame with American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s and established a national company in her homeland after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. At 97, she’s still traveling with her troupe and seems in remarkable form. Wearing a black-and-gold gown, with a black turban and oversize sunglasses, Alonso stood and waved to the audience from the trustees box. She offered more than a wave, actually, performing a lovely little hand-ballet, her arms scooping up the appreciative applause, fluttering to evoke a spirit in flight, then resting across her heart in a gesture of gratitude.
Is her company’s emphasis too much on the past, however? The tribute to Alonso was moving and appropriate, but the curtain opened on a ballet that made clear the limitations of her company. “Don Quixote,” a lighthearted tale of young lovers dodging a disapproving dad, is a highly physical work. It’s a showcase of bravura technique that must be lit from within by opera-scale personality and sass. Yet leading ballerina Viengsay Valdés, from her very first entrance, came across as tired.
For more than a decade, she has been one of the company’s eminences. As a guest artist with the Washington Ballet in 2009, and during the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 2011 appearance here, she gave dazzling performances as Kitri, the village beauty and star of the ballet. Perhaps she’s suffering tour fatigue, or injury. Judging from her rather underpowered jumps and less-than-sparkling footwork, she could have been experiencing tightness or tenderness in her legs.
Valdés can still hold a balance like no other, standing poised, unassisted, for what seems like forever in a fully unfolded arabesque on steely toes. Yet these moments feel like stunts, and they come at a price: Her body is rigid, her focus drawn intensely inward, and you hold your breath more in empathy than in awe.
By contrast, Valdés’s partner, Dani Hernández, was everything one wanted in lover boy Basilio. Tall, long-limbed, with beautifully shaped feet, he bounded onstage with fresh energy, sailed through the air with light, unforced ease and looked happy to be there, which made all the difference.
Throughout the ranks, the men stole the spotlight. If Ariel Martínez’s Espada, the bullfighter, also tended toward stunt-pulling with his extravagant, aggressive backbends, his backup bullfighters delivered endless delights with their airy leaps and authoritative cape-twirling. Among the ballerinas in secondary roles, the insolent majesty of Ginett Moncho, as Espada’s lover, was something to relish, as was the warmth and delicate precision of Chanell Cabrera, aptly cast as the light-footed Love in the second act’s vision scene.
These younger dancers, however, seemed overwhelmed by a certain heaviness of the overall production. Its sets looked dated, its costumes freighted with so many ruffles, bows and candy colors. One doesn’t wish to knock a company that has surmounted innumerable challenges, persisting in an island nation under political, economic and humanitarian stresses of extraordinary magnitude. Yet as Cuba enters a post-Castro era, its ballet company seems stuck in the past. As the opening night suggested, this is a company proudly but also rigidly tied to its history and set in its ways.
Its next offering: Alonso’s choreography of the romantic ballet “Giselle” (after the original by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot). Alonso perfected the title role in her dance career, and it has been a signature ballet for her company, one with which she is deeply identified.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs “Giselle” Thursday through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. $29-$129. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Alicia Alonso was seated in the presidential box in the Kennedy Center Opera House. She was in the trustees box.