Cuba's Enduring Revolution
Prima ballerina Alicia Alonso and the National Ballet
Researcher: Anar Desai
by Mimi Chakarova
the stage at the National Ballet of Cuba.
The lights are dim and the
red velvet curtain's up. Hundreds of expectant eyes stare at the bare
stage. They know he's comingthey read his name on the program--but
a split second later, Rolando Sarabia still takes them by surprise.
Before the first chord, he flies onto the stage like a disc soaring
through the air. One, two, three, four. Is he ever coming down?
He does, but only long enough
for the audience to catch its breath. Then Sarabia takes flight again,
blurring the air as he spins and lands perfectly balanced. Unlike him,
the audience, a rowdy crowd of university students, bureaucrats, blue-collar
workers, grandparents and school children, is in motion. They hoot,
cheer and whistle as if Sarabia had just hit a home run. But the delicate
shoal of white tutus that suddenly flutters on stage reminds them that
they are at Havana's Gran Teatro and not at a baseball game. The corps
de ballet is perfect not a wing out of place and it is clear
that Sarabia, while exceptional is not an exception.
If such flawless dancing
is expected in London or New York, where the upper class dressed in
suits and gowns waits until the end of a piece to clap politely, it
is a staggering feat on a small Caribbean island, where it is the masses,
not the elite, who are the aficionados. Among them sits their idol,
Alicia Alonso. Nearly blind, but completely in control of the company
that she has dominated for longer than Fidel Castro has ruled the island,
she oversees her life's work from the central balcony. Alicia, who like
Fidel is known to everyone by her first name, created her own Revolution.
In less than 30 years she erected a dance establishment from the ground,
indoctrinated Cubans in her art, and produced dancers sought after by
the best companies in the world.
But will it
survive Alicia? "Ballet in Cuba will surely continue," Ismael
Albelo, ballet expert and official of the Ministry of Culture, told
me, "how is what nobody knows."
The story of
Cuban ballet begins with three children who loved to dance, Alicia Martínez
and Alberto and Fernando Alonso. Fortunately for them, they belonged
to a privileged class that appreciated good ballet and brought the biggest
stars of the day to Cuba. But when the Great Depression spilled onto
their island, the wealthy could no longer afford to import their entertainment,
so they created a money-making scheme, a ballet school at a mansion
in el Vedado, a well-to-do neighborhood in Havana. Its manager was Laura
Rainieri de Alonso, an art-loving, progressive piano player from an
aristocratic family who ignored the rules of machismo and sent her two
boys, Fernando and Alberto, to train. But the majority of students at
the Escuela ProArte Musical were girls, among them, Alicia. She was
lucky--slipping into her first pointe slippers at the age of 10 because
her feet were the only ones in the school to fit into them-- but she
also pushed herself hard. She danced the main roles with Alberto and
fell in love with Fernando.
could not only raise her legs higher and bend her back farther than
anyone else, but she could also do it more elegantly.
Like any talented
dancers from a small country, the three young Cubans soon outgrew the
local scene. So Alberto left for Monaco; and Fernando and the 15-year-old
Alicia eloped to New York.
practiced ballet during the day and kept house in a Spanish Harlem tenement.
A baby, Laurita, soon joined their household. But child-rearing did
not keep Alicia away from barres, the slender wooden poles dancers use
to practice. Sometimes she paid 50 cents to take a class in a Westside
church with Enrico Zanfretta, a master of the Italian school of ballet.
When she could afford it, she paid $1 to take class with Alexandra Fedorova,
a veteran of the recently disbanded Ballet Russes directed by Serge
Diaghilev. After losing out to opera for the later part of the 19th
century, the Russiam impresario had put ballet back on the main stage
with avant-garde productions with music by Stravinsky, costumes by Picasso
and choreography by Nijinski in the early 1900's. But with Diaghilev's
death in 1929, his company collapsed and its dancers made do in New
York and elsewhere. "At that time there existed no big ballet companies
that maintained a repertoire and shows for even part of the year,"
Alicia writes in her book "Diálogos con la danza".
offered steady work. Its chorus lines were the sole option for starting
dancers like Jerome Robbins, Nora Kaye and Alicia. She danced in the
Fritz Loewe musical "Great Lady" and the Ethel Merman "Stars
in your Eyes", but the bright lights and lavish productions failed
to match her dreams. The American Ballet Caravan came closer. Run by
Lincoln Kirstein, a New York dance Maecenas, it was one of the first
efforts to create an institution of American ballet. Though short-lived,
it was filled with talent, including William Dollar, Lew Christensen
and Alicia. When it fell apart, Lucia Chase, a dancer and millionaire,
put up the money for a new company, called Ballet Theater. Its star
was Alicia Markova, an English dancer known for her Giselle. Her name
was really Alicia Marks, but she had added "ova" at the end
to make it sound more Russian thanks to Diaghilev, everyone who
was anyone in the ballet world of the time wanted to be Russian. "She
seemed to laymen to float in a mist," wrote choreographer Agnes
de Mille. But one day Markova got too sick to float. None of the dancers
dared step into her spotlight. Except one: 22 year-old Alicia Alonso,
who refused her producer's suggestion to Russianize her name. After
her performance, George Schaffe, a ballet paraphernalia collector, went
backstage, untied Alicia's pointes from her blistered, bloody feet and
kissed them. "For history," he said as he ran off with the
In a dance
documentary , critic Ann Barzel explained Alicia's powers. "Alicia
Alonso is a great ballet technician, but there are more things than
what people think is technique: there is virtuosity and there is technique,
Alicia has both." In practice, this means that Alicia could not
only raise her legs higher and bend her back farther than anyone else,
but she could also do it more elegantly. George Balanchine, then 43-years-old,
made use of Alicia's abilities in his "Theme and Variations."
As with all his dancers, the choreographer pushed Alicia to bring out
her best. He set a routine of steps for her, and when she did them perfectly
on the first try, he created an even more complicated combination for
her. The result was a "showpiece" of virtuosity, wrote Walter
Terry in the New York Herald Tribune after its debut. "Alicia Alonso
danced the principal role commendably. Its fleetness of action, the
long sweepingness of its patterns were in complete harmony with this
dancer's basic gifts."
By the time
the Ballet Theater broke up a year later, in 1948, Alicia had danced
all the important roles and the Alonsos were ready to go home. Within
months, they had started Cuba's first professional company, the Ballet
Alicia Alonso. "She was the famous one," Fernando said recently
explaining the name of the company and later of the school, Escuela
Alicia Alonso. But Alicia's fame was not enough. Money was scarce and
to finance her Cuban plans, Alicia returned to New York where Chase's
old company had been reconstituted as the enduring American Ballet Theater.
The accolades for Alicia continued.
by Mimi Chakarova
in Cuba will surely continue, how is what nobody knows,"
says Ismael Albelo, ballet expert and official of the Ministry
perfect, dramatically forceful and very much human," wrote the
Daily Express in 1953. "One of the greatest ballerinas in the world."
But in Cuba, her company struggled despite modest government help. When
General Fulgencio Batista overthrew the elected government in a 1956
coup, even that disappeared. The dictator insisted that the troupe earn
its subsidy by becoming part of his government. The Alonsos refused.
Alicia wrote a public letter to condemn Batista's "bribe"
and organized a national tour to denounce it. In white tutu and full
makeup, she appeared at the end of each show to promise that she would
not set her pointes again on the Cuban stage until Batista left it.
closed doors, the company kept dancing. At their ballet school, Fernando,
Alicia and Alberto innovated. "We took a little from the Russian
school, a little from the English, some of what we had learned in the
United States and put it together," said Fernando. At the time,
Russian technique had overshadowed the more traditional Italian and
French schools and dominated the ballet world. Fernando took its strength,
combined it with the fast footwork from the Italians, added a good dose
of Caribbean sensousness and made it all "the Cuban school of ballet."
Sarabia dancing at the Gran Teatro epitomizes Fernando's project. Although
his toned body flows through the combination, each step is executed
with clinical precision. Unlike the Russians, who emphasize arm work,
or the Danish and Americans, who focus on legwork, Cubans use their
whole bodies to dance. But gracefulness does not make Sarabia less macho
than any Habanero out in the street. When his partner walks in, their
dance becomes flirtation. It took Sarabia eight years of training to
dance like that and Fernando more than 20 to develop the system to teach
him how to do it, but neither could have developed in Cuba without Fidel
While the Alonsos
worked in the studio, the comandante and his barbudos fought in the
Sierras. A few months after they marched into Havana and Batista left
the Cuban stage forever, the revolution knocked on the Alonsos' door.
Alicia was away and Fernando was reading a book when their daughter
Laura announced the visitors. "Tell them to come up," he said.
In walked Fidel Castro and one of his collaborators. Sitting at the
edge of the bed, they talked with Fernando about world and local politics
for hours, until Fidel said, "I came here to talk about ballet."
have time to talk about ballet," Fernando recalled saying.
money do you need for the ballet company to start up again?" Fidel
know comandante, $100,000," answered Fernando.
was a beautiful thing in the beginning," Fernando said recently.
So was the future of the ballet. It had Revolution pesos and a full-time
star to back it up, three really, Alicia, the dancer, Fernando, the
director and teacher, and Alberto, the choreographer. Rebaptized as
Ballet Nacional de Cuba to match its funding, the company also had a
revolutionary zeal. With the same passion Alicia rejected Batistia,
she embraced Fidel and gladly put on green fatigues to dance in "La
Avanzada," or The Leap Forward, a dance choreographed by the Soviet
Azari Pliezlatzky, who also played the role of El Comandante. Shortly
after the Revolution the government had declared that ballet was "one
of the most elevated and beautiful artistic manifestations" and
that it would strive to make it available to "all social classes,
preferably to workers and other popular sectors." Dancers took
their new role seriously. The "guerrilleros" performed in
makeshift platforms set in factories, schools and countryside cane fields.
The prima ballerina
even got on her knees to harvest the national product the ballet
later switched to planting coffee because cane cutting was too harsh
on their bodies. But she also trained her corps relentlessly, and in
1964 when her dancers traveled to the international ballet competition
in Varna, Bulgaria, the rest of the world got its first glimpse of the
Cuban miracle. "Before the competition we realized there were some
Cuban names, but we did not think anything of them," said Arnold
Haskell, an English ballet expert who attended. "And remember that
we at Varna thought we knew every thing about the world of ballet and
that nothing could surprise us."
1966, during the starkest period of homosexual persecution in Cuba,
ten male dancers defected on a tour in Paris, leaving ballerinas
did. The technique that Fernando had developed years earlier and that
the three had perfected, a flair that Alicia has described as an "an
accent directed up" mesmerized. At the end of the competition,
the Cubans walked away with gold medals. The Alonso's experiment had
worked, and now everyone wanted a part of it. Suddenly, said Haskell,
"Everyone in the ballet world talked about Cuba." Countries
from Mexico to Argentina dispatched their dancers and teachers to the
small island to pick up the new expression. And like the doctors and
the guerilleros sent to the Third World by Castro to represent the Cuban
revolution, the Ballet sent its dancers to France, the Soviet Union
But not all
those who left were ambassadors of the new order. In 1966, during the
starkest period of homosexual persecution in Cuba, ten male dancers
defected on a tour in Paris, leaving ballerinas without partners. Already
the Alonsos had trouble getting little Cuban boys to pull on leotards
instead of baseball jerseys, so, taking a lesson from the Soviets, they
started to recruit children in the countryside, offering them scholarships
and molding them under an 8-year training system that included everything
from history to technique. By 1968, the first generation of dancers
was ready to take the stage.
One of them
was Jorge Esquivel. Now a teacher at the San Francisco Ballet, a pony-tailed
Esquivel remembers being recruited from an orphanage in Havana. "The
Cuban government gave me everything, an education, a place to stay and
to eat," he said. By this time, the Alonsos' school had turned
into the government's Escuela Nacional de Danza. And very much like
the regime bureaucracy, it spread out until it covered every province
in the island with a branch where children could learn ballet, drama,
and gymnastics, as well as history, math and literature. To make sure
tendues and pirouettes were identical in Havana and the rest of the
island, teachers went back and forth, and still do. Once a year, the
best graduating students from the elementary schools are selected and
transferred to the middle school in Havana for five more years of training.
"We were lucky," said Esquivel, "we had Alicia, the dancer
and international figure; we had Fernando, the director and the teacher;
and we had Alberto, the choreographer; it was a triangle that helped
ballet in Cuba go forward." This system created a unique style
that is passed on from generation to generation, said Esquivel, a trait
lacking from his American students' education. "They want to say
they have studied with many different professors, but it is impossible
to acquire a style like that," says Esquivel, "You need continuity."
it. After wearing out the bottoms of his slippers on the school floors
for eight years, he moved straight to the Gran Teatro in 1968. He was
18 and danced with Alicia, who was 47. She played Giselle, he Prince
Albrecht; she Juliet, he Romeo. On stage they looked like the perfect
couple, she the beautiful supple princess and he, the strong charming
prince. Despite her age, the critics loved them. A year after the partnership
was formed, the Mexican newspaper El Día, wrote of the 48-year-old
ballerina, "The miracle of vision dances and when she does we know
what it is to dance and to dance perfectly. The prima ballerina of the
world." And when Alicia was 49 and almost blind from a series of
operations to correct detached retinas, the German Leipziger Volzeitung
wrote, "Artistic grandeur shines on her. At once spectacular and
by Mimi Chakarova
But as time
went by--Esquivel was Alicia's partner for 18 years or until he turned
36 and she 65--the prince got tired of the princess. Alicia, he says,
ruled more like the mean stepmother than Cinderella. Dancers who obeyed
went on tours; those who balked, stayed at home. But even the ballerinas
who behaved found few rewards other than travel. "Alicia wanted
all the good roles for herself," says Esquivel. His wife at the
time, Amparo Brito won the gold medal in Varna when she was 18 years
old, but Alicia failed to move her up to important roles until she turned
40, an age when most dancers have retired to teaching. "We were
like pawns in a chess board with someone moving us around at their convenience,"
says Esquivel. "Alicia stopped being human, to mistreat people.
She wouldn't pay us our money."
weren't the only ones who were unhappy. Fernando divorced Alicia in
1974. "Alicia and I started to have a lot of differences so I left
to Camaguey," he said referring to an Eastern city where the ballet
company struggles to survive today. When he was head of it, the Ballet
de Camaguey was successful, but competition with Havana for ballets
and dancers tired Fernando. At the beginning of the Special Period in
1992, when the money flow from the Soviet Union dried up causing a major
crisis in the island, he left for Mexico City to direct the Ballet Nacional
there. Later he moved to the northern city of Monterrey to direct a
local ballet company and later to head the dance department at a local
university. Alberto, the ballet's principal choreographer, dealt with
Alicia's temperament by travelling frequently, but by 1993, he too had
had enough and left permanently. He is now in Miami, teaching at a community
college and staging works to Gloria Estefan music. Esquivel did not
wait that long to say good-bye to Alicia. In 1986 he left the ballet
and continued dancing independently in Cuba and occasionally abroad.
On a tour in Italy in 1992, the prince finally defected. "I was
tired. I wanted my freedom," he said.
critique of Alicia can begin to sound like a Miami Cuban's rant against
Fidel, but he concedes the prima ballerina what no exile would to the
comandante. "She is a genius." Many agree. Despite limited
vision, Alicia managed to dance from one end of the stage to the other
captivating audiences in Cuba and far beyond. "She moves in life.
Her feet, her torso, her arms, neck, and eyes, are one continuing action,
taking their dynamic from her meaning. She talks. Her heart is open.
Here is the essence of a dancer. It is her core she gives us; it is
our core," wrote Agnes de Mille. She choreographed Alicia in the
days when she could do 32 fouettes, the ballet equivalent to a triple
Axel in ice-skating or a grand slam in baseball.
now barely walk, but in Cuba her admirers remember her performances
like they were yesterday. "I never saw her make a movement without
any meaning," said Miguel Cabrera, the ballet's historian. And
then he relates of the time when Alicia was dancing Giselle. Her dress
got caught up in one of the props and ripped. Instead of looking embarrassed,
Alicia took a look at it and a great sadness overcame her face. She
went up to her stage mother to show her how her pretty dress had ripped.
Then she continued to dance. Another time she went out on stage with
her costume half open, but she managed to zip it while she danced before
anyone noticed. "That's her art, she transformed a very embarrassing
situation, an accident, into art," said Cabrera.
can now barely walk, but in Cuba her admirers remember her performances
like they were yesterday.
This art was
made available to all Cubans. The prima ballerina performed on every
stage on the islandestablished or improvised at proletarian
prices. Even the bloated post-Special Period entrance cost remains low:
five pesos or 25 cents. As a result, ballet following resembles more
a sports crowd than the aristocratic elite that first brought the dance
form to Cuba. Fans yell and roar in the middle of the performance. Dancers
have had to stop in the middle of their routines to bow because the
applause drowns the orchestra. Bouquets are thrown left and right to
the favorite dancer of the moment, and when fans disagree, they come
to blows. On the night that Sarabia danced, I met one of those fans,
Pedro Vidal, a 39 year-old officially unemployed electronics technician
with a black mustache and a part in the middle of his hair. Like most
ballet goers, he was dressed casually in jeans and loafers. He told
me he has not missed a ballet show since he was six and Alicia was 47.
Like other children who watched her on TV or in public shows at stadiums,
Vidal wanted to be a dancer, but he was too fat and instead became a
by Mimi Chakarova
I realize how
loyal at his small apartment a few blocks from the Gran Teatro. It is
actually more like a hallway than a full apartment, with a bedroom just
big enough to fit a bed, a small dresser and a table with a TV and a
VCR, which he carefully protects from the dust with a piece of cloth.
When he removes it and puts in one of the many carefully marked tapes
that fill his dresser, the windowless room decorated with posters of
kittens and bikinied girls is transformed. It becomes a theatre where
the ballet dances solely for Pedro. "Every time you see a performance
you learn more and grow, I can tell you that I don't know the names
of all the steps, but I know when the dancers do them well."
them in Havana and follows the company on tours around the island. And
when they are resting, he gets his ballet fix in his small apartment
"I watch these tapes all the time," he says. "This is
Diana and Acteon. I must have watched this one more than 70 times, and
look at my skin, I still get goose bumps." Of Alicia's Giselle,
he says, "The theatre almost fell with applause." But if Giselle
never aged, Alicia did.
of Vidals' tapes Alicia is in her late 60's. A stiff figure appears
on stage suspended by what must be, has to be, a very strong dancer.
She is more like a sack of potatoes in a pink dress than a ballerina.
She is lowered to the ground and turned to one side, then to the other,
her hands clinging to the dancer's neck to avoid the floor only a few
feet below. Her face carries an expression of pride. Her partner's face,
an expression of pure angst. Later, Alicia's grandson, Iván,
who danced with her during her last days, tells me the experience was
like fighting Cassius Clay. "Standing on a stage is difficult enough,
now imagine standing on it with your grandmother and even more, struggling
to not let her fall." Her fan Vidal just shakes his head, "It
was very embarrassing at the end," he says, "She should have
retired in 1985." Instead she danced until she was 74.
is 80-years-old. She can hardly move or see, but she has kept a strong
grip over the ballet. For the last 27 years, she has been the company's
director, choreographer and maitre, and none of these titles is held
in name only. Like a girl playing Barbies, Alicia decides what everyone
wears, who gets the car, who the motorcycle, who will go abroad, with
whom they will dance, and of course, what they will dance. Nowadays,
they dance whatever Alicia has created, a fact that has as much to do
with money as her attachment to the classics. The Socidead General de
Autores y Escritores de España (General Society of Authors and
Writers of Spain) registers Cuban works and pays their authors royalties
any time they are performed outside the island. Since Alicia determines
the repertoires, she also gets paid frequently.
But tough economic
times have forced the prima donna to loosen her rein on the company.
No longer do dancers who want to dance abroad have to defect. Alicia
now allows them to take contracts in foreign companies, but as she did
50 years ago, they must send part of their earnings to fund the ballet.
José Manuel Carreño dances for the American Ballet Theater
under those conditions, and so does Carlos Junior Acosta at the Royal
Ballet in London. Aliahdeé Carreño, current first dancer
and cousin of José Manuel, is about to leave for Washington on
a similar contract. Lorna Feijoó, the other star dancer of the
moment, just returned from Costa Rica. Feijoó goes on tour several
times a year and, although she too has to contribute to the company's
coffers, she keeps some of the dollars. It shows. She wears a designer
black velvet leotard. Her silver toenails sparkle in her deformed feet.
After class, she slips on some cargo capri pants and grabs her hand
purse made out of a smooth hard leather that can only be Spanish or
Italian. She walks to the door, head held high.
salaries don't stretch that far. They wear imitation Nikes and backpacks,
or slide-in-sandals, like those sold in the tourist market in La Havana.
But they walk just as proud. They are better off than almost every Cuban.
Unlike the average citizen, they are allowed to buy a car or a vespa-like
motorcycle. "I can't complain," says Anissa Curbelo, one of
the principal dancers. She admits she would rather do William Forsythe,
one of today's most provocative choreographers, than Marius Petipa,
who created Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake in the 19th century. But for
now having a steady job is more important than experimenting.
a girl playing Barbies, Alicia decides what everyone wears, who
gets the car, who the motorcycle, who will go abroad, with whom
they will dance, and of course, what they will dance.
Cuba ballet lovers are not as complacent with Alicia's rule of classics.
There are signs that the Culture Ministry is well aware the ballet needs
some new choreographic blood. Its officials too were sitting in the
audience two years ago when the Washington Ballet performed in Havana.
In fact, it was through their efforts that the American company was
able to visit and present modern pieces danced to jazz. "They loved
it, they thought it was so neat," said Kara Skolnick, the manager
of the Washington Ballet, "audiences were on their feet."
Marta, a 24
year-old dancer still remembers the single male body dancing in ways
she had never seen before. "His sole presence filled the stage,
he was a great dancer, he had good turn and good jump, but the way he
moved... I don't even know what you call that," she said. Like
a solitary ballerina twirling in a music box, the Ballet Nacional is
mostly isolated from the ballet world. As a result, it already lags
But the Ministry
of Culture is investing on ballet's future, one that might be more in
line with modern styles. The Escuela Nacional de Ballet, for many years
at the Gran Teatro where it competed with the company for space, has
recently moved to new quarters fully equipped with remote control air
conditioning, computers, fresh paint and redone floors. On any given
day, its practice rooms are filled with aspiring ballerinas who, wanting
to be the next star, undergo exacting standards.
To select students
for a recent parade, teachers lined them up into rows. "Take off
your skirts," one of them demanded. Then the winnowing began. "The
one of the left, the one next to her, you at the other end," the
teachers commanded and one by one the selected dancers sat down on the
side, knowing they had lost out. A tiny ballerina burst into tears.
"They do it every year," said Edilsa, one of the dancers from
Mexico who pays tuition to attend the school, "they don't want
the fat ones to be in the parade." Although she looks thinner than
99 percent of the 15-year-olds I know, she too was rejected.
do it every year," said Edilsa, one of the dancers from Mexico
who pays tuition to attend the school, "they don't want the
fat ones to be in the parade."
This is daily
life for dancers in training. Only a handful of them will go on to become
the next Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella at the Gran Teatro and preparation
is an endurance test on itself: same sex ballet classes, couple ballet
classes, modern dance classes and rehearsals. The school puts on several
programs a year. They are mainly composed of classics, but this repertoire
is unlikely to last. On a Saturday morning, little boys and girls in
tights and tutus and tiny crowns are ready to rehearse Almendrita, a
fairy tale story, when a blast of Jamiroquai, a modern mixture of soul,
jazz and disco, interrupts them. They can't resist and follow its sound
down the hallway to peek through a door. They see a young modern dancer
at work. He is staging a new choreography for the older students and
the children like the crazy moves. They've seen (and done) Almendrita
many times. This is new. And, it is allowed at the ballet school where
Alicia offers a master class, but is no longer in charge. Here dancers
are exposed to the avant-garde.
a 17-year-old student who is about to graduate, studied Maurice Béjart,
a quirky and innovative French choreographer, for her thesis. After
she presented it to a panel of three judges, including Albelo, she was
pleased. "He is wonderful," she said to me afterwards. "He
has a modern version of Giselle that is incredible, the second act takes
place in a mental institution." It is not a place Alicia's Giselle
would ever find herself and the dancers understand this. "Every
day the ballet is loosing something. It is stagnated," said Abreu.
Might this have something to do with Alicia? I asked her. "Of course,
it is because of Alicia."
is hard to shake off, as George Georges, the choreographer in the room
the younger students peered into before, can attest. The dancer from
the Compañía Nacional de Danza, Cuba's modern dance company,
had ambitious plans for the work he is staging, but the students' torsos
are too stiff and their heads too caught up in technique.
by Mimi Chakarova
Balanchine," he says. "This is shit, you are not doing it
right. Forget you are a dancer, is this the way you walk on the street?"
he asks walking with his toes pointing out.
the dancers answer.
that is not the way a normal person walks on the street. Close your
legs, relax your back. Just walk normal. Let's try it again."
Jamiroquai back on.
Less than a
year ago, a student from the school was staging similar works in that
very classroom. Now he is waiting to fill the empty choreographer slot
at the company. "I am the first to say that it is important to
conserve the classics, but we must also do new stuff," said Eduardo
Blanco, the18 year-old who trains daily with the Ballet. What he has
in mind are the contorted and asymmetrical moves from modern dance.
"It is not the same thing to make a tour jeté and cry 'aaaaahhhhhh'
in the middle of it, than to do it with a little arm," he said
stretching his right arm gracefully in the classical form, "that
has been done a thousand times. In ballet everything is invented already."
He is trying hard to innovate. One of his creations includes a girl
wearing a pointe shoe on one foot and a character shoe on the other,
and another is about a couple with AIDS. But these works have only been
staged at the ballet school and it is hard to imagine Alicia letting
him move such experiments to the Gran Teatro.
member of the Ministry, said that he understands her desire to maintain
the classics. "You don't want to contaminate the style," he
said, but added, "We do have to create different choreography,
we can't spend the whole time doing the same thing. " Will Alicia
let her new protege experiment? Blanco shrugs. "Maybe." Right
now, however, he is more concerned with permission for something else--
to get out. "Things here in Cuba are very difficult, salaries are
not good," he said explaining that his 148 peso salary equivalent
to $7-- plus $20 more a month doesn't go very far. "You don't know
anyone who wants to hire me? They just have to send a fax that says,
'We at the such and such school solicit the services of dancer choreographer
Eduardo Blanco.' I'll give you the number." He insists he only
wants a break, not a permanent exile, but it is clear he is ready to
move on from the classics.
But back at
the Gran Teatro hand programs have not changed much since Alicia's dancing
day. One of the nights I attended the ballet, Sarabia stood on stage
with a backdrop resembling a giant swatch of flowery fabric for one
of Alicia's ballets. The dancers, attired in costumes the color and
shape of cotton candy, twirled about gently. Wearing a pink coat and
sash, Sarabia was almost lost in the fluff. A devoted Backstreet Boys'
fan, he would probably feel more comfortable in baggy jeans and a backward
cap, but he says the fairy tale ballets have not gotten to him yet.
"Right now I am not bored, but I don't know if I can do this all
my life," he said. But even if he leaves, the bench is full of
well-trained dancers ready to take his place. "The problem is that
for such a small island, we have a very good school of ballet, one of
the best in the world," said Albelo.
knows they have Alicia to thank for it. One night when the Gran Teatro
is filled to capacity and waiting for the curtain to rise, the audience
stirs. I turn in my seat to look up at the balcony. There above us is
Alicia, dressed in a tunic with her head wrapped in a scarf a la Margot
Fonteyn and her eyes hidden by large sunglasses. The audience rises
and bursts into applause. Unable to stand, the old dancer is held up
by two attendants.
Alicia! Bravo!" a woman yells, her voice breaking. The diva nods
and then sits to watch.
to stories page