Alicia Alonso Turns 90 U.S. Dancers Honor Her in Havana

By Toba Singer

January 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

THE 22ND International Dance Festival in Havana, Cuba, from October 28-November 7, 2010, celebrated the 90th birthday of Alicia Alonso, considered one of the most outstanding ballet dancers of the 20th Century. Alonso, along with her former husband, Fernando, and his brother, Alberto, were founders of the world-renowned Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC). In Cuba, like a pair of fraternal twins, ballet and revolution matured side-by-side. Today, Cuba’s national ballet company is the cornerstone of that nation’s cultural patrimony, and working people there recite the names of its stars and repertoire in the same encyclopedic way that we keep tabs on sports figures in the U.S.

I traveled to Cuba to complete work on a book I am writing about Fernando Alonso, the architect of dance education in Cuba, whose contribution resulted not only in a world-class school, but a shank of virtuosic dancers who headline the world’s best companies. I also went to have a look at the many international ballet companies in attendance at this year’s festival. This year, for the first time since the 1961 U.S. imposed trade embargo, a sizable U.S. contingent would participate: a half dozen dancers from New York City Ballet (NYCB), and 50 dancers and 20 technicians from American Ballet Theatre (ABT), stewarded by ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. ABT’s presence was a stellar tribute to Alonso, as her career dates back to the early days of Mordkin Ballet, Ballet Caravan and ABT’s predecessor, Ballet Theatre. Stepping in for an ailing Alicia Markova, during the 1943 season, she made the role of Giselle hers for a lifetime.

During the performance-packed 10 days, the BNC offered a generous repertoire sampling—from full-lengths to short works by Alicia Alonso and others. In Agnes de Mille’s The Three Virgins and a Devil, first soloist Grettel Morejón danced a beguiling Virgin in White. The second cast of a well-paced The Sleeping Beauty outshined the first; Yanela Piñera, as Lilac Fairy showed long lines, masterful épaulement and a generous smile.

To get the performers’ perspective, I spoke with dancers from several participating companies:

NYCB dancers Tyler Angle, his brother Jared, and several friends, including the dynamic and musical Tiler Peck received standing ovations for their dancing of George Balanchine’s Who Cares?, In the Night, the pas de deux from Stars and Stripes, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy. The next morning, Tyler, Jared and I sat down to talk over a café con leche.

What did you know about the Cuban company before coming to Havana?

TA: I knew about Alicia. Azari [Plisetsky] had come to work with the men at NYCB. He taught in the school here and partnered Alicia for 10 years. When you see the dancers who were trained here, you just know you want to come!

What were outstanding moments, and what were the adjustments?

JA: You get two experiences: ballet and everyday life. The ballet experience is absolutely wonderful. We put this program together to have that. I don’t do “José Manuel [Carreño],” so I was apprehensive that In the Night and Who Cares? are no Don Quixote, and thought that would be what the audience members here would expect. I underestimated them!

TA: I imagined that the audience here was unsophisticated. But when they saw the program we brought, you could feel them responding to the subtle elements. This audience really does appreciate the subtleties.

JA: The [spectre of the hardships of] every day life was the Bogey Man that was supposed to scare us off. I wasn’t prepared for the joyfulness of the people, or their generosity. My image of the country was completely the opposite of what I found here.

Can you imagine an exchange between NYCB and the BCN dancers?

JA: This year, NYCB dancers Gonzalo [Garcia] and Ashley [Bouder] did Rubies at Paris Opera, and Aurelie [Dupont] and Mathias [Sabourdin] from Paris Opera danced in New York. It would be amazing if we could do something similar with the Cubans!

TA: It would be incredibly fulfilling. What better way to communicate besides our art? Some people said, “Why Cuba?” Not Peter [Martins], though. He was totally for us going.

I asked BNC dancers Sadaise Arencibia and Alejandro Virelles (who partnered as Princess Aurora and Prince Desiré):

If you were co-artistic directors of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, what changes would you make?

AV: As far as the festivals, I would choose new choreographies and then repeat them at other times during our season. We dance few new ones outside of the festival periods. I would create more publicity. There’s a tendency to rely on the same dancers for key roles and publicity, and I would broaden out the selection of artists for both purposes.

Choose a year during which you feel you grew and evolved as an artist. Explain how that took place.

AV: For me, that happened during the last festival two years ago in 2008. I had a huge amount of work to do and I said to myself, “If I come out of this uninjured, everything will be ok and I will be better for it,” and that’s what happened.

SA: There were a number of significant periods in my career, but I would choose 2009-10 as the year when I developed most as an artist because though I was doing everything I had done in the past, I was doing it for the first time as a principal dancer, and just that recognition made me feel very different and I was able to grow artistically. When you achieve the rank of Principal, there is more pressure because you must make everyone—your fellow dancers, as well as the audience—feel that you’ve earned the level you are dancing. It also made me feel more confident in spite of the pressure, and of course there were more opportunities to dance more roles.

What is coming up for you in the future?

SA: [We] expect to tour the United States next year.

Humor was a staple of festival programs. ABT danced Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, and Stuttgart Ballet’s Sue Jin Kang and Jason Reilly danced Christian Spuck’s Grand Pas de Deux, a balletic comedy of errors and another comic piece, Ballet 101 by Erick Gautier. Kang and Reilly joined me over breakfast to discuss the highlights and adaptations involved in taking their work to Cuba.

SJK: The only “adaptations” were that our performance dates were changed. People have been amazing, warm and nice—especially technicians, and other people working in the theater. They make you feel relaxed. You can concentrate on the performance and not worry about tech things going wrong. We just handed them lighting cues and everything was done perfectly.

JR: Just being here is a highlight. I had to adapt to the ease of the schedule, level of relaxation, and culture, which is right in line with my personality.

SJK: The house people are better than in the U.S. There was not one problem with the light cues.

JR: Yeah, we just said, “Ok, we want lights for a classical Sleeping Beauty.” And they were like, “Ok, no problem.” They were right: there was no problem!

What will you bring back?

JR: The energy is completely different than most companies. So relaxed! Everybody’s here to work, but it’s no big deal to go out and have a great time.

SJK: People have become so robotic in the rest of the world, and here it is more how it used to be. Good relations make for better work. It’s not a fast food society here. Much better. We’re in an atmosphere where people really know ballet. It’s not something outside their experience, a nice atmosphere for artists. The people can receive your work in a knowledgeable way.

It feels like a body blow that the U.S. government can summarily deny its citizens access to what audience members from other countries can freely enjoy: the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, danced with explosive energy by ABT’s Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg, a second Tchai Pas danced in a more diffident yet universal mood by Heather Ogden and Guillaume Coté of National Ballet of Canada; Ravel à Deux and Mozart à Deux by Thierry Malandain, danced with ardor by Silvia Magalhaes and Giuseppe Chiavaro of Ballet Biarritz; Nostalgia, by Francisco Lorenzo, of Compañía Nacional de Danza of Spain, a gritty piece with Lorenzo and Luciana Croatto, Something Different, danced with a spirit akin to the comic artistry of Eddie Izzard—in tap shoes—by The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae; and The Royal’s Tamara Rojo’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan by Frederic Ashton.

With all that its ballet company has to offer, it is a cruel irony that the world economic crisis hits Cuba harder because of the trade embargo. Key ballet masters live abroad most of the year. Several principals have left to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere. The BNC has been forced to resort to hasty promotions, with soloists facing trial-by-fire challenges. Some, like 20-year-old Yonah Acosta, acquit themselves splendidly; others struggle. Dancers leave companies in other countries, but Cuba’s losses are subject to extra scrutiny by those hostile to its revolution. Following a class which Kevin McKenzie gave to Academy students, ABT board members stepped forward to donate hundreds of pairs of pointe shoes, setting a moving concrete example of how to generously support Cuba’s legendary dance patrimony and honor the Alonso legacy by overcoming obstacles of no dancer’s making. May every U.S. dance company follow suit!

This article appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of In Dance.

Toba Singer is former Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library. With a BA in History from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters in Library Science, she spent 30 years engaged in the struggles of working people as a steelworker, refinery worker, garment and airline worker. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. She is the author of First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists (Praeger 2007), and her book Fernando Alonso: the Art and Science of Ballet (University Press of Florida) will come out in September, 2011.