American Ballet Theatre Comes to Cuba

AP: American Ballet Theatre dancers promised pirouettes — not politics — during the troupe’s historic visit to Cuba this week, the first by the New York-based company since shortly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution turned the island into a U.S. nemesis.

America’s premier ballet company was in Havana to pay homage to Cuba’s most famous ballerina, 89-year-old Alicia Alonso, who danced with the American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s and 50s before returning to her homeland to found Cuba’s National Ballet.

The trip is part of a surge in feel-good cultural and artistic exchanges since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, though political headway between the Cold War foes has been harder to come by.

Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the U.S. ballet company, said the dancers were here as artists, not politicians — but that he hoped such cultural exchanges could help improve understanding across the Straits of Florida.

“It is very difficult to say what political impact our presence here will have, because we are not politicians,” he said at a press conference kicking off the trip on Tuesday. “It is not our purpose here to do anything but speak of our cultural sameness. I think it is that dialogue that will expand to brighter and more positive horizons in the future.”

Alonso, who has been nearly blind for decades, continued to dance into her 70s and remains one of the most recognized prima ballerinas in the world.

Julie Kent, one of the company’s best-known ballerinas, said it was a particular thrill to perform in front of the legendary dancer herself.

“She set such a standard at American Ballet Theater that it is one of the reasons that it is such a great company,” she said. “We all feel very much that we are her grandchildren, just as the dancers in the National Ballet de Cuba are.”

The U.S. dancers will perform scenes from “Siete Sonatas,” ”Fancy Free” and “Theme and Variations” — a ballet written by George Balanchine in 1947 specifically with Alonso in mind — during performances Wednesday and Thursday at Havana’s 5,500-seat Karl Marx theater.

They are one of a host of renowned ballet troupes from around the world who have traveled to Cuba for the 22nd International Ballet Festival of Havana, called this year in honor of Alonso’s 90th birthday, which will take place Dec. 21. Dancers from the New York City Ballet were also taking part in the festival.

The American Ballet Theater troupe includes two Cuban-American dancers, Jose Manuel Carreno and Xiomara Reyes. Reyes, a prima ballerina, is making her first visit to Cuba since leaving the island as an 18 year old in 1992.

She told The Associated Press she has not slept well for weeks in anticipation of her return  a mix of excitement and nervousness at seeing old friends and performing before her own people. She said she was struck both by Havana’s beauty  and the extent to which its buildings have crumbled since she left.

“I am filled with so many emotions: sadness, joy, everything,” she said. “To be here and see people you haven’t seen in 18 years. It is very beautiful to see that the people remember you.”

Reyes said later at the press conference that she felt as if she were on “an emotional roller coaster.”

“It is not just returning to Cuba after 18 years and seeing the public that witnessed the beginning of my career, which touches me deeply,” she said, her eyes filled with emotion. “It is also the fact that I bring my company with me, a company which has not been here for 50 years, and which has been so important to Cuban ballet.”

The last time American Ballet Theater was in Cuba was in April 1960, for the first Havana festival.

Cultural exchanges have been few and far between in recent years, particularly during the administration of President George W. Bush, who cut the number of visas given to Cuban artists and toughened travel restrictions for Americans hoping to visit the island.

That has changed under Obama. The ballet company’s trip comes on the heels of a similar visit last month by famed American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. Several Cuban musicians  including Silvio Rodriguez, Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdes  have toured the United States in recent months.

The cultural exchanges have so far not been accompanied by any meaningful thaw in relations. The U.S. has maintained a 48-year trade embargo on Cuba, and has demanded political and economic openings before it lifts the sanctions.

Cuban leaders say the embargo is cruel, and that America has no business telling them what kind of government they should have.

President Raul Castro has in recent months instituted sweeping economic changes designed to inject a measure of capitalism into Cuba’s tottering socialist economy. His government has also released most of the 52 prisoners of conscience it still held in jail from a 2003 sweep.

The changes have been met with lukewarm approval in Washington, where officials have said they would like to see evidence of more concrete action.

Cuba continues to hold an American subcontractor, Alan Gross, on suspicion of spying. U.S. officials have said his release is crucial before any significant political progress can be made.

Heriberto Cabezas, one of the ballet festival’s main organizer, said he hoped more American companies would participate in the future.

“The fact we have not had American ballet companies here in the last 10 years is not because we didn’t want them,” he said, referring to the difficulty in obtaining U.S. government permission. “We are in a new era and we hope it lasts a long time.”

Obama invited to visit Cuba — and bring jailed Cubans with him

Havana. Cuba (CNN) — U.S. President Barack Obama has been issued an unexpected invitation to visit Cuba — from the island’s 90-year-old prima ballerina, who implored him to bring along five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States for more than a decade.

“I want to invite the president of the United States to come to Cuba with his wife and lovely children,” Alicia Alonso said at an event to call for the release of the agents, who were convicted of spying on Cuban exile groups in a hotly debated

“I would ask a favor also. Please, to make everyone happy and to feel happy with all around the world, bring those five Cubans,” Alonso said in English.

White House officials contacted Wednesday morning said they were not aware that any such invitation had been received.

The Cubans, known at home as “the five heroes,” were sent to Miami to infiltrate violent exile groups at a time when anti-Castro groups were bombing Cuban hotels. They were arrested in 1998.

The invitation caps off a week-long international campaign with Hollywood stars such as Sean Penn and Danny Glover calling on Obama to step in and release the five.

Last year, the defendants lost their last chance of an appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

The defense argued it was impossible for the men to get a fair trial in a city dominated by anti-Castro politics.

Three of the men were handed life sentences in 2001 for allegedly helping Cuba shoot down two unarmed airplanes that were dropping leaflets over the island, killing the Cuban-American pilots.

After Cuba began its biggest release of political prisoners in a decade, pro-Cuba activists stepped up pressure on Obama to respond by releasing the five Cubans.

Inside Cuba’s dance factory

Guardian: Cuba has produced some of the world’s most explosive dancers – but its cultural isolation comes at a cost. On the eve of two major UK tours, Judith Mackrell visits Havana

Virtually blind and wearing Jackie Onassis sunglasses that might have been bought when Jackie O was still alive, Alicia Alonso has her ballerina face painted on every morning: a wide slash of scarlet lipstick, thick found-ation, flaring black eyebrows. She may be approaching her 90th birthday, but she is still the head of the Ballet ­Nacional de Cuba, still the island’s ­revolutionary prima ballerina assoluta. Talking to me in her private office in Havana, she combines diva glamour with political rhetoric; spreading her arms wide at one point, she insists: “Art is the lungs of the ­people. It is the expression of our ­humanity.” It’s a ­gesture that would carry to the back of an opera house.

Ever since she gave up her inter-­national career to found the Ballet ­Nacional in 1959, Alonso has been proselytising for her art form. Fidel Castro, determined to acquire a people’s ballet to match Russia’s Bolshoi and the Kirov, gave her the funding to expand what was a private company into a state ­ensemble. She has kept it alive for 50 years despite chronic money problems and a scarcity of essential supplies, and in the process acquired a near-sacred standing in Cuba. You almost believe her when she says, serenely: “I’ll still be running this company in a hundred years’ time.”

Certainly the impact Alonso has made on Cuban dance will gain her a kind of immortality. The ballet school she opened with her former husband Fernando is now world-famous, gathering its students from the island’s rural poor and urban delinquent; Carlos Acosta was enrolled by his father to keep him off the streets. The training it gives is also world-class, producing dancers who can pirouette and jump with explosive attack, but whose musicality embraces a shimmering languor.

The audiences they dance for are special, too. Low ticket prices and a lack of cultural competition have elevated ballet to a national entertainment. Local dancers acquire celebrity status, and the few foreign companies that visit are mobbed. When the Royal Ballet danced in Havana last July, fans slept on the street outside the Gran Teatro for a week, to be sure of getting tickets. Yet behind this apparent success story lies a harsher reality. Cuba has been stranded in a political, economic and cultural limbo for decades, imposing stifling constraints on its artists. Collectively, Cuban dancers may possess astounding potential, yet they face few choicesin their careers.

Stuck in a 50-year time-warp

This spring, Britain will be getting a concentrated taste of Cuba’s dynamic rhythm and heat, as both the Ballet ­Nacional and the state-run Danza ­Contemporanea de Cuba (DCC) begin UK tours. Also founded in 1959, Danza Contemporanea now numbers 47 ­dancers – almost double the size of the UK’s Rambert Dance Company. Its signature style is a bewitching hybrid, blending the blunt attack of American modern dance with the long, lean ­extensions and graceful arms of ballet, as well as the percussive syncopation and rippling spines of Caribbean dance.

Spanish choreographer Rafael Bonachela, who was recently invited to create a work for DCC, says he was awed by the dancers’ talent. “If I audition for my own company, I might see 800 dancers, but few are as good as these. They’re taught to really push themselves and they have this very old-fashioned, hardcore technique that you don’t often see.” Yet Bonachela’s voice has the guilty inflection typical of most visitors to Cuba, as he acknowledges that DCC’s unique qualities are, in part, a reflection of their long and enforced segregation from the rest of the dance world. The time–warp effects of the 50-year US embargo, and of Castro’s rule, may be fascinating to observe: a world free of Starbucks and the evils of global capitalism. But for Cubans, the reality has been grim. For all their justified pride in Cuba’s health service and education system, many Cubans long for Starbucks, or at least what it symbolises – access to basic goods and, above all, the freedom to travel. As Bonachela says: “Cuba is a waiting island.”

At the Ballet Nacional, dancers do have certain privileges, including the chance to tour abroad. But it’s evident from talking to them that this exposure to the wider world has sharpened their dissatisfaction, as they realise how far ballet has moved on, and how limited their own repertory is. It’s not just that Alonso’s taste dominates the company, a taste inevitably rooted in an older aesthetic; there is also little money to acquire new work from elsewhere.

For some dancers, the situation feels impossible. Carlos Acosta, who left Cuba for good in 1993, believed he had no choice: “Your career is so short – you have to do everything you can to find new challenges.” But others find it harder to leave, like dancer Javier Torres, who professes enormous loyalty to his home company: “It has taken me to a very high level.” Even so, an expression of longing crosses his face when he ­describes watching the Royal Ballet dance Chroma, the fiercely modern Wayne McGregor ballet they brought to Havana last year. “My body is hungry to dance that,” he says simply.

Cuba’s lead ballerina Viengsay Valdés shares his sense of conflict. “We have this special musicality and physicality in our blood,” she says, “but we need to be able to dance Forsythe, Kylián or MacMillan to widen our minds and souls.” Like others of her generation (she is 32), she would like to see Acosta return to the company to succeed Alonso. But while Acosta, nearly 37, is certainly planning to spend more time in Cuba, and will be dancing with the Ballet Nacional next month, he says he is unwilling to take on the company. “It’s Alicia and Fernando’s creation,” he says. “I would like to help in any way I could, but I want to start my own company.” What he ­envisages would certainly be an asset to Cuba – a company embracing an international range of choreographers and styles. But unless the political situation changes dramatically, Acosta rules out a permanent residency. “I would need to be touring and having co-productions with places like Sadler’s Wells. I couldn’t be based only in Cuba.”

At Danza Contemporanea, the sense of frustration takes a different slant. Here, the dancers are exposed to a greater variety of work, due to the ­enthusiasm and persistence of their ­director, Miguel Iglesias. Ten years ago, he discovered the existence of small pockets of foreign money, available to help him augment his repertory. Since then, he has acquired works by Bonachela, Mats Ek and Dutch choreo-grapher Jan Linkens; his future wish list includes the radical conceptual dance artist Jérôme Bel. Iglesias’s ­ambition and eclectic tastes have had a galvanising effect on his dancers, ­inspiring and informing a new generation of Cuban choreographers.

One of them, George Cespédes, says that dancing in foreign work has been a crucial part of his education. Still, at the age of 27, he feels thwarted by the fact that he is performing and creating inside a company that is 50 years old. The experimental work that interests him doesn’t sit naturally with the beautiful but institutionalised technique that dominates any DCC dancer’s ­training. “[That technique] feels like a dinosaur to me,” he says. “I can admire it, but it isn’t any use to my body any more.” Were he anywhere else in the developed world, Cespedés would form his own company. But in Cuba there is minimal funding for individual projects; given that most of the island’s small dance budget goes to the Ballet Nacional, there is precious little even for the state-supported DCC. Its tiny office barely has a functioning computer.

Exiles from paradise island

Scouting for foreign money now takes up most of Iglesias’s energy. “I’ve had to become a full-time whore,” he grins cheerfully. His dancers are on a subsistence wage so low it forces many to leave. Bonachela describes his shock on meeting one ex-DCC dancer performing cabaret in Australia. “He’s incredibly talented. But back in Cuba he had to live with his parents, miles outside ­Havana. Every morning he got up at five o’clock to hitch a ride into work. He was exhausted the whole time.”

And yet for all the dancers who give up and go, the island seems to create more. Renowned Cuban ballet teacher Loipa Araujo says: “I don’t know anywhere that has more dance students. We find them in the smallest places and we develop them. They are our hope for the future.” Bonachela agrees: “In some ways it’s a paradise island. Perhaps it’s the hardships, but the ­people have so much spirit and ­passion.” Even Cespedés admits there is some truth in this. “If you’re given everything, you don’t know what to choose. Here we are given very little, but we’re so hungry we eat it all up.” He extends his arms and suddenly I see Alicia Alonso, talking about her own lifelong crusade for ballet. In Cuba, they talk about art as if it were food and water, and they mean every word. – Cuba travel online

Spain King Awards Cuban Ballerina

Spain King Awards Cuban Ballerina

Madrid, Oct 15 (Prensa Latina) Spanish King Juan Carlos awarded Cuba’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso with the Gold Medal for Merit in Fine Arts, granted by the Spanish government to a group of outstanding international figures.

The ceremony took place at Teatro Colon, in La Coruna, capital of Galicia, presided over by the Spanish monarchs Juan Carlos and Sofia.

Alonso is the director of Cuba’s National Ballet, an institution that will turn 60 years-old on October 28.

When addressing the laureates, the king highlighted their contribution in the creation of “a better world, freedom, commitment, and beauty.”

“May you recieve these medals as a high recognition to your valuable works and careers, which arouse our admiration, and stimulate our sensitivity and intelligence,” the king sustained.