Dancing and Chatting in the Caribbean Sunshine
The sun is still shining. The dancers have arrived from all parts of the world. And, despite severe health challenges, Alicia Alonso continues to be recognized as the indisputable queen of the Caribbean ballet scene as she has been for over 60 years.
It’s festival time again in Cuba – the 24th Havana Ballet Festival – a biennial lavish celebration of dance, which, since 1960, has played host to legendary world-class dancers and companies on the stages of the capital’s biggest theatres, despite the economic trials that still beset the country. It has been the place to see and be seen, to mingle and enjoy a friendly chat over breakfast, lunch and dinner, and to watch the dancers sweltering in the studios of the National Ballet of Cuba early in morning class, or later, rehearsing their evening offerings. This time, I made 15 trips to the theatres – there were performances at 5pm and 9pm each day – and saw 82 different full-length ballets or extracts in the eight days I was in Havana.
Unlike times past when she would grace most of the performances and be welcomed by her adoring fans, Alonso’s absence was distinctly felt. Now 94 years old and suffering from the effects of pneumonia caught on a tour to Spain, she very briefly appeared at the opening gala’s final curtain looking extremely frail, and at the inauguration of a new stamp. Then nothing: no news, no sightings of her. However, to the delight of the audience who gave her a standing ovation, she was helped in to her seat for the final gala and, in acknowledging us all, she proceeded to wave her still eloquent arms à la Dying Swan. Fears were constantly aired for her health – and her promise to live to 200 – and of course, about the future management of ballet in Cuba. There was a definite feeling of uncertainty in the air on this visit.
It was my fourth festival, and initially, the guest list seemed far less sparkly than in the past when stars like Carla Fracci, Mats Ek, Ana Laguna, Leanne Benjamin, Natalia Osipova, and both Vladimir and Ivan Vasiliev, graced the city’s stages and the lobby of Hotel Presidente. At this year’s festival, which ran from October 28th-November 7th, there were no Russians to spark off the Cubans; no Royal Ballet nor English National Ballet dancers – leaving the UK to be represented by Cuban born Javier Torres (now with Northern Ballet); and, for the first time, no Carlos Acosta who has pop star status here. This year’s diverse collection of dancers came from South Africa, South America, Scandinavia, Stuttgart Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and China. And there were some wonderful new young dancers as well as the more experienced ones. Everyone seemed happy, proclaiming that this was a wonderful opportunity to get together with each other and see such an eclectic collection of styles and schoolings.
The usual venue, La Gran Teatro, is closed for renovation, so theatres Mella, Karl Marx and Nacional became the destinations for our nightly buses. Each theatre was freezing cold and had curtains a foot too short so the dancers’ feet could be seen pattering around before it rose. But on the plus side, each offered very short intervals which kept the evening’s momentum going – getting us home by midnight or later.
Ivan Putrov came to perform Swan Lake with the National Ballet of Cuba, partnering their incredible ballerina Viengsay Valdes, famed for overly long balances on pointe. Putrov remained loyal to the music and showed off elegant and exacting technique, and a defined interpretation of his role. Valdes also partnered Brooklyn Mack from Washington Ballet, a hot young dancer with all the spitfire athletics of a Cuban. He torpedoed his way through Don Quixote pas de deux, practically hitting the lights with his high leaps and barrel turns, and again in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux – he’s a star to watch out for. Alicia Amatriain and British Alexander Jones (Stuttgart Ballet) received cries of disbelief in their Mona Lisa (choreography: Itzik Galili) where her legs, which whirled through the air in over 180’ arcs, seemed to be separate entities from her tiny frame. Jones showed himself an excellent partner with good looks as well as impressive technique. Likewise, Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen from Royal Ballet of Flanders took split-second risks in Love Fear Loss, a stunning piece by Ricardo Amarante, completely confident that each other would be there at the right moment to catch, throw, toss etc.
The focus this year was on Shakespeare in celebration of the Bard’s 450th birthday. There were eight offerings from different plays, with Javier Torres authoritatively performing solos from Neumeier’s Othello and As You Like it and Tenorio’s Hamlet. Eric Vu-An brought three other dancers from his Ballet de l’Opéra de Nice to perform an elegant Moor’s Pavane and the Cuban company danced Brian Macdonald’s somewhat dreary Prologue for a Tragedy. Four dancers from Compañia Linga performed Concert-O , leaping on, under, over a long table, though only at the end, when one of them lay prostrate on it, did most of us make any connection to Othello.
But there was far more than Shakespeare hidden in the packed repertoire on offer. Along with Alonso’s full-sized classics – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle – was a compilation of scenes from these ballets performed in The Magic of the Dance, which gave an opportunity to see most of the company in action in one evening. There are certainly dancers to catch the eye. The corps work is well drilled and tidy, and there are still many powerful young men. But somehow it seemed, looking back at earlier visits, that the gloss has gone from most of the company, and this festival certainly highlighted the great gulf between the home team and the visitors’ performances. Perhaps, or most certainly, it is because there is a need to look outwards and capture that earlier magic with new scintillating works instead of recycling the old ones time and again. New Cuban faces who stood out were: Serafin Castro, a fiery tidy tousled-headed youngster, Grettel Morejón, sweet, eloquent dancer and Dayesi Torriente, an ethereal, fluid young ballerina.
Foreign dancers brought to the wooden, slightly-raked stages newer views of the contemporary scene as well as the neater footwork of different techniques from such as the Royal Danish Ballet couple – Gudrun Bojesen and Jonathan Chmelensky, who showed off the orderly intricacies of their training in the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano. In the Le Corsaire pas de deux, 18-year-old Qiu Yunting from National Ballet of China offered porcelain innocence in her dancing, well supported by Wu Sicong. Exuberance and admirable sheer energy was displayed by Ballet Hispanico, especially in the piece created by Annabelle López Ochoa which showed off six men’s slick timings with bowler hats in Sombrerîsimo; and the company’s finale about kissing (El Beso by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano), which left the audience exhausted, yet yelling for more of their super-fast, but thrilling interaction. (Would love to see this company at the Wells). Ochoa also created a piece for National Ballet of Cuba called Celeste, to Tchaikovsky’s (very long) Violin Concerto opus 35, which blended classical with some contemporary moves performed by 13 boys and three girls, including a smiling Valdes in a fetching peacock blue short frock coat. Daniel Proietto (Norway) aptly blazed with Northern light in his physical exertions, dressed all in sequins, which caught the light with technical wizardry. There were tangos and flaming red flamencos from South America, but top honours go to Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz (New York City Ballet) for their rendition of Jerome Robbins’ work, Other Dances, accompanied by prize-winning pianist Marcos Madrigal – so elegant, lyrical and tasteful.
In memory of Cuba’s best loved dancer, founder, director and teacher, Fernando Alonso, who died last year, six master classes were set up at the National Ballet School with visiting luminaries in charge: Julio Bocca, Eric Vu-An, Xiomara Reyes, Cyril Atanassoff, Jose Manuel Carreno, Marta Garcia and Orlando Salgardo, all teaching their own unique techniques in front of a packed studio of guests, teachers and pupils. The classes were inspiring – and challenging – for the 16 students chosen to take part, who had to work out the often, complicated combinations from different schoolings.
But perhaps the best part of these festivals are the reunions with old friends and acquaintances from past celebrations, with meal times and bus rides giving a chance to catch up on their news.
Bocca, now director of Ballet Nacional de Uruguay SODRE, laughed at the remembrance of his ‘final’ Swan Lake here, when in the middle of his solo, a scrawny theatre cat walked slowly and deliberately across the stage and up the wooden staircase of the set, glancing at the audience as though totally aware of his scene stealing. As personable as ever, he says he is enjoying his new work as director in Uruguay and sad that he had to rush off after his master class to join the company on tour.
The dancing director, Eric Vu-An performed with three of his dancers in The Moor’s Pavane, showing his still-immaculate technique and dramatic presence. A lot of fun to chat to, he also gave credit to Alicia Alonso, ‘who gave me a passion for the dance when I was just a little boy of a different colour at the Paris Opera Ballet School.’
Ivan Putrov, invited to dance Siegfried with the vibrant prima ballerina, Viengsay Valdes, took advantage of the classes and rehearsals at the company’s sultry studios, a five-minute walk from the hotel. He is content with his life as a freelance dancer now and has several roles lined up around the world.
Five years ago after the festival, I met up with a very subdued, reserved Javier Torres who was flying on ‘my’ plane to the UK to start a new life with Northern Ballet. This year, he returned to the festival to dance several works with his old company and is a different person – open, friendly, chatty and charming. While he loves returning to Cuba, he said that he is very happy to be in the UK and is enjoying life very much.
Pontus Lidberg, a 37-year-old Swede brought 8 of his dancers to perform various pieces of his classically-based choreography, ‘’which is all about human relationships, one’s concept of individuality.’ He stressed the need for character input in dance rather than just ‘incredible things’ and talked about his other ‘hat’, in the world of film making, and his classical work for the Royal Swedish Ballet.
The French danceur, now teacher, Cyril Atanassoff, gave an excellent master class, filled with interesting combinations and good humour, though he made the students repeat the exercises until they did them correctly. And he always had a joke to tell at meal times. Jose Manuel Carreno’s class lasted over two hours but with his still-good looks and charming manner, no one complained! He says he loves his new job in San Jose – ‘perfect climate and a beautiful place to live.’
The always-elegant conductor, Richard Bonynge, was there for his fifth festival and faithfully went to all the performances each day, even seeing three Swan Lakes in a row – a Herculean feat!
And of course there was the chit-chat with the dancers – all very friendly and open. But last but not least, I met up again with the triplets. The three identical boys, now around 14 years old, and students at the National Ballet School, are the subject of the delightful film ‘To Dance Like A Man,’ shown on TV recently. They beamed in unison sitting in their seats at one of the Sunday performances, and their mother told me that they are doing well at school, and that, in a recent competition, they came home with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. I didn’t ask who won which!