National Ballet of Cuba
August 16-21, 2005
“Revelations”, “Caught”, “Solo”, “Shining Star”, “Reminiscin’ ”
by John Percival
Looking for something else, I came across my review of the Cuban National Ballet’s British debut a quarter-century ago, and discovered that I did not wholly like the company. And that remains true on subsequent visits, including this year’s trip to Sadler’s Wells. Why am I out of step with much critical and public opinion?
I do recognise that Cuba produces many outstanding classical dancers. Unfortunately many of the best move overseas as soon as they can, seeking a more rewarding repertoire and better pay too. Judging by my one visit this time, the general level is perfectly presentable but I didn’t see any real star dancing. The other problem is (as I’ve already hinted) the repertoire. This is dominated by the classics as staged by their founder-director Alicia Alonso. They opened with a mixed bill: snippets from “Giselle”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Nutcracker”, “Coppelia, “Don Quixote” and “Swan Lake” Act 2, plus the finale from “Gottschalk Symphony”also by Alonso. I’m told this last was quite entertaining (I couldn’t see this programmein Edinburgh on the press night, and the only other performance was completely sold out. Reliable opinions were that the standards of dancing variedsome good, some less so. But I’ve seen various Alonso productions and am not convinced about her command of the classics.
Certainly the “Giselle” which I saw had many touches that seemed to me eccentric. The general outline was familiar but many details were not, especially the peasants in Act 1, jigging about like mad things, including a long, exuberant pas de dix of Giselle’s friends. Likewise the low bent-forward posture of the Wilis in Act 2: amazingly well drilled (I never saw such a regimented troupe of ghosts) but where was the spirituality? The music, too, had some peculiar arrangements, a rowdy orchestration, and was conducted with erratic tempi by Giovanni Duarte (Birmingham’s Royal Ballet Sinfonia, engaged as guests, can’t have been very happy).
Viengsay Valdés and Joel Carreno, the first-night leads (one of three casts), both put their emphasis on bold strong dancing rather than feeling or meaning. They also looked remarkably cheerful much of the time: this is hardly a story for so much smiling. I was surprised by the very ornate jewelled headdress worn by poor Giselle’s ghostand why did Albrecht snatch the flowers from her hands? Some miming was overdone, especially for Hilarion (Victor Gilí), alternately too timid and over bold, but the production gave the Queen of the Wilis (Liuva Horta) no opportunity to stand out.
Another transatlantic visitor to Sadler’s Wells (as part of a five-week national tour organised by the enterprising Dance Consortium of regional theatres) is one that I have enjoyed tremendously in the past, starting with its British debut 41 years ago. I am talking of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre which, together with the Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham companies, consolidated this country’s love of modern American dance following Martha Graham’s triumphant 1963 season. But now I have to say that I thought the seven ballets they brought this time did not really live up to the standard of Ailey’s 1964 debut. One of them, in fact, was part of that debutthe never-absent “Revelations” of course, given every night of this tour (but with none of his other ballets; why not?). However, the present performers don’t match past memories, especially in the more emotional episodes“I been ’buked”, “Fix me, Jesus” and above all “I wanna be ready”all of them used to be far more moving.
In fact movement in the purely physical sense is what the dancers seem to concentrate on nowadays. That’s fine in David Parsons’s “Caught”, where Clifton Brown adroitly achieves the neat, bouncy jumps which, with perfectly timed strobe lighting, give the illusion of floating above the stage. But, in spite of cheers and rave notices, to my mind the three men who take turns in Hans van Manen’s “Solo” got it all wrong: cute and flashy instead of classically brilliant. We were also given other choreography by Parsons (“Shining Star”surely a white man’s imitation of black dance?), Robert Battle, Ulysses Dove, Rennie Harris and, of course, current artistic director Judith Jamison.
Her contributions included a world premiere: “Reminiscin’ ”, to six standards written by the likes of Irving Berlin or the Gershwins and recorded by such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. In a décor by Michael Fagin hinting at Edward Hopper, eleven dancers (plus an unattributed bar tender) do contrasted numbers that I’d have enjoyed more if I had been able to see more connection to the songs. Well, that’s just me, and you can see shortly in the company’s New York season whether you agree with the standing ovation.
Incidentally, it was Ailey himself, after a Russian tour, who wrily showed me the programme cover chosen by their presenters. It showed Paul Taylor’s “Three Episodes” but someone had assumed from the dancers’ masks that they were black and therefore Ailey’s. I wonder how amused Ailey would have been by the quite large programme for the present tour which somehow doesn’t find room for a single picture of him.
Volume 3, No. 33