Cuba's Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, one of the four theaters in use during the festival. Photo by Quinn Wharton.
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.
Catherine Conley is now a member of the National Ballet of Cuba. Photo courtesy Riley Robinson
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
Sadaise Arencibía as Giselle. Photo by Quinn Wharton.
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?
PNB in Justin Peck's "Year of the Rabbit." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba Continues U.S. Tour at the Kennedy Center
A few weeks ago we shared that the historic Ballet Nacional de Cuba is back in the U.S. after 40 years. The company has already made stops in Chicago and Tampa, and heads to The Kennedy Center May 29-June 2 as part of the Artes de Cuba festival with performances of Giselle and Don Quixote. The tour will conclude at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center June 6-8. Whether or not the company is heading to a city near you, you can catch a glimpse of Don Q in the below trailer.
Members of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in "Giselle." Photo by Carlos Quezada, Courtesy The Kennedy Center.
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.
Hupoy (right, as Alla Snizova) and Laszlo Major in "Le Corsaire." Photo by Zoren Jelenic, Courtesy Ballets de Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
One of the highlights of New York City's Fall for Dance Festival this year was an appearance by the Ballets Trockadéro de Monte Carlo, a company of men who dance on pointe with as much panache and style as any prima ballerina. Their performance of Paquita was funny, of course—they specialize in comic renditions of classical ballets— but also bracingly well executed. The star of the evening, Carlos Hopuy, aka Alla Snizova, was simply astonishing. His pointework sparkled, his hops on pointe were clean and strong, and he looked like he could have balanced in attitude forever. There was something deeply exciting about the way he combined delicacy and control with the explosive power and steel of a man's physique.
Hopuy, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and trained at the country's famed National Ballet School, has been with the company since 2012. Like all the Trocks, he has both a female and a male alter-ego: when he's not portraying Alla Snizova, he's Innokenti Smoktumuchsky, a dopey cavalier. He is also one of the dancers featured in the upcoming documentary Rebels on Pointe, which will have its theatrical release November 15 (click here for theaters and dates near you). I recently caught up with Hopuy, who, when he's not on tour, lives in Orlando with his husband Paolo Cervellera, a former Trock. We spoke by phone, in Spanish.
Did you always want to dance?
I always liked ballet. My mother, Norma Hopuy, was a principal with the Ballet de Camagüey. I used to hang around the rehearsals. She started giving me lessons at home. Then, when I was nine, I auditioned for the National Ballet School. I had the choice between that and gymnastics and I chose ballet.
When did you start going on pointe?
When I was 11. I would ask my classmates for their old pointe shoes and would try them on at home. When my mother realized that I liked to go on pointe, she started training me and bought me my own pair.
NBC principals Grettel Morejón and Alfredo Ibáñez perform at the opening weekend of the newly restored theater.
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.
I wasn't planning to write about Ballet Nacional de Cuba, performing this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In fact, I was relieved that I didn't have to. How can you evaluate a company so storied? Its founder, the incomparable Alica Alonso, is already enshrined in the ballet canon. It is rabidly adored by its Cuban fans. It has catapulted so many spectacular Cuban dancers--Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carreño, Lorna and Lorena Feijóo--into the international spotlight. The weight of its reputation, I thought, is too crushing; there isn't any room for objective analysis. Reviewing it would be like reviewing a painting that has already been declared a masterpiece. And the problem was that, from the glimpses I'd had of the company's dancers, I wasn't sure I thought they were masterful.
After seeing the company perform its program of classical excerpts, "La Magia de la Danza," last night, I'm still not sure. But I am sure that I have to write about them. They're just so...unusual!
While the rest of the world's ballet companies have been moving towards a universal technique--dancers in New York are now pretty much interchangeable with dancers in St. Petersburg--Ballet Nacional de Cuba, stuck in its communist bubble for so long, has maintained a legitimately unique style. That style is basically the style of Alonso herself: Clean, strong, powerful, with crisply defined old-world port de bras and an emphasis on flurries of turns and endless balances. A man behind me noticed that many of the women even looked like Alonso; they all wore her signature over-the-ears low bun. Few of the dancers have the impressive legs and feet that have become the international norm. But that means that the stage is always full of interesting bodies. (And frankly, the high-gloss perfection of today's top-tier companies can be visually exhausting.)
For better or for worse, nobody else moves the way these dancers do. Better, in that they are fearless and unapologetic: They're going to go for that extra pirouette, and if they don't quite make it around, no biggie. (And if they do--often adding a breath-catching suspension at the end--it's thrilling.) Worse, in that their dancing can be strangely airless, with more of an eye to precision in the placement of the hands and wrists than to through-the-body fluidity. They're self-conscious to a fault.
That self-consciousness extends to their presence onstage. These dancers are Performers, with a capital P. Sometimes they're dangerously close to just plain hammy, because they're apt to emote at top volume: It's either full-on "dramatic face" (as in the bits on the program from Giselle and Swan Lake), full-on "cute face" (Coppélia) or full-on "feisty face" (Don Quixote).
Yet it's obvious that performing--even when they're limited to the most hackneyed excerpts from the most hackneyed story ballets, as they were last night--is an utterly joyful thing for these dancers. They are the farthest thing from bored, or boring. And when they're good--like the charming Grettel Morejón and the explosive Osiel Gounod in the Coppélia pas de deux, or the always brilliant Viengsay Valdés, who managed to make her zillionth Don Q pas de deux feel fresh--they are really, really good. These artists justify the program's title. Forget about the history and reputation and legacy they're upholding: Onstage, in their element, they are simply magical.