D.C. DanceWatcher

Cuban Ballet Strives To Leave Behind the 20th Century

Posted in Ballet by lisatraiger on January 28, 2019

Don Quixote and Giselle
Ballet Nacional de Cuba
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, D.C.
May 30 – June 3, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

valdes cuban_donq_09-1

The star of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s most recent U.S. tour did no pirouettes, arabesques or grand jetes. She simply stood and executed a little port de bras ballet with her arms. Before the curtain was lifted at the Kennedy Center Opera House, an announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, pleased turn your attention to the box.” The audience turned around and peered upward. Ninety-seven-year-old Alicia Alonso, channeling fictional faded movie star Norma Desmond, rose in the center box at the Kennedy Center Opera House, her skin ghostly pale, interrupted by oversized black glasses, her hair wrapped in a glamorous, sequined-studded turban, waved and fluttered her arms – suggesting the last gasp of a dying swan.

The prima ballerina assoluta has, of course, earned those accolades. A brief film recounted the Cuban dancer’s life and her early career in the U.S., dancing with Ballet Caravan, New York City Ballet’s precursor, and then-brand-new American Ballet Theatre, before returning home to found the Cuba’s national ballet school in 1948. Her determination is legendary: after losing much of her sight at 21 and subsequent surgeries and bedrest for a year, she learned and rehearsed the role of Giselle lying in bed, then returned to the studio and stage. It became her signature, defining Giselle for generations to follow.

Nearly to the day of the fortieth anniversary of the National Ballet of Cuba’s United States debut at the Kennedy Center, the company and Dame Alonso returned, May 30-June 3, 2018, closing out Artes de Cuba, the largest Cuban arts festival in the world, featuring music, theater, dance and visual arts. Bringing two classics for which the company is renowned, Giselle and Don Quixote, was a safe choice for story-ballet-hungry Kennedy Center audiences. They enabled the company to show off its well-trained corps and principals in easy-to-digest works.

While Alonso and her late ex-husband and company co-founder, Ferdinand Alonso, honed their ballet technique in New York in the 1940s, once the island nation came under Fidel Castro’s hold, there was virtually no American contact for decades, lending the company a decidedly Soviet technical prowess – sturdy balances, muscular jumps and turns. In fact, in some ways these dancers are more Russian in their attack and technique than present-day Russian dancers.

The Cuban’s Don Quixote resembles the nation itself – striving to be up-to-date yet stuck in the mid-20th century. Sets and costumes appear a bit shabby, but lend the ballet a quaint, simple aura. The ladies’ pink, yellow, and lavender flounced dresses have seen better days, as have the matadors’ and gypsies’ flimsy red capes. But no matter, it’s the dancing that should shine.

Alonso and her assistants have added some sunny flair to the proceedings beyond the principals – Kitri and Basilio, the young lovers, who seek to marry, against Lorenzo, Kitri’s father’s, wishes. The title role, the doddering Don, danced on opening night by Yansiel Pujada, is played as a gentle, feeble dreamer; his clouded vision sees dragons where shaky windmills stand, and a queen when Kitri treats him kindly. His Sancho Panza, loyal aide de camp Dairon Darius, has a soft side for the old man that’s sweet-natured in the way he takes his hand and leads him or calms his agitations.

Viengsay Valdes was no stranger to Washington audiences as Kitri, having performed the role with verve and astonishing balances – it felt like she could have made a sandwich balanced on one leg en pointe, the other lifted high — as a guest with The Washington Ballet in 2009. On opening night in 2018 with her home company, nearly a decade later, she battled wobbles in her arabesques en pointe and unsteadiness even in completing her pirouettes. She smiled appealingly, though her fiery temperament was set on low. She managed to finish her requisite fish dives and supported pirouettes with flourish.

Alas, few sparks flew between Valdes and tall Dani Hernandez, her rather milquetoast Basilio. He used his lanky frame and long legs for lengthy jumps that stretched across the stage. Ariel Martinez, the lead matador, proved spicier, his power-packed barrel leaps and knee-ending turns punctuated with a slinky-like arch of his back. The Opera House orchestra played bright tempos under the baton of Giovanni Duarte, who milked the Minkus score with syncopated pauses, especially for Valdez to savor an extra 3 or 5 seconds in poses.

Alonso’s Giselle doesn’t veer from its classic Romantic roots. Premiere danseuse Sadaise Arencibia proves herself up to the task. In act one she is pony-tailed and playful, though reserved, even shy as Albrecht – Raul Abreu – woos her and wins her heart. Ernesto Diaz as Hilarion, bearded and earthy, is no match for Abreu’s refined, poetic mannerisms.

Act I offers no surprises, the dancing and mine by the principles and the corps de ballet are sufficient, without being spectacular. The white act II is when the ballet should sing. The Wilis, floating and bourre-ing the stage in a wave of white tulle, are a power-packed army, not delicate ballerinas. And Ginett Moncho as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, emits an icy chill; her staunch gaze could crack glass. Here Arencibia’s gentility and lush technique softens her cold, ghostly nighttime forest compatriots. And her gracious generosity doesn’t only save Albrecht from his dance to death, it elevates the steps closer toward sublime.   

Photo: Viengsay Valdes and Dani Hernandez in Alicia Alonso’s Don Quixote, courtesy Kennedy Center.

 

This review originally appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. Click here to subscribe.

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