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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Culture

We owe it all to Castro

Posted August 05, 2005 by Cubana in Cuba Culture.
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The Guardian (UK)

Wednesday August 3, 2005

Cuba’s dancers are a breed apart - thanks to an unlikely alliance of el Presidente and the ballet diva known as ‘the Mother’. Judith Mackrell reports from Havana.

For British dance fans, the exoticism of Cuban ballet has long been embodied in the brilliant, cocky talent of Carlos Acosta. He has always appeared to dance to a more exhilarating rhythm than most; to reflect a hotter, brighter light. The fact that Acosta made it to ballet stardom having been born and raised in one of the toughest slums of Havana has simply underlined his glamour.
Yet - as he has always been quick to point out - Acosta is not unique. The great American virtuosos Fernando Bujones and Jose Manuel Carreno were native Cubans and Acosta thinks his nephew Jonah is poised to be next in line. Moreover, when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba visits London this month, they’ll be reminding the world that for every superb dancer who leaves for freedom and fame, there are dozens more who carry on performing at home.

The question is how such a small, impoverished country can produce such a huge quota of talent. Acosta claims it’s all due to the national temperament - the music on every street corner, the heat, the vibrancy, the instinct for rhythm. Cubans dance as soon as they can walk.

But the primacy of ballet also has everything to do with the vision of Cuba’s prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, and its president, Fidel Castro. After the 1959 revolution Castro was determined to offer culture as a substitute for capitalism; he went to Alonso with the then extraordinary sum of $200,000 and a request to set up a state ballet. Now 84, her movement hindered by blindness and a bad hip, Alonso still heads that company and, according to Romana de Saa, director of its school, is still revered as “the mother”.

Every day Alonso is driven to work at the old colonial mansion Castro gave her for the company’s headquarters, where I interview her. At first sight the vision of retro diva royalty that greets me is unnerving; in the humidity of Havana, Alonso sits resplendent in pearls and a pink suit. Behind her dark glasses her face is made up like a ballerina.

But there is nothing of the Gloria Swanson about this remarkable woman. As she explains, before Castro, “professional ballet just didn’t exist in Cuba, not at all”. She had tried to do what she could, returning from a stellar career abroad to run a small company in Havana, which she subsidised with her earnings and cast with imported dancers.

When Castro came to her with his remarkable appeal Alonso was ready. Her first imperative was to begin training local dancers and her second was to train local audiences. “In the beginning the people knew nothing, so we went into the factories and into the military centres to teach the ballet to them.”

Both policies proved astonishingly successful. Cuba now has 11 elementary ballet schools around the country as well as its core National Ballet School. It also has perhaps the most devoted dance audience in the world. Admittedly, Cubans have less choice of entertainment than most - but this country boasts two ballet companies as well as several folkloric dance troupes, and most performances are packed.

If Alonso attends the theatre it’s a royal event, with standing ovations greeting her entrance. Even on the streets she is famous. While I was walking around Centro Havana, a couple of teenagers came up to me, wanting to know the usual stuff: my name, where I was from, what I was doing. When I told them I’d just come from lunch with Alonso, they did a double-take. “It is your first day in Cuba and you had lunch with Alicia?” It was as if I’d announced a date with Madonna.

This national enthusiasm partly explains why Cuba is so rich in male talent. In other countries ballet is still regarded as an eccentric vocation for boys, but in Cuba, Alonso says: “If a father sees that his son has talent he feels no conflicts. He is glad, his son will have a career and a future, just as if he was a doctor or a lawyer.”

Nor do the usual prejudices apply. Acosta’s dad may have been a truck driver, but when he began worrying that his son was getting into trouble, enrolling him at ballet school seemed the smartest and simplest way of taking him in hand. Joel Carreno, a young principal with the Cuban ballet, has never encountered any taunts or hostility. “Dance is very popular here. I can talk to my friends about my work - they think I am lucky.”

It helps that Cuban male dancers have never shied from using ballet as a vehicle for their national machismo. They are famous the world over for the height of their jumps, the cutting arch of their insteps, the speed and fluency of their pirouettes. Aspects of Acosta’s technique that make London audiences gasp verge on the routine in Cuba. Double-figure pirouettes, for instance, are something all boys master in school. According to Carreno, there is a game they do where they practise turning on a curved wooden board. It’s very scary and very fast. “We get up to 20 or 30 that way,” he grins. “It’s normal.”

But the women are fast and powerful, too, which Alonso proudly claims as her own inheritance: “I am personally responsible for Cuban style. I was a very strong technical dancer, very strong in the legs, in the jumps, in the feet.”

Principal ballet mistress Josefina Mendez agrees, but she is also fascinated by the larger cultural elements that have fed into the national style. She believes Cubans naturally push towards more extreme tempos: “We dance very fast, but there is something in the heat that means when we do our adagios we are very slow.”

She also believes Cubans have a distinctive way of hearing music. “I think we respond more to rhythm than to melody. When we are born we feel rhythm in our bodies - we don’t need to teach it.” And Mendez claims that the Cuban’s instinct for drama is equally strong. “When we dance we express very much with our hands, our face, our whole body. Our movement comes from the centre. It is similar to modern dance but used with a classical technique.”

To a visitor, however, the Cubans’ most outstanding national trait is their dedication. Unfazed by the humidity, routine power cuts, food shortages and minimal wages, these dancers work their hearts out, not only rehearsing and performing, but taking on a share of the teaching. Even those who get away, such as Acosta, rarely sever their links but continue to make guest appearances and support their old company. Nor is age an issue: dancers too old for the stage usually continue coaching the next generation. De Saa is mystified when she hears of dancers in other countries requiring advice about second careers: “Why is this a problem? Why do they not teach?”

But then, other countries don’t have the heroic example of Alonso to live up to. Her eyesight began to fail when she was 21 (she suffered from detached retinas) but her disability simply hardened her resolve. “I looked always for perfection,” she says, “and I never gave up.” Not only did she put herself through 20 operations but - against doctors’ orders - was still dancing on stage when she was in her mid-70s and could see nothing. “I may die blind,” she famously insisted, “but I will die dancing.”

Of course, there is a downside to Alonso’s influence. Her reign, like Castro’s, has been long and Cuban ballet, like Cuban politics, has the feel of being stuck in an older, more innocent age. Like Castro, Alonso can’t continue for ever and questions have to be faced about what happens to the ballet when its stubborn, sanctified mother figure is no longer around.

But for the moment her inspiration is potent and pervasive. While I was waiting to fly out of Havana, a documentary about Alonso’s life and career was showing on every TV screen in the departure lounge. It was Sunday evening, it was prime-time viewing and it could only have been happening in Cuba.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba is at Sadler’s Wells, London EC1, from August 16 to 21. Box office: 0870 737 7737.

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