by Patricia Boccadoro
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.
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
" 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. "
" 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
" 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
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 ".
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 ".
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. "
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
" 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 ."
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
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.
National Ballet of Cuba
Credit: Natacha Hochman
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
Nacional (a vast modern theatre)
Creations of new
choreographers, mainly from Latin America
Creation (Alicia Alonso)
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.