Ballet Nacional de Cuba
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso
January 7, 2017
by Gay Morris
copyright © 2017 by Gay Morris
In the United States, Alicia Alonso is best remembered as an important ballerina of the 1940s and ‘50s, noted both as a sensitive dramatic dancer (Giselle was her most famous role) and a technical virtuosa; Balanchine made the notoriously difficult Theme and Variations for her. However, in her native Cuba, Alonso is far more than a ballerina. She is a major national figure, certainly the only woman in the country to hold such a position. Her name is enshrined on buildings and her image is found on posters scattered about Havana. The Cuban government named her a National Hero of Labor and in 2000 she received the Order of José Marti, a UNESCO award sponsored by Cuba and more often given to male political leaders. The Museo National de la Danza, consisting primarily of Alonso’s personal collection of documents, costumes, and art works, is in many ways a shrine to her, with an entire room devoted to her image depicted by some of the country’s most illustrious artists. Havana’s opera house is named the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, and although in her 90s and blind, Alonso continues to hold the position of director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Photo: Gran Teatro de la Habana
In early January a friend and colleague, Alessandra Nicifero, and I traveled to Havana with the express purpose of seeing the Ballet Nacional and the Museo Nacional de la Danza. The company would have only two performances while we were there, on Jan. 7 and 8, and the ballet would be Cascanueces or Nutcracker. Unlike the US, Havana does not have a frenzied, annual Nutcracker season. In fact, the ballet is rarely danced, and so we were eager to see it and to have a first glimpse of this notable company. Cuba has been off limits so long to US citizens, few have seen anything of the Ballet Nacional except through U-Tube videos or appearances in American and European companies by Cuban stars like Xiomara Reyes, Carlos Acosta, José Carreño, and Lorena Feijoo. What would Alonso’s shaping of the company look like? Would there be a discernable Soviet influence left from the years when the USSR and Cuba were close allies? What of choreography, sets, costumes and lighting? We had little idea of what to expect.
The Gran Teatro, is grand, indeed; an exuberantly ornamented, early twentieth century building situated next to the nation’s capitol on the Paseo de Marti. The interior is elegant and the sightlines excellent. Foreigners pay about $30 for tickets and, at least on the main floor, are placed in side sections. Cubans, who rightly pay far less, are in the center. They are a knowledgeable, enthusiastic audience who know their dancers and greet them warmly.
In 1948, Alonso, her then husband Fernando, and her brother-in law Alberto, returned to Cuba to start Ballet Alicia Alonso, while Alonso continued her international dancing career. The company struggled until the revolution in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to the rescue, perhaps inspired by the Soviet adoption of ballet as a means of reinforcing national identity and as a cultural weapon against a capitalist West. The company, with generous funding, became the Ballet Nacional, and by the early 1960s a national school was established on the Soviet model, offering free education and a career path to the company. Prices for performances were kept low so that ordinary Cubans could afford to attend, thus building audiences for an art form that had formerly been reserved for the affluent.
The choreography for Cascanueces is credited to a production mounted by Alonso in 1998 after the original version by Lev Ivanov, although what remains of the Ivanov choreography is open to question. Alonso followed the general outline of the plot as it is usually given, but she added her own touches. These begin with the opening, as the guests pass across the front of the stage on the way to the party at Clara’s house. The family groups are good humored and affectionate, and each guest has a clear identity: there is a soldier, a diva and her admirers, a banker, a doctor, an attorney, and a businessman, most with wives and children. As the curtain rises and we see Clara’s home, the colors of sets and costumes immediately make an impact with pinks and lavenders, lime greens and turquoise. These are the colors seen on buildings and in homes throughout Havana, and indeed throughout the Caribbean, and they perhaps inspired Italian designer Guido Fiorato to give the production a Cuban warmth (the work is a coproduction between the Ballet Nacional, Teatro La Fenice in Venice, and the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa).
Here, too, Clara and her friends are not children, as in many productions, but company dancers who perform on pointe. When Drosselmyer entertains the guests with mechanical toys, which often include a bear and a female doll, hinting at the Russian winter fair of Petrushka, Alonso took a further step, actually depicting them as Petrushka, the doll, and the Moor of Fokine’s ballet. Other unusual elements include female rats dancing on pointe, and the reinstatement of a Snow Queen and her consort, which are sometimes eliminated, as they are in New York City Ballet’s version. In the second act the most unusual feature is the Arab dance, in which a female “snake” rises from a basket to mesmerize three men with her undulating movements. Most of the choreography for the ballet is pragmatic rather than inspired, with the exception of the dance of the snowflakes, which captures the surge and ebb of the waltz with lines of dancers that kneel and whirl away in an instant, animating the music in ways I have not seen elsewhere.
As for the dancing, it is difficult to grasp an entire school in one viewing, but here are a few impressions. After seeing videos of Alonso from the 1950s, the Cuban women dancers seem much in her mold. That is to say, the technique is closer to Cecchetti than Vaganova. It has none of the extremes of the Russian school, the over extensions, highly flexible backs, and extensive use of épaulement. Rather, the emphasis is on clarity of line, fast, precise footwork, and high but contained extensions. The body is upright, the legs straight and elongated, the arms and hands graceful and relaxed, the feet well developed. It is a technique more about refinement than boldness. As for the men, they are, like the women, precise and clean lined in technique, while also being engaged and elegant partners. It was interesting to see the two principal ballerinas, Ginett Moncho as the Snow Queen and Sadaise Arencibia as the Sugar Plum Fairy (here called the Fairy Garapiñada) partnered not by male principals, but by soloists Ariel Martinez and Raúl Abreu. This speaks of a company confident in the training and partnering abilities of its younger dancers. In all, then, Cascanueces proved fascinating on a number of levels and the company as a whole a pleasure to see after many years of being so close but so far away.
Photo: Drosselmeyer presents Clara with a nutcracker in the first act of Ballet Nacional de Cuba's Cascanueces. Photo by Alfredo Cannatello.