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Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Atlanta - Ballet Alert

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I hope my topic title isn't too cutesy -- but I came back a few hours ago from seeing the Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the Ferst Theater on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta and the single most notable thing about the program was its expression of faith in ballet or, to be as unambiguous as possible, in classical ballet.

The evening was a series of excerpts from the classics, very similar to a program described on another thread about one of the company's touring performances. While programs of snippets can often be a bore -- even with fabulous dancers -- this one was so thoughtfully put together and engagingly danced that it was entertaining all around and, occasionally, better than that.

The theater seats about 1100 and was 3/4 full; the curtain was early (5 p.m.). I mention this, because there were quite a few children, including very young children, and I didn't hear a peep from any of them except during intermission. I would like to present this as evidence that uncorrupted minds like their classical dancing straight up, but probably some luck was involved as well. The audience was altogether very enthusiastic which I also mention in service to the same polemic -- classical ballet has plenty of popular appeal.

Through some sort of goof, the program didn't include an insert indicating which dancers would be appearing in the different ballets. A helpful and sympathetic usher found someone from the company who got me a copy of the insert that presumably was supposed to be included with the programs. Since I am completely unfamiliar with the dancers, I am assuming that these listings were the right ones for this performance -- but I am open to corrections.

Anyway, the evening began with excerpts from Act II of Giselle -- Hilarion's death and some of the initial pas de deux/dancing of Giselle and Albrecht for the wilis -- , and I thought immediately that the corps still has the unity of style and impecabbly drilled quality I remember from the mid-eighties (also the rather noisy point shoes). I knew at least one person who, in the eighties, found them overly drilled, but I quite admire them. This evening, I especially admired the fact that, although they were giving a one time only performance in a theater where they were dancing for the first time and where the stage was certainly a little small for them, they nonetheless adapted themselves to the stage space pretty effectively.

The male soloists (Hilarion and Albrecht) in the Giselle excerpt seemed undistinguished to me, but the ballerina, Barabara Garcia, was lovely and -- another keynote of the evening, no matter what the quality of the dancers -- appeared to have been very carefully prepared. She knew what the choreography was supposed to look like and that, unsurprisingly, makes a huge difference.

The company then danced excerpts from Sleeping Beauty -- the polonaise from Act III followed by the grand pas de deux. I am absolutely convinced that one reason the 'highlights' mode didn't bore me, as it usually does even when I am seeing, say, the Bolshoi, is that each of the pas de deux was somehow contextualized. More than that, often contextualized by traditional character dancing. It's a little ironic, since (on the whole) I didn't find the dancers very effective in their character dancing, but the decision to include it so prominently still seemed to make for a better "program" and to be another testament to the company's artistic faith in the classical ballet tradition. I say this despite the fact that the Polonaise was, perhaps, the one thing all evening that was really below par -- as if the dancers had never seen a polonaise and were too egalitarian to enter into the fantasy of aristocracy. It didn't help that the costumes and wigs werer fairly dreadful.

The pas de deux was decently danced with fish dives done as I have never seen them, with the ballerina's head directed right AT the floor. The audience loved this, but it was a little over the top (or torwards the bottom) for my taste -- the traditional 'fish' pose they did at the very end was, in my opinion, much better. While these were not the strongest of the evening's soloists I liked the prince, Oscar Torrado, very much. Partly because his looks reminded me of a slightly more macho Hank Azaria, but mostly because his movements really flowed -- he didn't just, say, jump-jump-turn-transition step etc. -- he really seemed to dance through the steps. When he appeared in a contemporary classical piece at the end of the evening, I thought the same thing.

The conclusion of the first half was the waltz of the flowers from The Nutcracker, wonderfully danced by corps and soloists -- despite the corps dancers having to carry extremely tatty looking garlands for the first few minutes -- and the pas de deux, wonderfully danced by Anette Delgado and Romel Frometa. Actually when they first came on, I thought they were the least prepossessing looking of the leads I had seen. Both seemed short and, in her case, with proportionally short legs, but the moment they began to move, they became my favorites. She may not be elongated but she moves 'elongated' -- with tremendous stretch in everything she does. And although all of the dancing this evening was performed to taped music, these two dancers somehow managed to look musical, even as if they were responding spontaneously to what they were hearing. They also had the best timed partnering of the first half of the evening. In her solo, she had a series of crisply articulated pas de chat that later caused me to remember that Balanchine had created the first version of Theme and Variations for Alonso. She was also the one dancer in the first half of the evening with silent point shoes. The leads did lose a bit of steam towards the end, but by that time I was too pleased to care. The audience by the way cheered the walts of the flowers as well as the pas de deux.

The second half began with excerpts from Coppelia. First the mazurka -- certainly the best of the character dancing the company offered and, obviously, as well-drilled as their classical dancing... but I can't think character dancing is their forte. The pas de deux from Act III was danced by Hayna Gutierrez (another short legged ballerina, at least by 'international' standards) and Octavio Martin. They both mugged hugely throughout. Just a bit less might have been charming. As it was they put such energy into their presentation that it didn't irritate me as much as it might have. He's big with striking cheekbones, but was in some ways the least impressive technically of the men I saw all evening; he danced, just the same, as if he was a superstar and I actually found this rather effective. She did not appeal to me and yet likewise somewhat won me over (as they all did) with the sheer solidity of her dancing and energy of her presentation. And she was stuck, throughout, with a particularly unflattering tutu...

This was followed by excerpts from Don Quixote. An Espada/Mercedes sequence that fell flat for reasons I couldn't quite determine. The choreography seemed designed to show off the men in big classical poses and jumps and though their lines were not always purely classical (hardly urgent in this section of Don Quixote), they danced rather well and yet somehow didn't have as much impact as one kept thinking they would. The Espada, Jaime Diaz, did have a wonderful arch in his back and the Mercedes (who had to perform her knife dance with the knives simply laid out flat on the floor -- sort of a metaphor for what was going wrong with the whole thing) didn't make much impact either...That said, I thought the dancer who performed Mercedes, Liuva Horta, actually looked rather promising. I'd like to see her in another role in other circumstances.

The Act III pas de deux was impressively danced by Viengsay Valdes and Joel Carreno, and the audience gave this a standing ovation. She is yet another short legged ballerina and like all of them -- but more than all of them -- dances with a great deal of verve and daring. Her balances were superb, the lifts with Carenno (who was the shortest male principal we saw all evening) seemed perfectly timed. She begain her fouettes with eight doubles, but these travelled a bit to the side; she changed to singles at a very marked change in the music -- a controlled effect I liked -- and managed to keep the remaining turns under control (the audience was roaring, but to my eyes this did not have the easy control of great bravura dancing) -- She did, however, dance her first big solos with elan and dashing footwork...This was short of the really great Don Q. pas de deux I've seen, but it was very, very good. Carenno was by far and away the most classically precise of the male dancers all evening, and also had some real bravura technique. Because of his finess, he was my favorite of the men , but I didn't get as much a sense of his personality. (He looks young, but I'm always bad at judging age.)

This was followed by excerpts from Swan Lake -- and again the audience was almost as receptive to the corps as to the principals. They danced the Waltz from Act II, and as in the Nutcracker excerpt the soloists (the two swans) were noticeably fine and, quite simply, seemed polished and well-prepared. I found the Prince's old fashion puff sleeve costume and, worse, the costume's bright turquoise color, distracting...the ballerina (actually a soloist in the company), Sadaise Arencibia, seems to have been cast for her long legs and high extensions, but, that said, I was again struck by the fact that she appeared, at least to my lay eyes, to have been very well prepared and to have a real sense of what she was doing...

The finale was an excerpt from an ensemble ballet choreographed by Alonso, Gottschalk Symphony. I anticipated a contemporary pop ballet, designed to let the dancers cut loose, not worry about fifth position, and make the audience happy. But of course, the audience was already happy, and lo and behold, although Gottschalk Symphony is hardly a distinguished piece of choreography, it is based on the classical vocabulary...I'll call it a neo-classical ballet, though a very slight one. This did involve eight soloists and a big ensemble and for the first time I felt the dancers couldn't manage the stage space -- at times, what should have been a series of flashy male jumps appeared to stop short while soloists hurried into the wings and when the full ensemble appeared the stage just looked crowded. So the evening ended a little flat -- but still true to its emphasis on classical ballet -- and the company received a very warm final ovation.

Other general impressions...Except for Carreno, even the best of the men appeared a little unpolished. I am not so much thinking of their landings from jumps -- that is, yes their landings were a little unpolished, but not egregiously and the dancers are obviously working with a genuinely classical standard of correctness -- but especially when the men are in the air the lines or positions can seem a little off or at least a little not what I am used to. I would need to see the company more to have a better feel for this. Only a few of the principal men or women seemed to have beautiful feet or use them consistently, and several of the women (especially the smaller stockier soloists) seemed to have less turn out or use their turn out less consistently than I'm used to as well. They all dance with pasted on grins that only avoided becoming irritating because the dancers were genuinely dancing with energy and intensity. That is, they were genuinley dancing.

The women soloists all seemed to have very strong quick legs, and their look -- even the look of their more long legged dancers like Arencibia -- is entirely different from the stretched out, at times hyper-extended look of today's 'international' ballerina...Men and women alike all present themselves with great attention to the upper body.

Backdrops and costumes ranged from mediocre to embarassing; I'm guessing the company lacks for funds and/or doesn't bring some of their better sets on a tour like this one. I'm also guessing that New York, which will see 'real' repertory, will see more depth from the company -- obviously a real repertory season will give the company a better chance to show its artistic range, its profile if you will. I am very much looking forward to reports on those performances. However, as anyone who has read this far can guess, I had a very good time this evening...

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Thanks so much for your review. I'm going to see their Don Q and their repertory program in NY next week and your comments have only added to my anticipation.

I just saw DQ for the first time last season (ABT's production) and I'm very interested to see the stylistic differences - I'm assuming there will be many!


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It's a beautiful review, Drew; thank you for it. I was interested in your comments on Oscar Torrado. I hadn't seen him when the company was here, and have a friend who described him as the greatest pure classicist ever born. (Those kind of remarks always make me skeptical.) I did see J. Carreno and agree that he is a fine classical dancer, and so you've given me a basis for comparison.

I admire the Cubans, too. They were very controversial (at least here). Several friends simply couldn't stand them -- didn't like the bodies, didn't like the approach, didn't like the way they moved. I will say it took me two performances to get used to them, but then I liked them very much -- for many of the same reasons you did.

One could sense that they were loved at home, from the way they took the stage. Two dancers our audience had never heard of would come out as though they were great stars and home team favorites -- without any arrogance, in a matter of fact way. And that was nice to see.

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