Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Viral Videos

The Diana and Actaeon pas de deux, from the ballet La Esmeralda, is a bravura tableaux ideal for festivals and galas. In this clip, we see Viengsay Valdés and her frequent partner Romel Frometa perform the piece at Japan's 2006 World Ballet Festival. Valdés, Ballet Nacional de Cuba's prima ballerina and now the company's deputy artistic director, epitomizes the fierce, independent goddess Diana with radiant confidence. Together with Frometa, a current dancer at BalletMet, the two elevate the pas deux to new levels with balletic fireworks that demonstrate their immense strength and trust in one another.

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News
Valdes and Alonso. Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy BNC

Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.

Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.

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Ballet Stars
Ballet Nacional de Cuba's corps de ballet performs Giselle's famous arabesque chugs. Photo by Carlos Quezada, Courtesy The Kennedy Center.

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.

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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.

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