The Washington Post

Original, with passion? Ballet Nacional de Cuba gets close, but no cigar

There may have been little magic in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s “Magic of Dance” program Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, but there were hints of enchantment. All but one of the works in this showcase of excerpts were commonplace, and Artistic Director Alicia Alonso’s arrangements of the original choreography were ordinary and unsurprising across the board. But in most cases, these engaging dancers locked into an easy rapport with the audience. And a few of the performances revealed glimmers of true life.

It was a decidedly strange program, nonetheless: “Giselle’s” ghostly love story was followed by the bright fairy-tale celebrations of “Sleeping Beauty’s” third act and “The Nutcracker’s” second. “Swan Lake’s” moonlit mysteries came on the heels of “Don Quixote’s” straightforward stunt show.

And the most charming musical moment, the “Fiesta criolla” movement of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “A Night in the Tropics” symphony, was tacked onto the end of a long evening. As the hip-shaking, maraca- and guiros-embellished accompaniment to “Gottschalk Symphony,” it demanded sassier, more suggestive entanglements than Alonso’s foursquare display of mass cuteness.

Throughout much of the program, in fact, the dancers seemed ensnared in rote performances, with each flip of the hands and tilt of the chin hitting a musical exclamation point. But these made the freer, more interpretive displays all the more engaging by contrast. Anette Delgado’s intuitive musicality pulled you into her mournful afterlife even though there was no first-act setup of her story; her soft, bursting jump and airy footwork made plain that this was no mortal maiden. Dani Hernandez, as Albrecht, her grieving lover, matched her in that essential but rarely seen romantic-era lightness, with his long legs and supple feet.

The evening’s sparks, such as there were, flared in the scenes from “Coppelia,” with its assertive, heel-clicking mazurka and the winsome pairing of Grettel Morejon and Osiel Gounod, who oozed the kind of enveloping warmth and authentic cheer we’re accustomed to seeing from the Cubans. More of that is on tap for the remainder of the company’s stay, if we’re to go by the “Don Quixote” excerpt that followed. Viengsay Valdes and Alejandro Virelles gave us a promising taste of Thursday’s production, when they will lead the cast in the full-length account.

But it wasn’t only Valdes’s impossibly long balances — they’re meant to impress, and they do — that thrilled here. It was the depth of talent among the company’s men, a princely stable of toreros bucking for a bigger bullring. You don’t show off talent like this in small corrals but in a sprawling space, the physical and emotional landscape of an evening-length ballet. And in that setting, it will be interesting to see this company run at top speed.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs the full-length “Don Quixote” Thursday through Sunday.

Sarah L. Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. Learn more at and Facebook SarahLKaufmanWriter



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