Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cuban Heat in NYC: Alicia Alonso and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba

For over a week, NYC has been gripped by an historic heat wave.  Taking the heat index into account, temperatures in Central Park soared near 110 F.  On my block, all the fire hydrants had been set off.  Gypsy cabs paraded past the torrents of water, taking advantage of the free car wash.  Kids and hooligans doused each other with it.  In my apartment, my taps went dry.  My drinking water was gushing down the street, and wasting in the gutters under the blazing sun.

Times like these make me wonder why I stay in NYC.  That's when I try to divert my attention from life's most recent challenges, when I try to recall New York's advantages.  This time, Alicia Alonso came to mind.  On June 6, I had attended an artist talk featuring her at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  I arrived late and weedled my way into press seats just in time for her arrival on stage.  There she sat not twenty feet from me.  She wore an electic blue silk head scarf and a matching silk pants outfit.  She still bore the regal bearing of a prima ballerina assoluta.  As a young ballet student in southern California, a world away from the New York ballet scene, I had read Alicia Alonso's autobiography: how, injured and confined to bedrest for a year, Alicia Alonso had visualized the classical ballets in her head, determined to return to dancing.  Her story had always stayed with me and she had been one of my childhood heroes, something akin to a super hero who only exists in books and on TV. So I could scarcely believe that I was seeing her in person.

One of the doyennes of twentieth dance, Alicia Alonso is a legend in her own time.  At a time when ballet in Cuba was virtually unknown, she became hooked on dance.  She described the attraction as immediate.  From her first dance class in 1931, she wanted nothing more in life than to dance.  Her mother had to force her to take off her pointe shoes so that she would not sleep in them.  She insisted on walking around her Havana house on tiptoe, and her father wondered aloud, will our daughter ever walk normally again?  Apparently not.  She soon outgrew the Cuban ballet scene, and rocketed to stardom in New York where she studied with Alexandra Federova and Jerome Robbins.  She joined the American Ballet Theatre the year of its founding in 1940, and worked with all the greats:  Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, Tudor, Jerome Robbins. 

In 1948, she returned to Cuba to found the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, bringing the world of ballet to the island.  Today, ballet is huge in Cuba.  Alicia Alonso related, "We tour all over the world.  We have a fabulous school.  Today you ask anyone in Cuba, 'Do you know the Ballet Nacional de Cuba?' and you will get a big conversation about which ballets they like best."  Cuban trained ballet dancers fill top positions in the world's preeminent ballet companies, from San Francisco Ballet, to Miami Ballet, to American Ballet Theatre. Alicia Alonso's choreography has been performed by major companies worldwide, including Paris Opera, Vienna Opera, Teatro di San Carlo (Napoli), Prague Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Danish Ballet. She has received several honorary doctorates and numerous international awards, including France's Legion of Honor.

Despite these wondrous achievements, the woman interviewed at BAM revealed many sides, all very human and likable.  She was at times humble, at times humorous and able to poke fun at herself (and others), at times appearing fragile and in ill health, at other times strong and full of ego, and at all times still impassioned by the dance.  When asked about what makes Ballet Nacional de Cuba's style distinctly Cuban, she explained, "It is in the hands.  There is a volume to the hands.  Also, it is in the way we hold the arms. [It is related to Cuban folkloric dance].  Folkloric is soft, not strong, very sexual.  The way we dance ballet has that spiciness between a man and a woman."  When asked if Lucia Chase asked her to change her name to a Russian-sounding one [as a sign of prestige, dancers used to Russify their names], Alicia Alonso replied, "She wanted me to change my name to Alonsov." The audience laughed at such a ludicrous thought.  Alicia Alonso stiffened and straightened in her seat.  She continued with great dignity, "Well don't laugh.  It sounds very Russian.  But it didn't go with me."  Then a long pause, and she concluded proudly, "Alonso. Alicia Alonso.  That is my name."  The audience broke into applause.  A few people stood in ovation.  When asked about Russian influence on Cuban dance, Alicia Alonso gave a long pause as if she could not understand the question, then replied, "Uh... we are Cuban.  Maybe in the lifts, and that is it.  Which is good."  More applause from the audience. Asked which role had been her favorite, Alicia Alonso replied, "My favorite role is dancing.  But I am very much associated with Giselle."

What keeps me in New York?  The possibility of dancing, the possibility of experiencing moments like these, the possibility of being inspired by legends like Alicia Alonso, whose words stay with me:  "I found the world through dancing,"  she said, "This is the most pure way of living, through dancing."


Sunday, July 17, 2011


For the past two months certain segments of the New York population have been gripped with balletomania, all the more intense given the all star lineup that appeared on New York stages this season.

Nursing a nearly broken ankle, I was sidelined from dance class.  So I decided to learn from the pros.

For me the fever started in May with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, rarely seen in the US.  Sulkary by Eduardo Rivero transported me to the Caribbean. Yoruba rhythmns combined with jaw dropping leg strength (deep plies held for impossibly long intervals).  Sultry Latin moves in Horizonte made me want to to buy a ticket to La Habana (I'm writing a letter to Obama-- lift the ban!)  Demo-n/crazy ended with the company holding upside down yoga poses.  Supported on their shoulders, their feet jutted up in haphazard angles.  The crowd remained silent, waiting for one of the dancers to waiver.  None did, so well trained and in control were they.

Then Cuba's classical ballet took over the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  There was an artist talk by founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Alonso (she deserves her own post, one will follow).  A legend who has worked with all the greats (Balanchine, Nijinsky, Massine, Tudor, Robbins, Agnes de Mille), Alonso is now in her nineties.  Though her health is failing, she still has a regal bearing.  I sat in the audience not twenty feet away (press seats!), and could barely believe I was in the presence of my childhood hero.  As a young dancer in the suburbs of LA, I had read her autobiography: how after injury she had spent a year bedbound, unable to dance, practicing all the greats classical ballets in her head (this was before TV). 

This was followed by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba:  excerpts of Don Quijote, Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppelia,  Gottshalk Symphony.  Why did they end with the last?  Because it had Latin rhytmns?  They would have been better served by ending with Don Quijote, the finest rendition of the lot.  I had the good luck of being invited back stage.  I stood near the wings feeling an exhilaration I had not experienced since childhood: the tense nerves and joyous excitement of imminent performance.

Then American Ballet Theatre season started, a whirlwind of world class performances. Ratmansky's Bright Stream, Julie Kent's 25th anniversary performance in Lady of the Camellias, exquisite Alina Cojocaru, guest artist from the Royal Ballet, in Giselle  and Sleeping Beauty (she also deserves her own post, one will follow); fiery, confident, incredibly strong Polina Semionova in Don Quijote (see post:  Polina Semionova we love you at the ABT), and delicate, though still phenomenally strong, in Swan Lake, a performance which was the highlight of the season for me (post to follow).  Jose Manuel Carreno had been absent most of the season, and he gave his farewell performance in Swan Lake on June 30.  Julie Kent and Gillian Murphy joined him in a banner performance, but David Hallberg stole the show with a cunning and devious von Rothbart.  And then there was a suprise appearance by the Bolshoi's Ivan Vasiliev in Coppelia, a performance which I unfortunately missed as it had not been announced earlier in the season.

The Royal Danish was also in town performing Bournonville variations, Giselle, The Lesson, and a scene from Napoli.  Known for nearly unbroken continuation of the refined classical ballet style as danced in the French court, the men of the Royal Danish stole the show with regal bearing, exquisite extensions, and jumps that were showy enough to command the audience's attention, but without ego.

As if my head were not already spinning, the season concluded with the Maryiinsky Ballet (formerly Kirov) of St. Petersburg.  The visit began with a performance of Ratmansky's Anna Karenina, almost universally panned by the critics and with good reason-- the music is too somber for dancing.  I missed Vishneva's performance, but caught Kondarouva's.  Her dancing managed to carry me through to the bitter end.  I left wondering whether time is needed for appreciation of this ballet, but I have my doubts. The Maryiinsky's final performance on Saturday made up for the ill-fated Anna.  It was a double bill of the Little Hump-Backed Horse at matinee, a light-hearted Russian fairy tale that I enjoyed along with the Russian children and round babuskas in the balcony.  And then in the evening:  Ulyana Lopatkina in Carmen Suite!  Fiery!  Sultry!  Sexy!  Ill-Fated!  Formerly banned in the Soviet Union!  I had only seen her in videos, but the power of her dancing extended far into the upper reaches of the house, which is where I sat.

This season will remain with me always.  It brought me joy at a time when I could not dance, and when my living situation had less than to be desired.  Now, back in my Washington Heights apartment, the balletomania still with me, the bass from my downstairs neighbor shaking the floor, my ankle on the mend, I can't wait to get back in the studio.