On the tail of Hurricane Sandy, Havana launched the twenty-third biennial ballet festival at the end of October. As ever, it celebrated the remarkable phenomenon that is Alicia Alonso; she was present at all the major performances, she directed the first performance in Cuba of Handel’s opera and ballet, Acis and Galatea, she created three other new ballets, plus a piece d’occasion in which, at a mere 92, she performed on stage to the tumultuous rapture of the Cuban audience.
The festival adopted a similar format to that of previous years, a mix of performances by Alonso’s company, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC), in both classic full length works and mixed bills, programmes by foreign companies and mixed bills performed by guest dancers and Cubans. As ever, there was a good representation of companies and dancers from Spain and South America: Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, Ballet de Camara de Madrid, Unam’s Choreographic Workshop from Mexico, dancers from Ballet Estable del Teatro Colon de Buenos Aires and from Ballet de Santiago de Chile, Ballet de Camaguey from Cuba, and individual dancers, Lola Greco and Sergio Bernal.
As with the previous festival, two groups of American dancers performed twice each. This time ABT did not attend as a company but former ABT dancer, Cuban Jose Manuel Carreno, brought a group of ABT dancers, although some were unable to travel due to the hurricane, including Joaquin de Luz, who was injured last time, meaning that once again Robbins’s Other Dances was cancelled. Tom Gold Dance brought ‘Stars of the New York City Ballet’, a term which would have appalled Balanchine, and only one of the four dances was a staple NYCB ballet.
On the wider European front, France was represented by Ballet Preljocaj and Malandain Ballet Biarritz, neither of which I could see due to programming complications, Norway by the Jo Stromgren Company (presenting a topical dance tribute to football, which I didn’t see but was well received), two dancers from both Dutch National Ballet and the Bucharest Opera Ballet, and Italian Luca Giaccio. This time the Royal Ballet, which in 2010 sent Tamara Rojo, Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae, was unable to free dancers to travel to Cuba due to the demands of the two autumn triple bills. But Erina Takahashi from ENB attended again and this year Esteban Berlanga, who was injured in 2010, performed, and, for the first time, Northern Ballet was officially represented. At the last festival, Javier Torres had been released by David Nixon to perform in Havana, but at that stage he had only just joined Northern and was still regarded as a member of BNC, on leave. This time, while he did perform with BNC, he was joined in mixed bills by Martha Leebolt, performing choreography by Nixon.
As always, the scale of the festival was impressive: 31 performances, across five theatre spaces, in 11 days, with eight world premieres (including a solo choreographed by Northern Ballet dancer, Hannah Bateman; I was unable to see the performance, due to programming clashes, but at rehearsal it looked innovative) and 34 Cuban premieres. This number of pieces new to Cuba, and the number of foreign dancers, demonstrates that the company is more open to modern approaches than Western critics often assume. In particular, one performance was dedicated to new choreography, presenting the joint winners of the 8th Ibero-American Choreographic Contest of Alicia Alonso, which was awarded to interesting work, as in 2010.
The BNC company is in good shape. The exodus of male dancers has continued, but two of the most promising dancers from two years ago have matured into an elegant danseur noble, Dani Hernandez, and an exciting technical virtuoso, Osiel Gounod, the next Carlos. Promising young dancers are, as ever in BNC, emerging, among them Victor Estevez, from the corps. The women are still headed by Viengsay Valdes, internationally famous for her technical virtuosity and dramatic powers, and lyrical Anette Delgado, who has now regained her form. Sadaise Arencibia, who has a vocal fan base, has been joined by Yanela Pinera, last time already a very promising classical dancer, as the fourth First Ballerina. While the male corps seemed a little less disciplined than in 2010, the female corps remains exemplary.
The most impressive performance I saw was Giselle, the ballet that made Alonso a star 69 years ago. Her production is widely recognised as one of the best in the world, notably for the sinister menace of the Wilis in the second act. Anette Delgado was faultless, her mad scene deeply moving, her dancing in the second act in true Romantic style yet performed as though she is in a trance. Dani Hernandez was her sympathetic Albrecht and Yanela Pinera a superb Myrthe. The Wilis moved as one.
The other classics that were performed were Swan Lake and Coppelia, both of which were performed twice. Unfortunately Don Quixote, another signature production, was not included as originally planned. The BNC Swan Lake is not widely liked in the West, partly because of the happy ending with the swan maidens transformed back into young women, but I had forgotten how effective the second act is and I liked the way the swans’ hands are tilted to make their arms resemble a swan’s neck and head. In the performance I saw Pinera made an eloquent Odette and vivacious Odile, well supported by Camilo Ramos as Sigfried. The act 3 soloists danced with panache, notably Grettel Morejon in the Neapolitan and Jose Losada in the Spanish dances.
The BNC Coppelia is bright, in mood and in colour. The character dances are lively and the humour infectious. Like most productions nowadays there is no sinister undercurrent reflecting the ballet’s Hoffmann origins nor is there much attempt at characterisation to give a little depth: after all, Franz is a cheat, Dr Coppelius gets mugged and Swanilda is guilty of breaking and entering! A lively romp throughout. Although the second act seemed a bit thinner than in some productions, Valdes impressed there and not just for her acting. Most Swanildas focus their dance skills on acts one and three but she took the dolls’ dances as seriously as the more famous solos in the other acts; I have never seen them so well phrased and articulated. Her Franz was Osiel Gounod, a likely lad indeed, and a stunning dancer; their third act variation saw them sparking off each other, resulting in technical fireworks. The other cast had Jose Losada, a lively Franz to the Swanilda of Amaya Rodriguez and a fine Coppelius in Adolfo Roval, a former member of the company who has now retired to Spain and who, two years ago, I thought was the best I’d ever seen in that role. This year the role was shared and the company’s main character dancer, Felix Rodriguez, was the equally good Coppelius for the Valdes cast.
A further staple in the BNC rep is Alonso’s idiosyncratic take on Romeo and Juliet, called Shakespeare and His Masks. An interesting device, of Shakespeare controlling the characters like puppets, by allocating the dancers their masks to assume their roles, it covers the main points in the plot and is full of busy action, with lots of characters in colourful costumes. But there is little emotional depth in the characters of Juliet or Romeo, although Delgado and Hernandez developed them as far as the ballet would allow. The Gounod score, whilst a welcome change from Prokofiev, is not varied enough and does not have enough energy or emotional resonance to hold attention or propel the choreography.
A further full-length ballet, by Cuban choreographer Eduardo Blanco, Big Water Legend, was a ritualistic piece about tribal sacrifice to hackneyed music, a mixture of drum-beat-type to Clayderman-type mush. The choreography was also fairly hackneyed, with stereotypically lyrical women and pouncing men but nevertheless showed the men off well, giving them lots of high jumps and a few Grigorovich-type complex jumps and turns. It was largely a corps work but gave Amaya Rodriguez her best role in the festival; as the sacrificial virgin, she was very touching and convincing.
One of the most interesting performances was the inaugural gala, celebrating also the re-opening of the main hall of the recently-restored National Theatre. Previously a forum for lengthy speeches (there are always members of the Castro family present), this year the main focus was on dance. A défilé of over 600 dancers, including students from elementary and intermediate ballet schools and the Professional Dance Workshop as well as all the dancers from the BNC, opened the show. The centre of the gala was two ballets. Robbins’s superb In The Night, was very well danced, notably by Pinera in the first couple, while Valdes in the third section brought out the dramatic dynamics. Some of the subtleties of this complex piece were missed but it benefited from the wonderful pianism of Leonardo Milanes’s interpretation of Chopin’s nocturnes.
La Fille mal Gardée followed – not Ashton’s, of course, but Alonso’s. Nor was the score Hérold’s but Peter Ludwig Hertel’s. Yet the details of the plot and the ‘business’, such as the use of ribbons, was surprisingly close to the version we cherish. What it lacked was the emotional depth of Ashton’s version: it was treated as a comic ballet and the characters were one-dimensional. But Delgado made a lively Lisette and Hernandez a boyish Colin, while Rodriguez was a true pantomime dame as Mama Simone (all so named in this version) and it was a joyful romp.
Many of the programmes performed predominantly by the BNC were badged as galas, mostly homages to great artists of the past. Like some of the homage galas seen at the Coliseum, at times it could be difficult to identify the link to the theme, but they all included some interesting items. From a balletomane’s perspective, the one honouring Igor Youskevitch, Alonso’s great partner, was appealing. This started with Nijinsky’s L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune, followed by some guest contributions to be covered later, a Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, well danced by Delgado and Hernandez and a Spectre de la Rose in which Yanier Gomez ran out of stamina and Aymara Vasallo could not convey the dewy adolescence of the young girl, despite lovely arm movements. It ended with a Theme and Variations blighted by an over-fussy backdrop and bling tutus which were wholly out of keeping with the ballet’s honouring of the purity of classical ballet, and poorly played music with long breaks. Even Valdes and Gounod could not make up for these weaknesses in production. The penultimate piece was a world premiere, a banal pas de deux choreographed by American E. Kirk Peterson, intended as a tribute to Youskevitch, called Beauty and the Beast, inappropriately to some of Tchaikovsky’s most iconic ballet music; Pinera surmounted the problems but her partner Arian Molina struggled.
A centennial tribute to Cuban writer, Virgilio Pinera, saw Javier Torres bravely assume the role of Prometheus in Fire Poem, Alberto Mendez’s work to Scriabin. Minimally clad, he starts off clicking his fingers to get the corps to move to his orders, continues with a series of homo-erotic poses and finally has four women mounting him followed by a Grigorovich-like human tower wiuth Torres’s head on top, an impressive ending. In a dramatic programme, Alonso premiered a solo for Osiel Gounod, The Dancer’s Destruction, inspired by a poem by Pinera, to music by Villa-Lobos. The piece opens with Gounod at a barre, practising exercises and technical tricks, between breaks for grimaces of pain, before finally leaping out of the window in despair in a L’Arlesienne-type move. The solo was a tour de force for Gounod, harnessing his incredible dancing ability and revealing a capacity for acting.
Composer Ernesto Lecuona was celebrated in a gala which presented four ballets created to his music, two by Alonso. La Commedia E …Danzata was a comic commedia del arte piece in which Grettel Morejon shone brightly as Columbine. The final announced ballet, Impromptu Lecuona, was a pleasant closing ballet, largely for the corps, but earlier there was a more meaty piece, Late in the Siesta, by Alberto Mendez, which was in different ways reminiscent of Chekhov or even Lorca in its depiction of family relationships. All four First Ballerinas performed, as sisters, but each represented a mood: Consolation (Arencibia), Loneliness (Valdes, very moving), Sweetness (Pinera), Hope (Delgado). Each had a solo and there was some joint dancing. Most people enjoyed it but I found it artificial, not very convincing. The surprise ending of this programme was the performance of several former dancers, culminating in the appearance of Alonso herself, partnered by Lazaro Carreno (uncle of Jose Manuel and Joel) and Jorge Vega, both former partners of hers.
The visual arts were celebrated at a gala in honour of three artists born in 1912. Amongst the pieces performed was one, Flora, for which the designs were created in the manner of one of the painters, Rene Portocarrero, representing Cuban women. Again the four top ballerinas performed together, with three other senior women, this time representing colours rather than moods. The costumes were exquisite, beautiful colours, a visual treat. So was the last ballet, an ambitious piece by Alonso, Pictures at an Exhibition, to Musorgsky’s score. This represented the activities of visitors at an art gallery reacting in turn to 10 different pictures, making for an unusual and enjoyable approach.
The choreographic evening presented the winners’ ballets, after the presentation of the awards. The first, How Far? by Sharon Fridman was an unusual contact dance, where the two men (Fridman and Arthur Bernard Bazin, both from Spain) scarcely separated, being in perpetual combat but engaging in some innovative falls and other moves. Equally dark, but in all other respects very different, the other winning ballet, The Crime was in Granada, was by Cuban Irene Rodriguez. She danced, as Death, with Henry Carballosa as Lorca, with a corps of flamenco dancers, all dressed in black, and moving with precise, sinister discipline. It was an amazingly powerful piece. Light relief, literally, came with Peter Quanz’s Luminous, to a modern string score. It was all very attractive, the lighting, the lyrical neo-classical choreography. The dancers were all good but Grettel Morejon was superb, her movement beautifully shaped and phrased. It was a completely different genre from the duet that Quanz created for the festival, a quirky duet, Double Bounce, for Valdes and Hernandez, in preposterous costumes.The final ballet was Blood Wedding, a return to passion and death. Javier Torres as the Bridegroom demonstrated how far his dramatic skills have deepened since he joined Northern Ballet. Jose Manuel Carreno also acted as well as he danced and the three women, Ivette Gonzalez, as the Mother, Jessie Dominguez as the Woman and Viengsay Valdes as the Bride all put in powerful performances.
Cuban dancers contributed to the mixed programmes in a range of pas de deux and other short works. In addition to Sleeping Beauty pas de deux mentioned earlier, they danced Nutcracker (Morejon and Ernesto Alvarez) and Don Q (Delgado and Hernandez); Pinera as Gamzatti and Ramos as Solor and several soloists gave a well-danced extract from Bayadère; in Black Swan (Delgado and Hernandez) Delgado gave a vulgar Odile, overstating the contrast with Odette, so different from her subtle Giselle while Hernandez was graceful and technically assured. By contrast, guesting for the ABT group, Valdes and Gounod did a Black Swan that was explosive technically yet did not quite overstep the boundaries.
In addition to excerpts from the Classics, there were two Balanchine pieces: Sylvia pas de deux (Arencibia, not quite capturing the Balanchine style, with Italian guest Luca Giaccio) and that most daunting of virtuoso duets, Tchaikovsky Pas de deux, in which Valdes had the speed, control, turns and sparkling charm reminiscent of the great Patricia McBride in that role. Arencibia, partnered by Estevez, also danced a Lifar ballet, Aubade, to Poulenc, a Cuban premiere. There was a world premiere, by Alonso, Nosotros. Although to Chopin music, it had similarities to Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, showing a male dancer (Hernandez) in a studio who observes a female dancer (Delgado) when she enters and then dances with her; the difference is that their relationship develops into a more explicitly romantic one. Alonso’s Pas de Quatre was performed at the final gala; strangely it did not include all four of the main ballerinas as Valdes’s place was taken by Amaya Rodriguez. A first for the company was Cranko’s final Onegin pas de deux, performed by Arencibia and Torres. She is quite tall for the complex lifts and moves but Torres conveyed well Onegin’s emotional turmoil, again showing how his acting skills have deepened. However the unsuitable costumes detracted and the excerpt did not fully come across out of context, nor in the dark theatre without décor (the pas de deux had been more powerful in an early rehearsal in a more intimate space).
Similar problems reduced the impact of other pas de deux by 20th century choreographers. This was the case with the Manon pas de deux danced by ENB’s Erina Takahashi and Esteban Berlanga where their passion did not fully transmit over the floodlights. The two David Nixon pas de deux, from Cleopatra and Madame Butterfly, similarly suffered; despite the fluency of their dance and the power of their acting, Martha Leebolt and Javier Torres could not quite achieve the effect they deserved. This was less true of the Spartacus pas de deux danced by Romanian dancers, Bianca Fota and Gigel Ungureanu, mostly because the choreography is far less subtle but also because Fota completely misunderstood the meaning of that dance and smiled joyously throughout, a pity as she is a very good flexible dancer who was very successful in Radio (sic) and Juliet, a contemporary piece to pop music. Another pas de deux which succeeded because of its lack of subtlety was Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew which Natalia Berrios and Federico Fernandez, from Chile, danced and acted to the hilt, revelling in both the drama and the comedy.
Yet there was one subtle piece which did come across well. Van Manen’s Trois Gnossiennes, beautifully phrased and danced by Anu Viheriaranta and Casey Herd of Dutch National Ballet, was one of the most successful pieces in both the programmes in which it was shown. Another beautiful ballet, David Dawson’s Faun (e), danced by Esteban Berlanga and Raphael Coumes-Marquet, was powerful and moving. Coumes-Maquet also gave a remarkable performance, intense with searing emotion, in S.W.A.N., a solo by Claudio Cangialosi to Saint-Saens’s famous Le Cygne music. Italian Giaccio danced Alonso’s Death of Narcisus, a charismatic performance which truly was narcististic.
And then there was Carlos. He twice performed the solo Memoria. Choreographed and designed by Cuban Miguel Altunaga, it combined a lot of floorwork with hiphop. The cheers from the Cuban audience were deafening.
Similar outpourings greeted other returning Cuban prodigals. Jose Manuel Carreno, though retired from ABT, is still dancing and brought Xiomara Reyes back to her homeland for the second time (she first returned, after 20 years, to the previous festival; she was equally emotional this time). Like Javier Torres, Carreno danced with the BNC in Blood Wedding and in the closing gala (Transparente) with Melanie Hamrick: a Latin-style duet exposing a fractious relationship. Reyes was also accorded the honour of appearing in the closing gala (Corsaire pas de deux with Cory Stearns). But their main contributions came in the two performances by the Stars of American Ballet group he brought. Despite five dancers, including international stars like Herman Cornejo, being unable to get to Cuba, the group was successful; not least Daniel Ulbricht, who brought the house down in Balanchine’s Tarantella (with Erica Pereira), even at the second performance where it was the first piece after a lengthy enforced interval caused by a power cut. His speed, virtuosity and humour were displayed again in a solo, Piazzola Tango, in which some extraordinary athletic turns, which looked humanly impossible, were executed with insouciant ease. The programme was largely a mix of typical gala pas de deux: Nutcracker (Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns, danced carefully to a tape with the wrong tempi); MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet which a shy Hee Seo danced delicately but Alexander Hammoudi lacked presence – another example of the way more subtle choreography failed fully to carry; Tchaikovsky Pas de deux (Reyes, with Gomez, made less impression than Valdes had); Black Swan (Valdes and Gounod, as reported earlier); Sinatra Suite (Herrera and Careno).
The Tom Gold programme started with Apollo. Adrian Danchig Waring looked the part with a Greek profile and good looks, tall and well proportioned, charting Apollo’s growth in confidence as he assumes his divine role. His muses were Tiler Peck, Amanda Hankes and Abi Stafford. Stafford, partnered by Robert Fairchild, did Junk Duet by Twyla Tharp, an amusing piece, very well danced. The other two ballets were by Gold, a pas de deux, Gershwin Preludes, and Tango Fantasie, a closing piece for the entire group – endless tango but with one exciting section where Fairchild, Waring and Stephen Hanna danced together in a rush of leaps and high jumps.
Tango is always popular with Cuban audiences as is the Spanish-oriented dance on offer from a range of companies and individual dancers. The latter included Lola Greco, a mature woman who dances with dignified passion, and Sergio Bernal, exuberantly confident. They mostly danced separately but did a duet for the closing gala. The contributions from some of the groups were variable both in choreography and dance quality.
The festival was as intensive as ever, with three performances running on seven days, four on one day, some concurrently. The range and quality of dance overall was impressive. The theme of the festival was tradition and the new paths. This was fulfilled, tradition by the classics and the excerpts from Balanchine, Robbins, MacMillan, Cranko and van Manen and new paths by the companies of Malandain Ballet Biarritz and Ballet Preljocaj, David Dawson and Hannah Bateman ballets and the choreography competition.