By Sharon Benítez

October 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

GO ALMOST ANYWHERE in the world and mention ‘Silicon Valley’ and most think of technology; from the likes of Google to Apple to Facebook to Netflix to Twitter and more. The Silicon Valley is an area synonymous with innovation and building on ideas for the future—concepts also found in the arts. Therefore, it’s no surprise to find that renowned dance and artistic director José Manuel Carreño has pulled inspiration from these fellow Bay Area companies to create similar visions for his own, reflected in renaming Ballet San Jose, to Silicon Valley Ballet. By broadening the name to encompass the entire Silicon Valley, Carreño is expanding the identity of the company, as “a great classical and contemporary company…involving technology and dance and the arts.”

Carreño, the Cuban-born international ballet star has been the artistic leader of the South Bay dance company since 2013 after retiring as a principal dancer from the acclaimed English National Ballet, Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. He has announced a major coup for the Ballet’s 2015/16 season with the presentation of Giselle, choreographed by Cuban choreographer and dance legend Alicia Alonso. The first person outside of Cuba with the honor of staging Alonso’s legendary choreography, Carreño was handpicked by Alonso to lead this first re-staging of her most famous work.

“It was one of her masterpieces… and I’m lucky… to be the first one to actually have the permission to do something [stage Giselle] outside the National Ballet of Cuba.”

Although Carreño has spent his professional career away from his native Cuba, his relationship with his country and friend, prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso, has not wavered. “It didn’t matter that I was away for all this time—I tried to keep this friendship relation with Alicia and we did.” he says, “And I was trying to go back to Cuba every time I could. I was always trying to go back and perform there—it’s always been a great relationship between us.”

Group of dancers in a scene from Giselle
Photo by Chris Hardy

Widely recognized for her lifetime of portrayals as Giselle performing with everyone from New York’s American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Opera de Paris, Royal Danish Ballet, the Cuban National Ballet and more, the now 93 year-old Alicia Alonso remains an extremely respected and internationally recognized dance icon and synonymous with the role of Giselle. Alonso carries with her many grand and notable first accomplishments, such as being the first Western dancer invited to perform in the former Soviet Union (Russia) with the Bolshoi and Kirov Theaters of Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1957 and 1958; spending decades touring Eastern and Western European countries, Asia, North and South America prior to the Cuban Embargo in 1960; and founding the Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana in 1948, later re-named the National Ballet of Cuba in 1959, when it received official state support under Fidel Castro. All of this was undertaken despite a lifetime of vision problems; the nearly blind Alonso continued to perform well into her seventies and remains active within the Cuban National Ballet, directing and setting pieces for her company.

Carreño’s appointment to restage Alonso’s choreography of the classic ballet aligns serendipitously at a time of historic reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba. This presentation of Giselle will represent the first major collaboration between an American performing arts company and Cuba since the 1950’s.

“It is something important especially after so many years trying to create this bridge between Cuba and America… I’ve been working on this for a long time” Carreño explains, “and it couldn’t come here [the Bay Area] at a better time than right now especially with the relations between Cuba and the United States. It’s like they say ‘right place at the right time’ and I’m very lucky and very excited.”

Carreño’s international bridge-building also extends to Norway from where he has imported his brother Yoel Carreño (Principal Dancer with The Norwegian National Ballet) to perform the role of Albrecht. This production will also feature a special performance as Carreño momentarily steps out of retirement to perform the role of Hilarion, dancing for the first time alongside his brother.

“The Giselle Project,” which began in September and continues through the premiere of Giselle October 16-18, includes a series of community events – from a taco truck party, salsa dance party, a panel conversation, and a Cuban food celebration. They are all part of a larger engagement strategy of Silicon Valley Ballet. “It’s a matter of bringing all these cultural things to the community and the people to see how important [it is],” says Carreño.

With this production of Giselle and its community events, Carreño seeks to “invite engagement across the economic and cultural spectrum, as it highlights the cultural richness of my home country, Cuba,” he explains. “In addition [to] the special events hosted, the ballet company will engage the local community of Silicon Valley and beyond, and bring people together to celebrate the US and Cuba.”

Silicon Valley Ballet’s upcoming season will continue with a revamped design of Karen Gabay’s The Nutcracker; George Balanchine’s Who Cares?, danced to the songs of George Gershwin; Annabell Lopez Ochoa’s 2014 Prism with Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert as its musical inspiration; Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, with an eclectic score ranging from Dean Martin to mambo to traditional Israeli folk music; the return of the Bodies of Technology program exploring the convergence of technology with art, music, and movement while re-creating performance traditions; the West Coast premiere of Septime Webre’s Alice in Wonderland; and a winter tour in Spain. This ambitious programming reflects the continuing endeavor of Silicon Valley Ballet to define themselves amidst this young high-tech community and the larger, longer established arts scene of San Francisco nearby.

“I want [audiences] to know that they have a great classical and contemporary company here,” Carreño says, “I’m really careful choosing every ballet, in choosing the right thing for the community to bring people to the theater. That would be my main goal… that people everywhere know Silicon Valley Ballet. And somehow I’m trying to get there.”

The significance and the allure of this major presentation of Alonso’s Giselle is the first of many steps for Silicon Valley Ballet to achieve Carreño’s goals. With dynamic programming coupled with Carreno’s desire to innovate and create a company on par with the many companies that call Silicon Valley home, I am optimistic that he will get there with the many bridges he is building.

Sharon Benítez is a Mexican Folk Dancer and Musician who has taught and performed in the Bay Area, Mexico, Nicaragua, and London. Native to the South Bay, she graduated from Santa Clara University with dual degrees in English and Ethnomusicology. Her interests revolve around arts education, music, dance, art and the culture and context they thrive in.