Minor Disasters and Major Triumphs in Cuba: Abi Stafford on Performing at the Havana International Dance Festival

Abi Stafford in Bournonville's Flower Festival in Ganzano. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford recently performed in Cuba as part of the Havana International Dance Festival. Read her follow-up post here.

DAY 1

Seven of my NYCB colleagues and I are heading to Havana, Cuba for the Festival, joining other prestigious companies, including American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet. It's truly a star-studded event! NYCB principals Jared and Tyler Angle are our bosses: They conceived the program, put together the group of dancers and are in charge of making all the last-minute decisions.


Today, Joaquin De Luz and I flew down (two days after the rest of our group due to schedules and other conflicts). Fortunately, we were on a direct flight to Havana and shared the plane with ABT's group--most of their dancers, staff, and artistic director Kevin McKenzie, which was cool. We were looking forward to a quick, painless three-hour flight. But just when we'd settled in, the captain informed us that we were making an emergency landing in Baltimore, because there was a smoky smell in the back of the plane. It took a bunch of firefighters to determine that a coffee burner was to blame. Go figure. Finally, an hour after we should have been taking in the Havana sights, we were on our way, and after a 14-hour travel day, we landed in Cuba. Immediately things started looking up: We were treated like royalty, and I knew this was going to a great trip.

DAY 2

Today was jam-packed from 10:30 A.M. until 12:00 A.M. Since my travel day yesterday was so long and, um, exciting, I had to think "mind over matter" and refuse to allow myself to feel tired.

In the morning we took class at the Cuban National Ballet with other guest artists of the festival. It was only an hour long and I found it interesting that we did not begin class with pliés. Instead, we faced the barre for a warm-up combination and then proceeded to do several tendu combinations right and left. About four combinations in, we finally did pliés. After our class, we spied on a Cuban class. The dancers' style seemed to be very classical, with clean arms and large, open beats. These dancers can jump!

We headed to the Mella Theater to rehearse from 1-4 pm--three rehearsal hours to get the two-hour program ready. Misfortune struck almost immediately when Joaquin went down with a foot injury. (He's now recovering well, by the way; it turns out it was just a mild sprained ankle.)

Jared and Tyler began delegating. Could Andrew (Veyette) do Tarantella for him? No, then he'd be doing four ballets on the program--way too much. Maybe someone from ABT knows Other Dances? No, this should be a NYCB-only performance. In the end, Tarantella and Other Dances had to be cut.

But the show went on, and the audience went wild for us. It was exciting to feed off their energy. Our shortened program consisted of the Chaconne pas de deux, Liturgy, the Stars and Stripes pas de deux, In the Night and Who Cares. Ironically, the audience seemed to love Stars and Stripes the most, applauding and hollering for every impressive turn and jump. They also responded well to Liturgy; I think it was probably unlike anything they had ever seen.

After the show, we discovered that a very special guest had been in the audience: Alicia Alonso! She came backstage to greet us and we were all grinning stupidly. I never thought I would meet THE Alicia Alonso. She was beautiful; she thanked us for coming and complimented our performance before explaining that she had to go oversee a rehearsal for her company at another theater. After lots of group photos, she walked off--and I took note that she still walks with her toes pointed out in typical dancer fashion! What an amazing lady.

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