Ballet, Cuban Style

Ballet, Cuban Style

Viengsay Valdés and Alejandro Virelles in "Don Quixote." Photo by Nancy Reyes.

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is in town for the first time since 2003, thanks to the city-wide Cuban arts festival “Si, Cuba!” As one might expect, there was a certain buzz of excitement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 8 for the opening performance of the company’s four-day run, given the rarity of their visits. More often, we see this or that spectacular product of the Cuban ballet system dancing with one of our own companies or a visiting European troupe. The Cuban national ballet school is clearly exceptional: students are trained for free, and thus may come from a variety of financial, social, and racial backgrounds, a reality we cannot begin to imagine here in the U.S. Thus we get dancers like Carlos Acosta, of the Royal Ballet, son of an impoverished truck driver, who enrolled him in ballet school in order to rein in his considerable energy. And José Manuel Carreño, a paragon of male dancing who has spent most of his career at A.B.T. and will be retiring at the end of the season. The presence of Cuban dancers around the world also reflects the deeply political nature the company’s management, which allows some to perform wherever they wish (without relinquishing their right to return to Cuba), while others, like Carreño’s half-brother Yoel, are denied performance opportunities. There has been a rash of defections in recent years, including five this past spring, in Canada. One cannot overlook the fact that for the last fifty-two years (since the Cuban Revolution) the company has been led by one person, the great and powerful Alicia Alonso, who even last year could not be coaxed by an interviewer into naming a possible successor. Lest we forget: Alonso is ninety, and severely visually impaired, a condition she has suffered from for decades. These are realities that linger in the mind when watching the company perform. In some ways, they render the performances of these virtuosos even more poignant. It can’t be denied that many of the dancers in the company are real virtuosos. One can quibble with their style, with their old-fashioned coiffures (combed modestly over the ears), with their lack of delicacy, and with the way they fit (or don’t fit) the steps into the music, but their technique, and the strength and vigor that lie behind it, are on the highest level. Even the most senior ballerina we saw during the opening-night show, Bárbara García—who concluded her ballet studies in 1985—can balance on one leg forever (without assistance), raise her leg as high as many ballerinas half her age, turn like a top, and jump with the best of them. (She was partnered by the much younger Ernesto Álvarez.) At the end of her “Nutcracker” solo, she did a series of ramrod-straight fouetté turns with lots of double spins thrown in, and even a triple, after which she went on to execute an impressive jump I had never seen before, with one foot tracing a series of circles and the other kicking vigorously to the side. Chapeau.

Ballet, Cuban Style

Grettel Morejón and Osiel Gounod perform a backwards swan dive in "Coppélia." Photo by Nancy Reyes.

Which is why it was almost painful to watch the company perform in this kind of “greatest hits of the classical ballet” program which they chose to present at BAM. “La Magia de la Danza” is a showcase of pas de deux and set pieces from their highly traditional repertoire: “Giselle,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Coppélia,” etc. (At the Kennedy Center last week, they also performed “Don Quixote,” to rave reviews, but we are not so lucky.) Unlike the Soviets, Alonso has not replenished the company’s catalogue with topical ballets celebrating the revolutionary spirit, so the dancers spend their careers repeating the same nineteenth-century works with a few pièces d’occasion on the side. It is almost comically jarring to jump from the tenebrous world of “Giselle” (Act 2) to the triumphant classicism of the wedding pas de deux from “Sleeping Beauty,” or from the bravura high-jinks of “Don Q” to the swooning longing of the lakeside scene in “Swan Lake.” Worse, it denatures each ballet, reducing it to a kind of tableau vivant with no inner life, and steals the dancers’ ability to tell a story. Rather, it encourages them to push for effect, to dazzle with tricks and coax the audience with come-hither glances. It is clear, too, that the company policy, and Alonso’s choreographic style—all the excerpts on the program are listed as being “by Alicia Alonso” after Ivanov or Petipa or whomever–fosters both virtuosity for its own sake and unfiltered “communication” with the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dancers’ warmth and general lack of affectation—they don’t treat ballet like it is some sort of effete pursuit for delicate orchids—but a line should be drawn somewhere, and it seems to me that the blatant batting of eyelashes, shaking of shoulders, and flirtatious smiles are demeaning to the artists. And, when combined with the insertion of showy virtuoso steps—triple turns! crazy balances! One-handed overhead lifts!—into one ballet after another, everything starts to run together. In the dramatic passages, smiles and flutters are replaced by tragic masks with blood-red lips strangely reminiscent of the Alonso style.

Ballet, Cuban Style

Yanela Piñera in "Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Jack Vartoogian.

This is not to say that the company does not have a strong sense of style. The use of the back is particularly powerful, as are the coordination of the shoulders and head. The corps moves as one, with all eyes looking in the same direction, all arms extended to the same degree. The ballerinas are strong and beautiful. They all seem to be able to pull off multiple pirouettes with complete effortlessness, another Alonso specialty. (You can see her here in the Black Swan sequence from “Swan Lake.”) The men execute perfectly calibrated double tours, always finishing in a clean, neat fifth position. They too specialize in incredible pirouettes with slow endings in which they can shape their bodies in any way they like while still revolving. There is nary a wobble to be seen.

Ballet, Cuban Style

Osiel Gounod in "Coppélia." PHoto by Nancy Reyes.

Some particular standouts were Grettel Morejón (a first soloist) and Osiel Gounod (a principal) in “Coppélia.” Both had incredible charisma and charm. His pas de chats—jumps with the legs tucked beneath the torso—hovered for so long that he looked like he had simply decided to sit in the air for a while. He was musical and playful, and fresh. In “Don Q,” Viengsay Valdés, a company star famed for her ability to balance eternally on one pointe, floated for a long time in arabesque, then slowly brought her foot to her knee, then extended it forward in attitude, with no sign of effort. On the other hand, Valdés, and many others, seemed blatantly disconnected from the music, not surprising since it was generally played at paint-drying speed, almost to the point of structural break-down. (However, the soloists in the orchestra, especially the violinist and cellist, played beautifully, with great singing lines.) Valdés’s partner, Alejandro Virelles (a premier danseur), whose jumps were achingly beautiful, clear, and light, was even more detached, both from the music and from the upbeat mood of the ballet itself. By the end of this relentless parade of excerpts, all I could think was this: what hieghts these dancers could reach if presented with a multitude of dancing styles, a varied palette of choreography, a diversity of perspectives! Valdés recently said, to Dance Magazine: “[Alonso] has people around her to explain what is happening. But also…she has so much experience that she can tell you exactly what she wants and how to respect the style of each ballet.” In the end, the buck stops with Alonso, and essentially, it seems, she is coaching from memory. It is both a tribute to the power of her imagination, and a grim testament to her inability to allow these marvelous dancers to grow as artists.

Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N ...read more

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