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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Breathtaking Virtuosity, Unabashedly Itself

National Ballet of Cuba
City Center,
New York, NY
October 15, 2003

by  Eric Taub
copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub

It's a rare delight in these days of bland and blurry International-style ballet to see a company which is so unabashedly itself as the National Ballet of Cuba. The Cubans dance with a rare attention to detail and homogeneity, and revel, unapologetically, in their muscularity, even among the women. No reed-thin waifs here! At least, none were in evidence at City Center Thursday night.

The evening began with artistic director Alicia Alonso's staging of bits of the second act of Swan Lake, a last-minute substitution for Les Sylphides, caused by an amazing fit of peevishness by the Fokine estate and American Ballet Theatre (who had purchased a three-year "exclusive" license for the ballet from said estate). After the unfortunate beginning, where the curtain rises (and mercifully falls) on the corps of swan-girls glaring at the audience and all-but-hissing, this is a fairly traditional production, and one which showed off the great strength of the Cuban women. Perhaps the corps of the Kirov, Paris Opera Ballet or even ABT are as strong--perhaps--but where these companies, indeed, most companies, these days work to mask this strength behind a carefully cultivated appearance of lightness and ease, the Cubans, while never graceless, don't take particular pains to hide their strength. In the Cuban esthetic, one never floats delicately through a position on point- one holds it. Always. Legs never droop in arabesques, whether you're a prince landing in that position from a double tour, with the back leg held just above horizontal, or a swan hopping across the stage in awe-inspiring arabesques voyagées at the act's climax, with legs held so high it's almost a penchée. And I have never seen the four little cygnettes danced with such fire and passion, with such high, fast jumps through retiré, or, even harder, such rapid, gliding pas de chats. Let me give their names: Idania La Villa, Dalay Parrondo, Amara Vasallo and Bettina Ojeda.

Oh, yes, there were leads, too. Laura Hormigón is much as I remembered her from the Cuban's last visit here in 1999: tall, with an exquisite line (which we had much time to admire, thanks to the recording's Makarova-slow tempi), beautiful feet and rock-solid balances, but cold, cold, cold. There were many little touches I admired in her dancing--such as how she'd gradually raise her arms overhead while being piroutted by the equally tall and exquisite Óscar Torrado, finishing her turns at the very moment her arms reached the perfect en couronne position, or her rippling-like-water arms as she bourreed offstage and turned back into a swan. Yet other moments were strangely coarse, as with her little beats sur le coup de pied at the end of the White Swan adagio, which looked heavy and almost thumping, rather than the humming-bird-like fluttering of Odette's heart I always look for here. Perhaps this would have been too subtle? Torrado had a beautiful line in arabesque, and lovely soft landings, but he seemed a bit overshadowed by the women. I was particularly entranced by Sadaise Arencibia as one of the Big Swans, who showed off the big, booming extensions (when the Cubans do a big battement à la séconde on pointe, you're just as aware of the pointing of the supporting foot as you are of the working foot ascending to the heavens) and jump she'd also used to good effect the night before as the Dryad Queen in Don Quixote.

While some of the Cubans' costumes look as if they'd seen better days (as do their toe shoes, sadly), I have to comment on their wonderful tutus, thin and light and just the right stiffness to keep them from drooping, but not so much as to rob them of life. Instead, they sparkled -- not just in Swan Lake, but also in Don Quixote on opening night, and in the Black Swan pas de deux, which followed on Thursday.

While it might seem odd to follow Act II of Swan Lake with the Black Swan pas de deux from Act III--with two different dancers -- such peculiar programming isn't the Cubans' fault; as noted, they'd planned on doing Les Sylphides (and a gorgeous job they'd have done, I'm sure). Regardless, Viengsay Valdés and Joel Carreño repeatedly brought the house down. Valdés, a short, powerful dark-haired woman, seems to have taken the art of balancing and turning to new heights (some of the things she did the previous night in Don Quixote truly defy belief, such as balancing in retiré, then slowly extending her leg to arabesque, regardless of the pull of gravity, or the screaming of the audience). It's not just that she can seemingly balance in arabesque for half the evening, but that she does it so matter-of-factly. Should it go without saying that she began her fouettes in the coda with a quadruple pirouette? At the end of the coda, she did the backwards hops in arabesque on pointe, much as I'd seen Alonso do in old films—I'd always thought this would be a bit of a grotesque trick, but Valdés was so intense, and her working leg so high and unyielding, it just took my breath away, as did her concluding leap into Carreño's grasp, flapping her arms one time before the final fish dive (did I mention Alonso has taken some liberties with the choreography?).

As for Carreño, it's easy to see why Peter Martins wanted to hire him for the New York City Ballet. Where Valdés is tough and all business, Carreño is soft and fluid and graceful--a natural turner with a singing line, big leap and soft landings. He's so understated, I almost wanted him to sell the role a bit more, but perhaps he's too much of a gentleman to even hint at stealing the show from his ballerina, or perhaps he's just too wise -- in his newspaper interviews he's mentioned that Valdés is his girlfriend as well as partner.

Azari Plisetski's Canto Vital (song of nature) is an amiable bit of Soviet-style kitsch, for four men in variously colored dance belts, representing Nature, Beast, Fish and Bird, set to part of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. The program note said something about Primitive Man's "struggle against his inner feelings;" said struggle seems to involve a considerable amount of leaping and turning, along with some cutesy-poo man-on-man stuff which Pisetski almost certainly did not intend to evoke memories of certain downtown bathhouses. I really couldn't follow the plot, until I saw all those muscular, glistening, carefully posed bodies luxuriating in their manliness, and I realized that they were all running for governor of California! Plisetski was truly ahead of his time.

Antonio Gades' Blood Wedding concluded the program. This long, leisurely evocation of Lorca's play featured a duet for a couple trapped in a bad marriage so endless that I felt trapped along with them, and a beautifully staged slow motion (slower than Makarova slow, and that's really saying something) knife fight during which I managed to resist the urge to jump onstage and plead with the dancers to stab me instead -- anything to just make it end. I was astonished to emerge from City Center and realize it had only been about a half-hour.

First: Viengsay Valdes and company of Ballet Nacional de Cuba perform Don Quixote. Photo credit: Enrique Falcon
Second:  Men of the National Ballet of Cuba in Canto Vital

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 3 Extra
October 17, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

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last updated on October 7, 2003