Sadaise Arencibía as Giselle. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Two Cuban National Ballet Stars Share Their Different Approaches to Giselle, and What They Love About U.S. Audiences

Grettel Morejón and Sadaise Arencibía, principal ballerinas with the National Ballet of Cuba, danced the title role of Giselle in the company's performances on June 6 and 8 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. SPAC was the final stop on a U.S. tour that took the company to Tampa, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Morejón's was an intimate, caring, and protective Giselle, placing complete confidence in Albrecht before he becomes her deepest disappointment; Arencibía's was a spectral capture, as present as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, but also the vigilantly mad witness to her own downfall. To say that both interpretations are as distinctive as they are mesmerizing might sound like a false equivalency. Yet, Morejón and Arencibía demonstrate that two vastly different articulations can wax both genuine and stunning, with the same steps to the very same music.

I knocked on their shared dressing room door at SPAC last week, and the welcome from each was as warm as their enthusiastic and forthcoming responses to my questions.

Has the role of Giselle changed over the years since Alicia Alonso created it for the Cuban National Ballet? If so, how?


Sadaise Arencibía: The essence is the same. The style is very well-defined. Over the years, however, there have been revisions as those who dance the key roles change from generation to generation. For example, arms might change slightly, because each dancer is different and interprets the role in her own way, according to her personality. Each mad scene is a response to our individual feelings. Even me, I do things differently every time I perform. The interpretation can't be rigid.

Grettel Morejón: Each time a younger generation dances it, they do so as they live and as they think. Ballet is what you create with your intelligence and how you think of and see life. Young people have a lot to say in Giselle. That is not to say that what they bring is better or worse, but it has changed, and our way of moving is different. The style is the same, but you can see small differences from 20 years ago and now. There are even differences between Sadaise and me, reflecting the epoch during which each of us has been dancing.


Of the ballet masters who have coached you, who have you relied on most to transmit the authentic version?

SA: First of all, Alicia Alonso. We also had the privilege of working with former prima ballerina Josefina Méndez when she was alive. From her in particular, I learned the style, the elegance; the way in which she moved was beautiful.

GM: María Elena Llorente is the one I have relied on most. She picks up on the details of your personality in a particular kind of way, and those which correspond most saliently to classical ballet. Each moment has its own particularity. In the romantic style, the back has to be curved, with the arm held in a soft curve, the neck at an angle that lets the audience see its most responsive sinews and tendons.

Sadaise, you have also danced the role of Myrtha. What is involved in moving from the role of Giselle to that of Myrtha in preparation, tempo and capturing the character?

SA: Myrtha is more demanding, technically. It is especially hard on the knees. Where Giselle is languid, sweet and more fragile, Myrtha is hard, implacable and cold

Do you ever imagine that Myrtha was once like Giselle?

SA: Sometimes, only with a different personality. The Queen of the Wilis is stronger. Most prominent in Giselle is her character, a love for Albrecht that is pure, free of anything external. The way Giselle moves in Act II tells you that she now belongs to Myrtha, but is conflicted by her feelings for Albrecht. Her first consideration is to save him from death.


Arencibía and artists of the Cuban Nation Ballet in a 2016 performance of "Giselle" in Havana. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

How do you approach the pacing of the story in order to internalize and dance it?

SA: You have to work at studying it. At first, Giselle resists Albrecht because she is humble, and doesn't see herself meriting anyone's attentions in quite this way. It changes for her when she sees that Hilarion is jealous. She realizes that because of her social class, she doesn't know, and nobody she knows has ever encountered, such people as Albrecht and his aristocratic entourage. But little by little, she internalizes what has happened, and retreats into the corner to be with her mother to safely absorb it. At that moment, I try to concentrate on feeling all alone onstage in the midst of all the confusion. I live in that feeling of solitude.

GM: In the second act, Giselle is trying to protect Albrecht, and she's suffering at the same time. The music inspires the movement and emotion, and in it there is everything you need to do with your body. It all starts inside of you, you just have to figure it out. It remains a process and that is the interesting part: It is never-ending.


Artists of the Cuban National Ballet in "Giselle." Photo by Carlos Quezada, Courtesy SPAC.

Having mastered the classical ballet repertoire, what else would you like to perform?

SA: Because our repertoire is limited to the classics, there are many other ballets I would like to dance. At the last international festival in Havana, I was fortunate enough to dance the last pas de deux in John Cranko's Onegin, and I would like to dance the whole ballet, as well as Manon and Lady of the Camellias. I love ballets that demand a lot of dramatic interpretation. I'd like to dance Cranko's ballets, especially Romeo and Juliet, and William Forsythe's in the middle somewhat elevated. That ballet interests me particularly because it takes place in a dimension that is not real life and poses challenges to the imagination about a different one.

GM: I would like to dance the works of Jiří Kylián and Kenneth MacMillan.

What was it like to dance for U.S. audiences?

SA: Everywhere we danced, we received a very warm response. In Tampa, the curtain calls were so lovely because they went on so long, and Tampa has a longstanding relationship with Cuba going way back to its founding. In Chicago, we danced Don Quixote and were surprised that the applause lasted even longer than in Cuba, which is our most enthusiastic audience. I especially like it when the applause is genuine, when it comes from the kind of people who don't know much about ballet and who can appreciate it in general. I have been so happy with this tour—it represents a high point in my career!

GM: This went beyond all my expectations. I couldn't believe how explosive the applause was when I was taking my bow. To hear "Viva Cuba!" from this audience was a very emotional experience for me. When we danced Don Quixote in Chicago, the audience laughed every time at the comic pantomime. In Giselle, it felt as if they were very connected to the dancer who was interpreting the role. This is the best thing for us! It sends us energy, and most important, it shows once again that the language of dance is accessible to everyone!

(Translation by Toba Singer)

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1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

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Courtesy CPYB

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If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

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Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

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Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

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Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

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At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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