Cuba Libre

For 53 years, the Havana ballet company of Alicia Alonso has felt free to create an original form of classical dance

Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Elian Gonzales. Communism. Blockades. Boatlifts. When it comes to considering the "revolution" in Cuba, our thoughts inevitably turn to the political. Yet recent years have also given us an opportunity to view the island as a home to revolutionary artists whose uncompromising work is anything but the product of a conformist society bereft of creative resources. This is the sort of revolution where tradition meets innovation and becomes something unique. The Buena Vista Social Club and its solo offshoots proved to the wider world that music thrives in Cuba. And the 53-year-old Ballet Nacional de Cuba--who will perform The Magic of Dance, a selection of excerpts from Giselle, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and other favorite ballets this Monday and Tuesday at Northrop Auditorium--exemplifies excellence among the competitive international community of classical and contemporary ballet.

The company, which first performed in Minnesota in 1999 and had its American premiere in 1978, is the life's work of Alicia Alonso, a Havana dancer who made her way to New York's Broadway in 1938 and soon joined American Ballet Theatre. The most famous choreographers of the era, including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Agnes de Mille, revered Alonso's impeccable technique, and she quickly earned leading roles in the major ballets despite failing eyesight. But the Cuban artist was not content with her American success, and returned home in 1948 to begin her own company and school.

The result of Alonso's dream and labors has become an artistic institution in its native land. "Baseball and ballet!" laughs Josefina Méndez, a former prima ballerina who has been a company member since 1955 (she retired from the stage five years ago) and who now serves as maître principal (ballet mistress). "They're very fond of the New York Yankees," she says of her fellow Cubans, "but everybody knows us and they are so proud of their ballet companies, their ballet stars, Alicia. They recognize us on the street and they say, 'Oh, I saw you in your dancing days.'"

Bigger than the New York Yankees? The Ballet Nacional de Cuba
Bigger than the New York Yankees? The Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Cuban audiences are so knowledgeable about ballet, Méndez continues, that performers attending the biennial International Festival in Havana "get really nervous." She adds that the "government has nothing to do with the company. Alicia and the board of directors choose the repertoire." The 120-member troupe, which features 80 dancers, fills its ranks from a network of regional schools located across the island.

Aside from garnering admiration at home, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba has earned a reputation for great technical proficiency: the result, says Méndez, of rigorous study of ballet's French, Russian, and American approaches by Alonso and her one-time husband Fernando Alonso. At the same time, the company has developed a singularly Cuban style that is based largely on the romantic and classical ballet traditions and employs heart-stoppingly complex footwork. The troupe is often lauded for turning in flawless performances while retaining a warm, welcoming flavor.

"It all started, naturally, with Alicia's dancing," explains Méndez. "But I also think we have been developing good dancers because Alicia is always behind everything, reminding us not to have everyone dancing the same way. One time we had some Russian teachers come and we started doing our arms like them, and we started to lose our way. The Americans, the Russians, the French should each have their specific ballets done in a special way, like a language. Now we too are very jealous about keeping our own conception."

 
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