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Ballet Nacional de Cuba at Sadler’s Wells

Posted on September 10, 2006

Following the success of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s visit to Sadler’s Wells last year, the company made a swift return visit to London in early September with a repertoire consisting of the full length Don Quixote and a mixed programme of ballet “lollipops” called Magia de la Danza. Part of the success of the Cubans’ previous visit, for me at least, was the revelation of a troupe of dancers with a uniformity of schooling and style – a style that harks back to the era of the former Ballets Russes companies with whom Alicia Alonso, the founder of the Nacional Ballet, was a celebrated ballerina. The company also employs a variety of very talented principals and soloists, who could justifiably grace the stages of any number of ballet theatres across the globe. One cannot help but appreciate the high standards of dancing that Alicia Alonso has been able to develop – she is the Cuban equivalent of Britain’s Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert. What cannot be disguised, however, is the utter poverty of the company’s production values: threadbare backcloths and rudimentary scenery; costumes and wigs that look as if they had been made 50 years ago for a school production – they do little to enhance the quality of the dancing or the veracity of the acting. Regular Dancing Times readers will be aware of the poor state of the rehearsal studios for the company and school in Havana, and there was an extraordinary response to our request for donations of new dance shoes and practice clothes for the company last summer. One can only hope that with more regular visits to Western Europe, the Nacional Ballet’s bank balance will become healthier.

 

The opening programme Magia de la Danza, which I saw on September 1, was, as last year, an indigestible series of divertissements from a phalanx of 19th century ballets, all in versions by Alonso “after” the original choreography. My companion for the evening remarked that it was like a meal consisting only of desserts. However, the performance gave the company an opportunity to show off a number of its dancers, some of whom had not been on view on the previous visit. I admired Hayna Gutiérrez’s soft and rounded “Romantic” style in the long extract from Giselle Act II – an odd programme opener. Anette Delgado and Rómel Frómenta were supremely confident in the Act III pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, but it was a shame they were dancing Alonso’s version of the choreography, which has little to do with Petipa. (The couple had also danced an exquisite Nutcracker pas de deux in the 2005 performances.) Taras Domitro made a big impression as Franz in his solo from Coppélia – bold and elegant dancing performed with neat, clear attention to detail and a winning personality. Making a big impression for all the wrong reasons was Viengsay Valdés, dancing with Joel Carreño in the pas de deux from Don Quixote, who overindulged in unmusical extended balances that came dangerously close to turning the duet into an adagio act from the Music Hall of yesteryear. The audience roared their approval. I, however, found her self satisfied and vulgar.

Alonso’s full-length version of Don Quixote opened at the Wells on September 5, led by Valdés and Carreño. Much of the choreography is familiar from the versions performed by the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet, although Alonso and her collaborators, Marta García and María Elena Llorente, have updated the action to the French invasion of Spain in the early 19th century, shorn some of the more “exotic” gypsy dances, and cut the “Tavern” scene completely. (Basilio now “fakes” his death at the beginning of the attempted enforced wedding of Kitri to Camacho, which consequently becomes her wedding to Basilio.) Don Quixote is a jolly showcase, which the company performs with verve and vivaciousness, but too much exposure to Minkus’ tinkly tunes and the trite nature of some of the choreography can be wearing. I didn’t enjoy the performance as much as I had hoped, and I am coming to the conclusion that only the Bolshoi, who understand Don Quixote innately, should be allowed to perform the ballet.

Joel Carreño danced Basilio with assurance and boyish charm. He partnered Viengsay Valdés marvellously, but was rather lightweight in personality. Valdés danced Kitri fast and flashily, but I did not find her a heroine one to warm to. The company obviously believes the couple to be a “star turn”, giving them prime exposure this year as last, but I’m not so sure. The press was offered tickets for the first night only, but there are other, equally talented dancers in the Nacional Ballet de Cuba, and I might have enjoyed Don Quixote much more if it had been possible to see a different cast. Nevertheless, it was good to see the company again, and I hope they will be back soon – with some different examples of their repertoire.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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