During the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's tour to Washington, DC's Kennedy Center earlier this year, the company brought longtime artistic director Alicia Alonso's Giselle. And while the production was admittedly well-worn and the style of dancing old-fashioned, the dancers rose to the occasion, led sensitively by longtime BNC star Viengsay Valdés in the title role.
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.
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?
Forty years ago, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba made its U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Among the performers was its iconic founder, Alicia Alonso, then in her late 50s and already nearly blind. This month the historic company will return for a tour that includes a six-day run at the Kennedy Center as well as stops in Tampa, Chicago and Saratoga Springs, New York. And if her health permits, the now-97-year-old director will also be back.
Viengsay Valdés and Ernesto Diaz (right) with the company in "Giselle." Photo by Nancy Reyes, Courtesy The Kennedy Center.
Ever since President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, the two countries' dance communities have been eager to strengthen relationships. Now, in spite of tightened travel and business restrictions by the Trump administration, an exciting new collaboration is on the horizon: Cleveland–based Verb Ballets is teaming up with Cuban ballet company ProDanza for a series of performances in Havana. There, the two companies will combine to form the Cleveland Havana Ballet, presenting a full-length production at the prestigious Alicia Alonso Grand Theater.
Last spring, the Cleveland Foundation, through its Creative Fusion: Cuba Edition program, brought ProDanza artistic director Laura Alonso to Ohio for a two-month residency with Verb Ballets, where she taught classes in the rigorous Cuban style. "We're not a classical company, so the dancers needed that kind of training," says artistic director Dr. Margaret Carlson in a phone interview. Alonso—a former dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba and daughter of its founder, prima ballerina Alicia Alonso—worked with the company to break technique "down to the little finger," says Carlson, who points out that "it's hard to get that kind of training anymore."
Laura Alonso (far left) works with dancers of Verb Ballets during her two-month residency last spring. Photo by Susan Bestul, Courtesy Verb Ballets.
Over the years, many companies have premiered works or made their U.S. debut at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and some of the world's most famous ballet dancers have performed there. This week I will give some more insights from the Pillow's extensive archives into the dancers that have graced this world famous festival's stage. Click on the links below to watch video footage of their performances.
Alonso and Bruhn performing "Giselle" in 1955. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.
Photography by Quinn Wharton
“My dream was to dance in Cuba," says Lorena Feijóo. “I didn't want to leave my country." It's a lament the San Francisco Ballet principal shares with countless other members of the Cuban ballet diaspora: dancers who left their families, culture and country behind to escape economic hardship and seek artistic freedom abroad. The diaspora extends from Miami to Seattle to Oslo, where Cuban dancers' superb classical training and refined artistry are sought after.
The problem is not a lack of appreciation at home—“The Cuban audience is absolutely insane about ballet," Feijóo says—but subsistence wages and artistic conservatism at the National Ballet of Cuba, and rigid restrictions on guesting overseas. In Cuba, dancers earn an estimated $30 to $50 per month. However, a balletic revolution may be on the horizon.
During the Cold War, Alicia Alonso was one of the first Western dancers to be invited to perform in the Soviet Union—where she danced Giselle, her signature role, in this 1958 clip. It’s not just her precise, sprightly footwork or her fluid, emotive arms that make her portrayal of Giselle so enchanting. Nor is it merely her acting, which successfully evokes a girl vacillating between reticence one moment and readiness the next in her lover’s company. Every ballerina must have these qualities, but Alonso has something more. Take the moment in Giselle’s variation after the hops on pointe. Even with talented dance actresses, the steps transitioning back upstage for the final pirouettes can seem like just that, a transition. Not so with Alonso. She leans off balance in a coupé, swings into a sauté and, in a joyous flurry, rushes to the corner. The heart she puts into the simplest steps goes beyond acting; Alonso shows us that this, indeed, is a girl whose passion is so great it could kill her.
At 94 years old, Alonso still leads the National Ballet of Cuba, which she founded in 1948. By documenting the lives of two of her students, the 2015 film Horizontes (watch the trailer here) tells the story of Alonso’s legacy—which is still in the making. Her distinctly Cuban staging of Giselle for Ballet Silicon Valley opens tomorrow. Happy #TBT!
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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.
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.
What an exciting trip this was! Overall, I was extremely impressed with the kindness and enthusiasm of the Cuban ballet fans. Dance is a huge deal in Havana--there are pictures of Alicia Alonso everywhere. Many people saw our first performance and insisted on coming back for the second one. They waited for us outside the stage door and took pictures and asked for autographs. They tried hard to communicate to us in broken English how much they enjoyed the program. I met some people in the hotel who had traveled from Argentina specifically to see the dance festival. Even the workers at our hotel went to our show!
In between our two shows, we had some time to play. We enjoyed a morning at the beach and wandered around old Havana, which is full of shops and restaurants. For our final evening, we bought tickets for a dance show called Tropicana. It was two solid hours of Cuban-style dance, with singing, live music, and even some acrobatics. I thought it was spectacular!
What a thrill and an honor to be a part of this trip. Jared [Angle], Tyler [Angle] and Marc Happel, who is head of the NYCB costume shop, made it all possible--special thanks to them. Hopefully, lines of communication throughout the dance community will remain open and we will be able to participate in the dance festival again!
New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford recently performed in Cuba as part of the Havana International Dance Festival. Read her first guest post here.
At 92, Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso is a living legend. Now director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, she had a brilliant dancing career despite being partially blind from the age of 19. Here she is (with the none-too-shabby Azari Plisetsky) in excerpts from the Black Swan pas de deux—showing off, among other things, her prodigious turning ability. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!