National Theater, Havana, Cuba; June 20, 2014
“Are you the classical ballet teacher?” asked our tour guide as our bus pulled away from the Jose Marti Airport. “Are you interested in seeing the Ballet Nacional perform “Swan Lake”?” Si!, I nearly shouted, levitating out of my seat. I was in Havana for a long, culture-packed weekend, a complicated endeavor, due to travel restrictions on American citizens, who may only legally travel to Cuba with an organized, state licensed tour, for cultural or educational purposes. We were visiting art galleries, printmaking studios, recording studios, while other activities are geared to our individualized interests. Sipping mojitos, whilst languidly lounging on the beach, is noticeably not on our itinerary.
As Friday night arrived, we eagerly entered the theater lobby and joined the line for our program. The carpeting was tattered, the lighting very dim. As we found our seats, I noticed some stagehands peeking out from the behind the curtain…strange. Simultaneously, the audience around us was murmuring and glancing up and to the first, right balcony seats, flashbulbs popping. An elegant, slightly stooped figure in magenta sequined dress and matching head scarf was being assisted to her seat as applause rippled through the crowd. It was the legendary Alicia Alonso, co-founder, and “Queen Mother” of Cuban ballet! A prima ballerina and star in the 1940s with American Ballet Theatre, she co-founded the National Ballet School and company with her husband Fernando, which she still directs at the age of ninety two. I felt incredibly lucky to be here to see such an historic figure!
As the curtain rose, the first theatrical element one noticed was the worn and dated sets. Material scarcity is the norm in Cuba. Due to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo, there are shortages of everything from gasoline to light bulbs to toilet paper. The dazzling backdrops and lavish costumes we’re accustomed to in the US and Europe are definitely not part of the experience here. But there is no shortage of stellar dancing and choreography – and in “Swan Lake”, the apotheosis of the Romantic style, we see the Cuban dancers at their purest, most luminous best. To see them in their own theater, with a full orchestra, in front of an adoring home crowd, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Odette/Odile was danced gloriously by Viengsay Vaides, a ballerina of international renown, at the height of her technical and dramatic powers. She displayed an uncanny ability to contrast an ethereal, delicate Odette with the naughty trickster, the Black Swan/Odile. At the end of Act Two, Viengsay’s rippling, seemingly boneless arms as she bouréed offstage, lured back into the evil spell of Von Rothbart, were truly astonishing. As Odile, she whipped effortlessly through the infamous thirty-two fouettés, liberally interspersed with double pirouettes. In interviews, she has said she practiced her balance even as a fledgling dancer until she could balance on pointe, unsupported, for one full minute. However, she doesn’t rely on technical tricks alone, as her portrayal was an organic study in contrasts.
Victor Estevez as Prince Seigfried, while technically assured in his solos, seemed slightly tentative in the acting and partnering segments. One wonders if the recent defection on June 9th of six Ballet Nacional dancers in Puerto Rico necessitated any shuffling of roles within the company.
Interestingly, while the romantic style is second nature for these dancers, the corps also shone in the character dances – the romping, stomping rhythm of the Czardas and the lithe, haughty Spanish divertissement. The Russian influenced training is evident in their sumptuous port de bras and generous épaulment. They dance right down to their fingertips, faces alive and animated. This was typified in the Act One pas de trois, danced by Dayesi Torriente, Estheysis Menendez, and Alfredo Ibanez, but carried through the entire ballet. The male dancers excel in their soaring grand jetés, which have that uncanny quality of breathlessly stopping, suspended in mid-air. Clean, rock solid tours en l’air and precise foot positions are the order of the day.
In Alonso’s version, the Epilogue presents an atypical twist to this classic. Prince Siegfried returns to the lake, hoping to redeem himself to Odette. The flock of swans block his pathway, as they are protecting and shielding Odette. The corps are especially menacing, a flying wedge gathered upstage left, bouréeing in place in fourth position, aggressively leaning forward from the hips, winged arms drawn back and shaking. One can almost visualize them hissing at and vanquishing the hapless Prince. Ultimately, in this version, the love of Seigfried is strong enough to break Von Rothbart’s spell, and all the swans morph into “doncellas”, (as written in the program) an antiquated term, literally translated, meaning virginal young maidens. The ballet concludes with Siegfried and Odette reunited in perfect love, a happy ending to be sure.
The Cuban ballet audience has the energy of a football match. The fans boogie in their seats, whistling, stomping their feet and rhythmically clapping to their favorite music. Ballet enjoys pop culture status and passionate support; everyone from taxi drivers to tour guides knows individual dancers by name. The arts, both indigenous and classical, are easily accessible to all Cuban citizens. This brings to mind a quote from contemporary French ballet set/costume designer Jerome Kaplan “people don’t realize how classical ballet is important and part of our cultural heritage, exactly like Noh and Kabuki for the Japanese. We need to keep it alive and fight to transfer it to the younger generation.” The Ballet Nacional and Cuban society have warmly embraced this philosophy, with ‘un gran abrazo’ (a big hug). Long may they shine!