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21st Festival International de ballet de la Havana

Posted on October 28, 2008

Imagine an animated breakfast table where terpsichorean topics are discussed vigorously in five different languages at the same time. That’s the festival of dance in Cuba. Aficionados from around the world are invited to spend ten dance-filled days in the heart of this Caribbean island where poverty is rampant and recent hurricane damage is very much in evidence. Yet, every two years, money is found to transcend the mundane and bring ethereal beauty to the fore, to show off one of the country’s greatest treasures – the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) – which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Dance at the festival is on tap from the moment of waking until the wee hours of the morning. After breakfast, it’s off to the company studios for the men’s class at 9.30am, followed by the women’s, then rehearsals for the evening’s performance. Press conferences are held each morning with visiting directors, dancers and historians, and the afternoon continues with more rehearsals until the 5pm performance at the Teatro Mella. Here, the performances offer mixed bills that include everything from classical to modern and flamenco works with visiting companies from Spain, Venezuela and Mexico as well as the local team from the BNC. As the curtain falls, it is a quick trot back to the hotel – grabbing a spot of supper if lucky – before catching the bus to go down town for a choice of shows at either Teatro America (mixed fare from mainly visiting companies), or the Grand Teatro in the centre of Havana for an 8.30pm performance where full-length works and Cuban classical ballets are generally performed.

During this festival, two outside performances were organised, staged in front of the beautiful backdrop of the Cathedral. Alas the first production, Alicia Alonso’s Shakespeare and his Masks, was rained off at the last minute, though the weather kept dry, if somewhat chilly, for the 9pm performance of Swan Lake three days later. Here in the packed piazza, with television cameras filming it live for the nation, the remarkable Viengsay Valdés, who can stay on balance forever and spins like a dervish in multiple pirouettes, made a touching, poignant Odette. Her deep backbends raised cheers from the crowds as she metamorphosed back into a swan, arms rippling and seemingly boneless. Siegfried was danced by Rómel Frómeta, tall and light-footed, and an excellent partner. As Odile, Valdés set the stage alight with her powerful attack, bewitching her audience. The performance was colourful and entertaining, though both Valdés’ and the company’s musical nuances were put on hold for the tricks much to the delight of the Cubans, but not so much so with the foreign guests. Making a welcome appearance and showing great promise in the role of the Jester was new company member, Yonah Acosta, nephew of Carlos, and original young star of Tocororo. He has grown into an elegant, tall, slim young man and, at 18, possesses many of his uncle’s exciting steps.

Each evening in the packed Grand Teatro, just as the lights began to dim, the founder and director of the BNC, Alicia Alonso would enter to take her seat. Dressed in sparkling sequins with matching trademark headscarf, she would be guided to her place in the front row of the grand tier by her husband Pedro Simon, and, waving regally to the audience, would be greeted with the acclaim worthy of a pop star. Though unable to see anything, she sat throughout each performance, presumably reliving the older classics of her own dancing years. For this festival she created only one new work, though several of her earlier pieces were shown, as well as her adaptations of the classics. In this last bastion of communism, she is the feminine figurehead of Cuba – akin to royalty – and on opening night, President Raul kissed her hand, to the delight of the crowds. There can be no question of Alonso’s status in the country if she has the financial means to stage such a high calibre festival every two years at a time when the country is suffering – the average wage is about $20 a month paid in local currency which buys very little and which must be changed into the Cuban convertible dollars (CUKs) at a high rate to buy necessary goods. Yet everyone smiles and offers friendly chatter, and how they love ballet! The stars are national heroes and productions are avidly watched on television. Even former President, Fidel Castro, wrote in Gramma that he had watched Viengsay Valdés in Swan Lake on film for two hours, and “never conceived of such amazing elegance and flexibility, with perfect precision.”

Among the festival’s invited guests was Vladimir Vasiliev (straight from his jubilee gala at the Bolshoi), Azari Plisetski and Cyril Atanassoff. The three of them enjoyed each other’s company very much and were full of jokes and laughter. Plisetski and Atanassoff taught the men’s company classes a number of times, offering very differing styles. Alonso honoured all three at the performance of Giselle, which marked 65 years since her own first performance. The jolly trio had all partnered her at one time and so were called on stage and presented to the audience. The gala saw a full performance of the ballet, but it had two Giselles, four Albrechts, two Hilarions, two Myrthes and two Wilfreds, each performing different scenes. As always, it was the corps de ballet that stole the show. Having been checked out at the rehearsal with a tape measure and stick, their lines and spacing in Act II were absolutely perfect and their interpretation scary – these weren’t soft and lyrical Wilis, but spirits desirous of revenge. The corps is also to be highly praised in Swan Lake, especially when they stood stock still during the Act II adagio with one hand cupped on their breast, the other straight up in the air with the wrist turned flat, just like a swan’s head. It was most effective.

Another Swan Queen worthy of mention was Ekaterina Borchenko from the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St Petersburg. Tall, slim and elegant, she performed both the Black Swan pas de deux and White Swan adagio on different nights, partnered by Elier Bourzac (BNC). She has the most beautiful arms and hands, and danced confidently with great musicality and feeling.

Two members of Staatsballett Berlin, Martin Buczkó and Soraya Bruno, were delightful in an extract from Benvindo Fonseca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. They danced the snappy and comic choreography with split second timings and excellent technical skills. And of course, what would the festival be without an appearance by the most famous of its native sons? Carlos Acosta returned for the final three days and performed Ben Van Cauwenburgh’s Le Bourgeois solo, which had the audience eating out of his hand, and the adagio from Spartacus with the Bolshoi’s Nina Kaptsova, beautifully poignant but which sadly didn’t show any of his well-known leaps.

The passing of balletic styles between Cuba and Denmark occurred when Frank Andersen was contracted to stage Act III of Napoli for the Cubans, in exchange for their production of Don Quixote, which was seen last spring in Copenhagen. In a press conference he said, “Napoli had never been tried before and I was very happy with how it turned out. I am very proud of the Cuban dancers. I felt they had a dream, a wish, a hunger for doing something different and they were grateful for this. I chose the youngest dancers in the company – very talented but fresh, as the traditional way of presenting old ballets here doesn’t work with Bournonville. You have to act very naturally, which is hard for most of them. But I am very satisfied with their performance and would like now to stage the whole ballet for the company”. Two guests from the Royal Danish Ballet performed with the Cubans – Diana Cuni and Thomas Lund – who showed the ultimate style and technique to the new performers.

And there was more, so much more, ranging from the splendidly performed El Amor Brujo (choreographed by Ramon Oller) by the Ballet des Teatres de la Generalitat de Valencia, (despite being plunged into darkness half way through due to a power cut); the flamenco sensation Maria Pagés, companies from South America and South Korea, but most of all, the fantastic dancers of the BNC. All ages and ranks were given opportunities to shine and show that the company is still technically one of the finest in the world. The dancers have a natural joie-de-vivre that makes their dancing seem as natural as walking. The tricks they produce get wilder and more fantastic at each viewing, and they each give 100 per cent of their best in all performances. Stars like Viengsay Valdés, Anette Delgado, Sadaise Arencibia, Joel Carreño, Rómel Frómeta, Dayron Vera and Javier Torres, shone night after night – usually twice a night at the two theatres – and it is no wonder after watching them dance so magnificently in so many different styles and productions that ballet is so popular in Cuba. It takes you to another world.

Carlos Acosta with his nephew, Yonah Acosta, during the Havana Ballet Festival. Photograph by Margaret Willis.

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