By R.M. CAMPBELL
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER DANCE CRITIC
When U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell organized a trip last year for women leaders in the Northwest to meet their counterparts in Cuba, there were representatives from the worlds of commerce, agriculture, technology and government. But no one from the arts.
This year, Francia Russell, co-artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Patricia Barker, one of its leading dancers, joined Cantwell and about 30 other women in a trip to Havana last week to meet with high-level officials, headed by Fidel Castro. The trips were organized by the University of Washington’s Center on Women and Democracy.
“The women were involved in all sorts of fields—biology to ballet,” said Russell, who returned to Seattle last weekend.
In addition to general meetings, everyone met people in their own world. For Russell and Barker that meant primarily the National Ballet of Cuba. They went prepared with boxes and duffel bags of gifts—nearly 250 ballet slippers and toe shoes, from the United States and Australia, and 50 leotards from Barker’s line of dancewear, BKwear. They also took gifts for children and strings for stringed instruments, which they had been told were hard to obtain in Cuba.
“The Cubans we met were so warm and welcoming and generous,” Russell said. “The dancers do not have an easy time. The floors they dance on are terrible—hard and slippery—and cause a lot of injuries; the toe shoes are terrible, too. It is all a matter of money, not enough of it, and being cut off from the world because of the American embargo.
“What we found remarkable is the importance the arts play in Cuban life. No one seems to have any money, but the arts, fully supported by the government, are an essential part of their lives. That was a revelation.”
In contrast, she said, approximately 1 percent of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual budget is derived from public funds.
Russell and Barker spent considerable time in the studios of the company and its school, which aims to teach those with professional possibilities and those who want to dance only for their own pleasure. The latter number, Russell said, comes to more than 4,000.
Because the company has so little exposure to 20th-century ballet—its repertory is mostly drawn from the 19th-century—Russell was asked to give a lecture demonstration, both about George Balanchine, one of the giants of 20th-century dance (and about whom she is an internationally known expert), and PNB, whose artistic profile was founded on Balanchine’s ballets. Russell used Barker, a great exponent of Balanchine, as a model.
Balanchine is not entirely a foreign concept to Cuban dancers. There are a handful of his ballets in the company’s repertory.
Russell and Barker met with Fernando Alonso, now 88, a crucial part of the National Ballet of Cuba’s history and former husband of Alicia Alonso, the great ballet dancer who has run the company for decades and helped make dance a cultural imperative in Cuba. She was not in town: Along with 40 dancers, she was in Italy on tour.
That was a major disappointment to Russell. There was the obvious reason—Alonso is an icon in the dance world—but another one as well: She offered Russell, a teenage dance student in New York, a contract with her company in 1955. Her parents gave a firm no to the proposal, sensing the imminent success of Castro’s revolution
“My parents thought Cuba was a dangerous place to go, even for a couple of years. But I wanted to go desperately. She was my idol. On stage she was so beautiful, so compelling. Just at her entrance, my eyes would fill with tears. Her performances were not flawless but always interesting. How she struggled for perfection. She—Eric Bruhn, too—worked every single day, just like a beginning student, for perfection.”
Barker said she felt somewhat out of her element in discussions of medicine and agriculture. But when she walked into the National Ballet of Cuba’s studios, she knew she was in a familiar environment. “I got my bearings, felt at home. If you have dance in your heart and soul, you feel comfortable in class anywhere. The dancers are beautifully trained and very warm. On the street, people—taxi drivers, waiters, diplomats—asked me if I were a ballet dancer. That kind of involvement in the arts at every level is something we could learn in the United States.”
Barker already has been invited to return to perform in a dance festival in April.
Russell made the initial connections for a tour of Pacific Northwest Ballet to Havana. However, that is more in the future than the present.