In Cuba, even the cabbies know their ballet: Highlights from Havana’s International Dance Festival

News_Nancy_Cuba_Carlos Acosta_in Twoby Russell Maliphant

Carlos Acosta in Two by Russell Maliphant

Photo courtesy of the International Dance Festival

I had good intentions of making it to the 22nd International Dance Festival in Havana, Cuba this year, but alas, I got overwhelmed with the details. Lucky for me, my colleague, Toba Singer, an expert in Cuban dance, did not. Singer contributes to Dance MagazineDance Europe,Dance Source Houston and other publications, is the author of First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists and is currently at work on a new book,Fernando Alonso: The Art and Science of Ballet, due out in September of 2011. As the mother of Houston Ballet demi soloist James Gotesky, Singer visits Houston often. She brings us the highlights of her recent trip.

CultureMap: How best to describe the Cuban ballet style?

Toba Singer: It’s the best of the Italian (Cecchetti), French, English and Russian (Vaganova) schools, with a little tropical heat thrown in for good measure.

CM: Can you give us a flash history of how Cuba became a hotbed for ballet?

TS: Alicia and Fernando Alonso went to New York after studying with a Russian emigré named Yavorksy in Cuba. There they danced with several companies, most importantly, Ballet Theatre, now called American Ballet Theatre (ABT). When BT ran aground financially in 1948, they returned to Cuba with Fernando’s brother, Alberto (who had danced with Ballet Russe-Col. de Basil) and built a company that they toured around the island and all over South America — in spite of Batista making things difficult for them.

When the revolutionary government came to power, Fidel Castro visited Fernando at his home and promised him twice the budget he needed, as long as the company was “a fine one, with members from all of the Americas including the U.S.” This was the case until the trade embargo was imposed nine months later by President Eisenhower, and travel restrictions were added by President Kennedy, and the dancers from the U.S. had to leave. A happy combination of Alicia and Fernando’s training and experience in the U.S. plus the government’s unqualified support have resulted in one of the best companies in the Americas.

CM: Houston audiences fondly remember Carlos Acosta (Houston Ballet principal dancer 1993-1998). In your mind, what makes him an extraordinary dancer?

TS: Carlos Acosta is as genuinely warm, expressive and dynamic as ever. We ran into each other in Alicia Alonso’s front office where he was catching up with Alonso’s aide de camp, Fara Teresa Rodriguez, who once mentioned to me that she had worked side by side with Che Guevara. For me, what makes Carlos an extraordinary dancer are his physical “conditions” as the Cubans would put it, his airborne jumps, burnished turns, and forceful presence. Most important, though, is his authenticity. He is the opposite of the foppish 19th century ballet partner. Instead, he is truly  “Carlos from the block,” which is how I described him in my 2007 book, First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists.

CM: What do you mean by “Carlos from the Block?”

TS: Jennifer Lopez once made a music video called “Jenny from the Block.” In it, she presented herself as a Bronx girl to counter the music diva image that the spin artists had sold the public on. Lopez is from a Puerto Rican family. Puerto Rico is regarded by some as the sister island to Cuba, so when I think of Carlos and his struggle with the identity that was foisted upon him when he left Cuba and became a ballet star as opposed to a ballet dancer, I feel quite certain that he prefers to think of himself as “Carlos from the block.”

CM: Tell us about his dancing now.

TS: Today, Carlos looks as stunning as you remember him, but he recently had surgery on his foot. The solo he performed at the closing gala required no jumps or pyrotechnics, but nonetheless showcased the sculptural movement for which he is so admired. He is one of those dancers who can stand perfectly still and yet exude tremendous energy.

CM: I hear Acosta’s nephew Yonah Acosta has promise. Can you fill us in?

TS: Yonah Acosta has grown into a tall, well-proportioned, slim adult male dancer. In spite of the promise he showed early on, he has been promoted very slowly and is now the equivalent of a demi-soloist. He is given the most challenging of men’s roles, and he acquits himself in them with the same “wow” factor that runs in his family. At the festival, the audience cheered his having taken flight in Sleeping Beauty‘s “Bluebird” variation. His elevation and turns are breathtaking.

CM: How did ABT go over in Cuba?

TS: ABT’s Theme and Variations, while “pretty,” lacked verve and the crescendo quality that most educated audiences have come to expect (and the Cuban audience is nothing if not well-versed). However, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, performed by Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg, met with a rousing ovation, and the audience went bonkers when soloists of New York City Ballet danced Who Cares?, especially the segments danced by Tyler Peck, who is in every corpuscle a Balanchine babe.

CM: What kind of reception did ABT’s José Manuel Carreño get?

TS: Carreño was welcomed warmly by everyone. The word on the street is that he is at the point of retiring, and that readiness is in evidence in the lower pitch of his dancing. I think it may have been harder on him to return to the demanding audiences in Cuba than it was for the Cubans to receive him, but he looked happy to be there, and the Cubans cheered and clearly claimed him as one of their own. I have since learned that he accepted an invitation to remain in Cuba for several weeks after the festival to work on a program that one of the other ballet companies will be performing.

CM: Tell us about the kind of hardships that the Cuban dancers have to deal with.

TS: They could use more pointe shoes, and ABT generously donated them to the Ballet Nacional as well as to Pro-Danza, Laura Alonso’s company. They complain of small dressing rooms, (but don’t dancers in other countries have that complaint?) and limited rep, but they don’t complain about the beautiful ballet building in which they trained and the constant care they receive from an army of physical therapists, nutritionists and teachers who follow them from the beginning of their training through to the apex of their careers — both personally and professionally.

CM:  Is it true that even the cab drivers know about ballet?

TS: Yes, the cab drivers can name all the dancers and what roles they have danced. It’s similar to how here in the U.S. ours can tell you about baseball players and their batting averages. Drivers also point to a relative who has studied ballet. Everyone seems to have one.

CM: You have forged this relationship with Alicia Alonso and her former husband, Fernando. How did that come about?

TS: I knew of Fernando and Alicia through a friend who made a film about Alicia in the 1980s. Knowing that I was interested in the Cuban pedagogy, several years ago Lorena Feijoo, a principal with San Francisco Ballet, suggested that I write a book about Fernando Alonso, the architect of that pedagogy. He was 91 at the time, and there was only one book (in Spanish) about him.

CM: What one event/performance proved the highlight of your recent visit?

TS: This is truly a Sophie’s Choice question because there were several. The most unforgettable was Mozart á 2 by Thierry Malandain (Paris Opera) danced by the astounding Silvia Magalhaes (of Portugal) and Giuseppe Chiavaro (of Italy), members of the Thierry Malandain Company of Biarritz. It was a contemporary piece in which Chiavaro especially demonstrated complete virtuosity and concentration, while never for one second losing touch with his partner or the audience. It was a pleasure and privilege to interview him and several other dancers in the festival.

CM: Do you foresee a time when we can easily go back and forth to Cuba?

TS: Many presidential administrations contributed to the embargo. President Eisenhower imposed a trade embargo in October 1960. President Kennedy’s Foreign Assistance Act added travel restrictions. President Carter relaxed the travel restrictions for one year. Then under President Clinton, the Helms-Burton bill added sanctions for third-party countries that traded with Cuba. Bush tightened the restrictions with the Trading with the Enemies Act, and under President Obama, those restrictions have been enforced to the letter of the law.

It seems that there are few people in the U.S. who see any advantage to the embargo. It is cruel for the Cubans because the economic trade sanctions prevent Cubans from receiving critical supplies and equipment. Laura Alonso told me that they could make their own pointe shoes if they could just get the glue. Perhaps our political leaders don’t want us to see what Cuba was able to accomplish, even in the face of hardships imposed by the U.S. and the inevitable errors they made while they were following certain Soviet planning models. When you compare the atmosphere in Cuba to that in Mexico today, you have to wonder why it is we can visit one and not the other.

CM: What keeps you returning to Cuba?

TS: My book. Also, It’s hard to resist their warmth, love of dance and music — not to mention a climate that is very friendly to dance-worn joints — and there are no commercial billboards, shrill pre-election campaign rant ads, hyperventilating TV Christmas shopping commercials or traces of industrial pollution.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

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