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National ballet of Cuba

by Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 26 October 1998 - The traditional image of Cuba is one of Fidel Castro, Havana cigars and steamy tropical beaches and few would associate this small, poverty-stricken island with one of today's finest classical dance companies.

Considering its size, this Afro-American Socialist nation would actually rate as the most important ballet capital in the world, marrying nineteenth century European creativity with natural exuberance. Yet just fifty years ago, it was an artistic desert in ballet terms.

It was Manuel Legris, étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet who first drew my attention to the fact that Cuban dancers were collecting all the prizes in the international competitions. Varna, the most prestigious ballet competition today was again won by a young Cuban, Rolando Sarabia, last July. Since the first competition in 1964, (medallist Josefina Mendez is now artistic director of Cuba), more medals seem to have been won by Cubans than any other nationality.

I spoke to the legendary ballerina, Madame Alicia Alonso, who founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana in 1948, re-named the National ballet of Cuba in 1959, when it received official state backing.

" We specialise in the classics, and our approach to dance is to enjoy what we do ", she told me in her dressing-room at the Theatre-des-Champs-Elysées in Paris. " Technique has progressed so much today, there's a temptation to dance everything the same unless the dancer understands and masters the meaning of style. Each gesture should say something about the character they are interpreting, otherwise it becomes a matter of pure gymnastics. Dancers must transmit an emotion, or the classics will just become meaningless. In the Ballet of Cuba, we are trying to produce artists who respect the purity of the original work rather than just brilliant technicians, " she told me.

But how did Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad dei Cobre Martinez Hoyo, born in Havana in 1921, communicate her love of dance to a people where no traditions existed, and build a classical company from scratch ? How did she learn dance herself ?

" When I was little, I'd move around whenever I heard music, maybe like Isadora Duncan, because I didn't know what dancing was. I dreamed of having long hair, so I'd dance around with towels on my head, pretending it was my hair streaming out behind me. Then, when I was eight, my father who was a military man was sent to Spain, and my Spanish grandfather suggested I learnt Spanish dancing. I loved it so much that when we returned to Cuba the following year, I joined a private ballet school that had just opened. From the very moment I put my hand on the barre, I was enthralled. "

National Ballet of Cuba

" I became aware of all the pictures in magazines, and I went to see La Argentina (a classically- trained dancer, said to have been the greatest Spanish dancer in the world). After seeing the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev, I took classes with many, many teachers including Enrico Zanfretta, Alexandra Fedorova, and I met and worked with Fokine, Balanchine, Massine, Bronislava Nijinski, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. In England, I studied with Vera Volkova who was truly an exceptional teacher.

" I was like a sponge, so eager to learn from all of them, and those years were invaluable to me when I founded my school, National School of the Ballet of Cuba. All the knowledge I absorbed forms the basis of the teaching there. It's very hard work, but we are all pushing forward in the same direction. The ballerinas I formed retired and became teachers, so everyone is from Cuba. "

Principal dancer with the future New York City Ballet, and then the future American Ballet Theatre, Alonso, who has fought against failing eyesight all her life, returned to found her own company in Cuba, and the school two years later.

" It was the first professional school there ", she said. " I go all over the island, to every one of the tiny mountain villages to find children who want to dance. We play music and then choose those who have the best physique and bone structure ".

Williams Antonio Castro, a young soloist who danced Rothbart the evening I was there explained how Alicia Alonso had gone to Pinar del Rio, the small town where he lived in 1983. Children who had never heard a note of Tchaïkovski, never seen a step of Petipa were tested for musicality, asked if they wanted to learn dance and invited to join her school in Havana. " There were twenty-four boys in my group, " he said, but the yearly assessment was so strict that only four finally got into the company. Our academic schooling took place in the mornings, and you had to be good at that too ".

Now, students go to a school near where they live, for there is one in every province, and in fifth grade (age 13-14), they take an important exam before continuing their studies at the main school in Havana.

" In Havana, I have forty male dancers at the moment ", Alicia Alonso smiled, " everyone in Cuba wants to dance. Everything is non-paying, and we usually accept students between the ages of eight to twelve, but if we find an exceptional talent, there are no rules ; maybe there are about two hundred pupils altogether. "

Despite the rigid hierarchy within the troupe, there are no rules either for promotion, Josefina Mendez told me. Mendez, prima ballerina of the company in 1962, now virtually in charge of the troupe, is a woman of great warmth, beauty and intelligence. With an amused glint in her eye, she explained how the corps de ballet was divided into three levels - A, B, and C, after which came promotion to coryphée, and hence to the rank of soloist, second soloist, and first soloist. Main roles are normally given to the principal dancers, who, when they have proved their worth might be nominated étoile. The highest accolade is that of prima ballerina.

" Promotions are officially made every two years, but a coryphée can become a soloist in six months , " she said. " It's very important for the younger dancers , no matter how brilliant they are, to learn the discipline which comes from being in the corps de ballet, and to know what's happening around them.

" We listen to the teachers' opinions, consult the ballet masters, and record how they have interpreted different roles. Most of all, it depends on their artistic development. Etoiles can be nominated at twenty-two ; they don't necessarily wait twenty years ! Everything I know comes from Alicia Alonso, and I try to transmit all the knowledge she has given my generation since her eyesight is failing now. But she feels things, and knows when someone doesn't have the correct style. We insist that every movement must have a meaning, and that technique alone should not be foremost. The dancers have a message to give, and everyone must tell the story ; that's the difference between art and circus ".

" The Cuban school is exceptional ", said Legris, who will be dancing in the November festival in Havana. "I meet Cuban dancers all the time, Carlos Acosta, José Manuel Carreno, Joan Boada, Lorna Feijoo, and they all have this astonishing technique allied with artistry and style ."

" I remember some classes I took with Loipa Araujo (Varna gold medallist in 1965, now ballet mistress of the company). They were not only very difficult technically, but no movement was performed without a corresponding expression of the eyes. Your whole body had to say something, " he continued.

The National Ballet of Cuba has an enormous repertory, including all the classics, in particular its " Giselle ", version Alicia Alonso, works based on traditional folklore, and a growing collection of contemporary works. " I re-stage the classics, " Swan Lake " presented in Paris, and " Sleeping Beauty " next season in Cuba to make them clearer and more accessible to audiences today ", Alonso told me.

Madame Alonso also spoke of the Cuban choreographers, pointing out the numerous prizes won by Alberto Mendez. Young choreographers are encouraged , not only within the company but throughout South America, and several winners of the recent choreographic competition in Cuba will be presented at the forthcoming festival, which will also celebrate the Ballet of Cuba's fiftieth anniversary.

The ballet of Cuba is a young company full of enthusiasm, passion, colour, and style. Dancing is not a job, it is a privilege. No-one explains to them, and nor do they care if they dance in costumes that seem to be throw-outs from the Bolshoi, with scenery Paris discarded a century ago.

A miracle has been wrought on a Caribbean island, due primarily to the iron will of one wonderful person, the prima ballerina Alicia Alonso.


Photo: National Ballet of Cuba
Credit: Natacha Hochman

International Ballet Festival of Cuba - Havana
28 October- 7 November 1998

Gran Teatro Nacional (inaugurated in 1838 -the oldest theatre in America)
" Giselle " with guest stars Monique Loudières and Manuel Legris, Agnès Letestu and José Martinez
" Nutcracker " (new version by Alicia Alonso) with guest stars Alessandra Ferri and Maximiliano Guerra, Julio Bocca and Carla Fracci

Teatro Nacional (a vast modern theatre)
Creations of new choreographers, mainly from Latin America
Creation (Alicia Alonso)
New work by Alberto Mendez

Visiting companies will be performing in a third theatre, and videos are available from a documentation centre. There will be two special exhibitions, one of almost forty painters who have been inspired by dance, and the other of sculpture. The opening of the new Museum of Dance will also be celebrated.

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