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Havana Ballet Festival: The magnificent legacy of Alicia Alonso

ballet Cuba, bailarinaTwo dates have marked Havana’s International Ballet Festival for more than 50 years: its inauguration every two years, October 28, and the obligatory Giselle Gala, November 2.

Both dates celebrate landmarks in the history of Cuban ballet. The first, October 28, harks back to 1948, when the country’s first professional company took the stage at the Auditorium Theater. Founded by Alicia, Fernando, and Alberto Alonso, the company included 30 dancers, of which only 11 were Cuban.

It would be the spark that, within a few decades, would become the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC), one of the world’s best, establishing the Cuban school of ballet with its base at the Alicia Alonso Academy created in 1950, to urgently train Cuban dancers.

The seeds sowed have prospered, and on this occasion I was able to enjoy and applaud the gala opening parade, with children from the Academy, the National School, and the entire company taking the stage at Havana’s Alicia Alonso Grand Theater, under the direction of choreographer Alberto Méndez.

This, the Festival’s first performance, offered a glimpse of the reasons behind the BNC’s eminent place among companies worldwide: the special care afforded the classics – on this occasion, Sleeping Beauty, with Anette Delgado and Dani Hernández, as lead dancers – and the versatility to approach contemporary pieces.

An example of this adaptability was the world premier of Oscuro, with the trademark darkness and strangeness conceived by the Festival’s guest choreographer Belgian-Colombian Annabelle López-Ochoa, a true study in black and white, playing with shadows and silhouettes, featuring first ballerina Viengsay Valdés and her unquestionable virtuosity, with the music as its only shortcoming.

López –Ochoa said in a previous interview with GI that she wanted to emphasize “people are divided in two, and there is fear of confronting the dark side of a person, but we are the two sides, positive and negative. It is a dialogue within us all.”

The other significant date for the BNC is November 2, the day on which, in 1943, the young Alicia Alonso, just recovering from eye surgery, accepted the challenge as a member of the Theater Ballet of filling in for first ballerina Alicia Markova in the role of Giselle. Although Alicia has always refused to admit any special preference for a ballet, it is undeniable that Giselle took her to the top of the art form.

The world premier of Oscuro, by guest choreographer Annabelle López-Ochoa, was featured during the Festival’s gala inauguration, with Viengsay Valdés and Ariel Martínez in the lead roles. Photo: Nancy Reyes
This year, being celebrated are the 175th anniversary of the premier of Giselle in Paris, and the 205th anniversary of the birth of Theóphile Gautier (1811–1872), who along with Jules-Henri wrote the libretto, based on a popular German legend collected by Heinrich Heine.

Dancing the role in this Festival is first ballerina Anette Delgado, a romantic par excellence, whose elegance and fragility allow for the illusion of a double performance as the country girl becoming awilli.

With its five decades of history, the world of dance looks upon the Festival with special interest given the important companies and soloist from a variety of countries participating.

In this first segment of events, to be noted is the November 2 return to Havana of the Martha Graham Company, 75 years after its debut here, an event which the pioneer of contemporary dances recalled in her memoir, Bloody memories.

The U.S. company has put together a varied program including classic pieces by Graham herself, such as Dark Meddow Suite, Diversion of Angels, and Errand into the maze, a duet which was one of her most significant roles, and new choreographies such as Lamentation Variations, based on Lamentation by Graham, and Woodland.

The company’s re-encounter with Cuban audiences in Vedado’s Mella Theater was an absolute success. Male and female dancers giving their all, both technically and artistically, with each piece culminating in grateful ovations offered by amazed spectators.

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham commented to this reporter, after the press conference, that thanks to the two master classes they offered in Danza Contemporánea’s facilities, they were able to appreciate “magnificent” Cuban dancers, who have “a deep understanding of Graham’s style.”

Also returning was Puerto Rican first ballerina Laura Valentín, who was invited in 2014 by Alicia Alonso herself. She performed a pas de deux in the National Theater’s Covarrubias Hall entitled Piazzola en concierto, along with BNC dancer Patricio Revé, who alone presented Lo que no fue, also with music by Piazzola.

Valentín took a few minutes from her rehearsal to speak to our publication, saying, “I have participated in many festivals around the world, but is very special to be in Havana, because Cuba and Puerto Rico are so similar that I feel at home, and our school is based on the Cuban technique, too. There is a unity in our way of working and dancing. It is also marvelous to see so many theaters filled at one time, the passion of Cuban audiences for ballet. there is an educated people that values the art of dance, but something else, the love, the passion, and the dancers who come together here every two years. There is a special magic here.”

In another rehearsal room, Brooklyn Mack from the U.S. takes his daily class, prior to his solo and re-encounter with Cuban star Viengsay Valdés for the pas de deux from The Corsair (In 2014, they shared another pas de deux from the classic Don Quixote.) Mack again captured the public with his valiant attack, clean technique, and charisma.

Through November 6, Havana is pure movement. The Festival which now bears Alicia Alonso’s name is an exceptional opportunity for dance lovers, and dancers as well, who are touching the hand of a legend, the great teacher who tells them, “Technique is a language; it is acquiring the facility to then express yourself artistically.”

A Festival that projects Alicia Alonso’s magnificent legacy toward the future.


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