Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cuba's first lady

The Arts Interview: Cuba's first lady
The Back Half
Alice O'Keeffe
Monday 4th September 2006
The Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to London this week despite
political upheaval back home. Alice O'Keeffe asks its formidable
director what the future holds

Browse all articles by Alice O'Keeffe in the NS Library
A frisson of nervous energy sweeps the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's elegant
headquarters in Havana as Alicia Alonso's chauffeur-driven car pulls up
at the door. "She's arrived!" squeaks an assistant. She is helped
through the entrance hall and into her office, passing the posters which
show her poised and in her prime. Her head is wrapped in her trademark
scarf - today, a pale silky green to match her trouser suit - and her
lips are slightly unevenly painted pillar-box red. She greets me
regally, stretching out a gnarled hand and fixing me with her sightless
eyes. She may be 85 years old, but she is a true diva.

The news of Castro's illness broke only a few days before our scheduled
interview, and I half expected Alonso to cancel. I should have known
better; a consummate revolutionary, she insists that he is on the mend.
"Of course we worry a lot about him, because he works too hard and
leaves himself prone to illness," she says. "But we know that he will
get better. And in the meantime he has people around him who will
continue with the revolution."

The sense of impending change must, however, strike a particularly
personal note for Alonso. As director and prima ballerina of the Ballet
Nacional for the past 47 years, she is an integral part of Cuba's old
guard. Jorge Esquivel, the former dancing partner with whom Alonso fell
out bitterly when he "defected" to the United States, has compared the
revolution to "an orange: when you cut it in half, one side is Fidel and
politics, the other is Alicia and the arts."

Incongruous as it may seem, ballet was part of the Cuban revolution from
its inception. Legend has it that, while Castro was battling the
imperialists, he sent Alonso a message from his hideout in the sierra
asking her to form a national ballet company in the event of his
victory. When he came to power in 1959, she had no hesitation. "I was
dancing in Chicago, but I dropped everything and came running," she
recalls. She and her then husband, Fernando, were provided with $200,000
with which to found a national company and school.

Alonso finds it entirely natural that the revolutionary leader should
have been preoccupied with ballet, even in the throes of commanding a
guerrilla war. "I didn't ask him why it was on his mind," she says. "But
he is a man who understands culture. The first thing he did after the
revolution was to make sure the Cuban population learnt to read. Once
people want to learn, they want to live. Dance is the same - it gives
you a great appreciation for life. Human beings must always strive to be
better, to live better, to see better, to enjoy life. Ballet is the
purest, most beautiful way to do that."

In the Ballet Nacional's early years, Alonso was charged with no less a
task than educating the entire Cuban population in classical dance.
Ballet was such an alien art form that when the school first opened it
struggled to find students. "Parents didn't want to enrol their
children, so we gathered a group of students from orphanages," says
Alonso. "We started them off on judo and martial arts, before
introducing ballet gradually." From the beginning she found that Cuban
children showed a "special talent". Among that first group was Esquivel,
who would go on to become the Ballet Nacional's first major home-grown star.

Later, the company sought out new recruits by giving presentations in
farms, factories and military bases the length and breadth of the
country. The reception was not always warm - but Alonso was not easily
deterred. "One of the first presentations we did was for a group of
soldiers. Esquivel demonstrated how to lift the ballerina elegantly,
lightly. They were all nudging each other and laughing. They stopped
pretty quickly when we got one of them up on stage to try it. He could
hardly budge her, let alone do the lift! That shut them up."

The Ballet Nacional has, over the years, proved a very smart investment.
With a typically Cuban spirit of defiance, it continued to receive
funding even during the country's worst economic crises. And the
company, in return, has boosted the country's cultural prestige by
producing such international stars as Carlos Acosta, now a principal
guest artist at the Royal Ballet, and Jose Manuel Carreño, who is a
principal at the American Ballet Theatre. "There may be some material
things we can't do, but we have never lacked for spiritual things," says
Alonso. "This is a product of the Cuban system of education."

Inevitably, as the decades have worn on, Alonso has increasingly
attracted criticism - all of which she deftly bats away. I ask her about
the widely held perception that she is stifling new talent by continuing
to hang on to her position. "I don't think my presence has made it
difficult for anyone - quite the contrary," she replies sharply. "How
many stars have emerged from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba? You will find
it is more than in almost any other company."

More damaging, however, are the criticisms of her artistic judgement.
Despite having impaired vision since the age of 19, she still does a
large amount of choreography herself - at the Havana Ballet Festival in
October she will present three new works. One British critic, reflecting
a general consensus, described a previous effort as "disastrous".
Acosta, perhaps the most famous alumnus of the Ballet Nacional, pulls no
punches in his assessment of the company's repertoire. "Choreography in
Cuba is stuck. They do a Giselle, a Swan Lake, a Quixote, another
Giselle, another Swan Lake," he says. "It is frustrating, and as a Cuban
dancer it makes me very sad. To keep its magic, and to keep its public,
classical dance has to move forward. To a large extent Alicia is
personally responsible - as the director of the company, she makes the
artistic decisions." Again, on this point, Alonso sticks firmly to her
guns. "A great company is measured by its grand classics," she says. "We
respect them and enrich them as much as we can."

The other, and perhaps related, problem facing the Ballet Nacional de
Cuba is a painful exodus of talent. In its 2003 tour of the US alone,
five dancers "defected", choosing not to return to the island. This
brought the total to 20 in two years. Alonso is not forthcoming on the
subject: "Of course it hurts when people leave. But there is a great
international demand for our dancers." Still, it clearly rankles. She
has tried to keep a lid on the situation, allowing big stars such as
Carreño and Acosta to work abroad, while blacklisting those who go
without permission from the company. But, nevertheless, a combination of
economic and artistic incentives has tempted rising stars such as
Rolando Sarabia and Lorena Feijoo into exile.

In this, as in so many other respects, the Ballet Nacional reflects the
wider tensions in contemporary Cuba: materially poor, spiritually rich;
technically stunning, creatively stagnating; brought into being and held
to ransom by one, formidable, person. A Cuban friend of mine summed it
up later that day. "Both Alicia and Fidel come from a very wise
generation, which learnt to defend itself against all the odds. But they
will leave us with a question: where do we go from here?"

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 1-10

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