Cuba's Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, one of the four theaters in use during the festival. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Reporter's Notebook: Inside Cuba's 26th Havana International Ballet Festival

Anyone attending the National Ballet of Cuba's biennial Havana International Ballet Festival can expect an adventure that is equal parts treasure hunt and lottery, amidst a cornucopia of choices. This year's festival, the 26th, was no exception, offering 25 programs in four theaters. The event, held October 28-November 6, was also notable for the unanticipated absence of 96-year-old Alicia Alonso, the host company's founder and Cuba's ballerina assoluta. Due to flagging health, Alonso was unable to make her customary opening night appearance, where she would have been seated alongside Cuba's new President, Miguel Díaz-Canel.



In addition to Cathy Marston's riveting world premiere Prospera for National Ballet of Cuba and a cavalcade of classical pas de deux by returned Cuban dancers who currently dance abroad, the festival presented outstanding works by guest companies. Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève presented Claude Brumachon's absorbing Carmina Burana, while Dance Alive National Ballet, an energetic Florida company that enjoyed close ties with the late Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso, offered a mixed repertoire evening. Other programs were dotted with guest performers, including Ellison Ballet's Elisabeth Beyer performing Grand Pas Classique with Cuban-born guest artist Daniel Sarabia, and American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston and Aran Bell. The hectic pace that had rehearsals taking place back to back in four theaters and the company studios brought remarkably few mishaps, and the programs proceeded seamlessly. Read on for some of the festival's brightest highlights.

Stars of American Ballet

New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht's Stars of American Ballet, its dancers culled in part from NYCB, presented an eclectic program of classical ballet, tango and hip hop. Sterling Hyltin, Teresa Reichlen, Indiana Woodward, Ask la Cour and Gonzalo Garcia readily gave up their vacation time from NYCB to make the trip, dancing excerpts from Balanchine's Tarantella, Apollo and "Diamonds" from Jewels; Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy and Lar Lubovitch's Elemental Brubeck. The program was anchored by two pieces that showcased award-winning ballroom dancers Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina, including Drozdyuk's Irresistible, set to a Michael Jackson mix. Ulbricht also choreographed two pieces on the program: Tres Hombres for Joseph Gatti, Drozdyuk and himself to an Astor Piazolla tango score, and Sing, Sing, Sing for himself and Danielle Diniz.

During a press conference, Ulbricht explained his own exposure to Cuban-style training with teacher Javier Dubrocq, and that he hoped his company's eclectic repertoire could offer something Cuban audiences rarely get to experience. Over email Ulbricht elaborated, comparing his curated program to a restaurant menu with enough variety to please all tastes. He felt vindicated that the energy the performance generated took the Cuban audience on a wild ride that surpassed their expectations of his NYCB cachet: Audiences cheered and stamped their feet, applauding until the floors and walls shook—it felt forceful enough to blow apart the U.S. embargo, metaphorically speaking.

Does he think the cultural exchange between his company and the Cuban artists as a symbolic act that challenges the U.S. embargo? "Dance—and the arts in general—have the unique ability to transcend borders and politics," says Ulbricht. "We can only represent the beauty and culture we share, not the policies in place. Hopefully, that won't be the case for too much longer."

National Ballet of Cuba Welcomes Back Its Diaspora

In a generous change of heart, National Ballet of Cuba invited leading dancers who have left the island nation for a variety of reasons to participate in this year's festival without the sting of recrimination or rancor. Returning dancers performed a variety of pas de deux or solo variations throughout the festival programs, including Midsummer Night's Dream and the Black Swan pas de deux by Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos of Queensland Ballet. Ballet de Monterrey's jaunty Lissi Baez and Cincinnati Ballet's virtuosic Jorge Barani danced an explosive Flames of Paris pas de deux. Other Cubans returning home included Carlos Quenedit (Houston Ballet), Rolando Sarabia (The Washington Ballet), Milwaukee Ballet's Marize Fumero and Arionel Vargas, Fernando Montaño (The Royal Ballet), Javier Torres (Northern Ballet), Yonah Acosta (Bayerisches Staatsballett) and international guest artists Taras Domitro and Adiarys Almeida.

The audience's ovation after Domitro and Almeida's Black Swan pas de deux was especially memorable: After many curtain calls, Almeida plucked a rose from her bouquet to give to Domitro, and Domitro in turn, tossed it into the audience to the most enthusiastic person shouting "Bravo!"


Sadaise Arencibía in Giselle. Photo by A. Sanguinetti, Courtesy Havana International Ballet Festival.

On a different program, the same pas de deux was danced spectacularly by reigning NBC principal Viengsay Valdes, 42 years old. Her ability to hold a balance in attitude is only outdone by the dramatic artistry of her subtly manic Odile. The Cuban company's other resident artists, such as Grettel Morejón and Dani Hernández's dazzling Kitri and Basilio, and Sadaise Arencibía's incandescent Giselle, are living testimony to the patrimony of training and artistry assiduously crafted by Alicia, Fernando, Alberto and Laura Alonso, which one hopes will survive them as time goes by.

National Ballet of Cuba's World Premiere of Cathy Marston's "Prospera"

Photo by A. Sanguinetti, Courtesy Havana International Ballet Festival.

The festival's spirit of renewal presented itself in a more subdued but no less affecting way in the world premiere of Cathy Marston's Prospera for NBC. The 30-minute ballet, a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, was brought with the help of British Friends of Cuban Ballet. The work was intended as a tribute to Alonso and her leadership role in founding and building the 70-year-old NBC into a world class company. Marston recreates the protagonist Prospero as a female character, Prospera, danced with a compelling authority leavened with sensitivity by Daniela Gomez. Other standouts were Cosme Tablada as Ariel, Daniel Rittoles as Calibán, and Adrián Sánchez as Fernando.

Marston felt heartened by the project's results. "I could see how much the dancers had invested in what was a very different style for them, and how they developed," she said in an interview afterwards, noting that the creative process presented unique challenges. "I don't speak Spanish, so I knew that communication would be tricky, but we worked with body language and I was confident we'd find solutions and that I'd be inspired by both the dancers and the city."

She added that she's received moving messages from the NBC dancers since the premiere. "They are unlike those from dancers elsewhere. It is rare for them to be part of a new creation, and our work together changed something deeply for some of them. This is hugely rewarding for me."

Still, Marston appreciated at least one surprising but advantageous use of modern technology by the Cuban media. "I was able to watch my ballet on national TV the day following its premiere! It was also projected on a big screen outside the theatre. This commitment to 'dance for all' is something I really wish the rest of the world could take heed of!"

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De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

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Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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