Among the surprises that impress foreigners the most when attending classical ballet performances in Cuba are the quality of its male and female dancers, the polished staged performances, the dancing culture of the local people, and the singular and intense way of enjoying it all.
Since 1948, one question has been in the air amidst dance critics, iconic European and American ballet companies and the elegant, stylized and meticulous world of teachers and maîtres.
How is it possible that this tiny Caribbean island, with no former classical ballet tradition, with a mixed population of Spaniards and black Africans, has been able to develop this millennial art of snow-white and ethereal artists, with sophisticated and consolidated techniques in the exquisite theaters of the largest capitals of the world, with a non-specialized, wealthy or sophisticated audience?
How has Cuba been able to become one of the most important countries of classical ballet in the contemporary world?
Talent, persistence, Cuban spirit, passion.
A name will come up first. Just knowing the name and the existence of this myth-artist is motivation enough to those who want to get to know, first hand, the legend, the wonderful, Alicia Alonso.
There is no Cuban anywhere in the world that does not know her and feels her as someone close, like a friend would. She goes by many names, the most educated and informed would call her The Prima Ballerina Assoluta, the most formal would refer to her as the head of the National Ballet of Cuba; and even some clueless would say: “Oh, the one from the Grand Theater?.” She earned being called simply by her first name, just Alicia.
The dear artist had a long life and a successful career that started in 1931 and ended with her passing at the age of 98, on October 17, 2019.
But her extraordinary work shows in the performance of every Cuban dancer, in every student of the many ballet schools throughout the country, in the warmth and intense applause of the national audience that packs theaters and praises every brilliant, colorful, intense and precise performance.
José Martí, the Cuban National Hero, wisely pointed out that “honoring makes you honorable”, and this is an idea Cubans have very much in mind these days. The name, the mark, the greatness of Alicia Alonso has been acknowledged when, in life, the Gran Teatro de La Habana (Grand Theater of Havana) was renamed after her. This is the most important and majestic theater of Cuba, and it stands for a long and thriving cultural tradition since 1914.
Long before that, with wisdom and future vision, the Museum of Dance was created to preserve the slightest detail of the life and work of this incredible Cuban. The museum offers an interactive relation between the visitor and the videos, films, and costumes of characters played by The Diva, as people also know her.
However, the greatest homage to her talent and value is the fact that most of the pieces she performed in and choreographed are still part of the active repertoire of the National Ballet of Cuba during the wonderful seasons throughout the entire year held, precisely, at Havana’s Grand Theater “Alicia Alonso”.
The origin of it all
By late 1940s, Alicia and her first husband –dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance grand master Fernando Alonso– consolidated a teaching method as a result of their rich professional experience in the United States (at the American Ballet Theater).
In 1948, the so called Alicia Alonso Ballet presents its first grand foundational performance.
Two years later, the creation of the Alicia Alonso Ballet Academy was a fact, an institution where the first professional Cuban dancers were trained and graduated with distinctive technical and aesthetic characteristics that would later define the well-known and praised Cuban Ballet School.
This academy produced dancers who, in 1964 and 1966, astonished the world with their participation at the Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria, the oldest, most prestigious and demanding one in the world; a contest many call the Olympics of Classical Ballet. Their particular and distinctive style earned some dancers the title with which well-known English ballet critic Arnold Haskel identified them. Ever since and for all times, Loipa Araújo, Aurora Bosch, Josefina Méndez and Mirta Plá were internationally known as The Four Jewels of Cuba.
The technique and dance style of our school were identified through their continuous success.
Resounding, novel, sensual, tropical and classic.
What makes it so different? Experienced professionals in the field say this school is characterized by a very peculiar style in hip and arm movements, steps performance, pantomime, and something very special: the committed, sensual and engaging relation of dancers in their stage performance.
Cubans are very competitive and so they can quickly get involved in strong arguments in favor of this or another ballet star. Yes, because there are many and very good Cuban dancers, teachers and choreographers. But everybody agrees, without a doubt, on the strength and effectiveness of the Cuban Ballet School, the cradle of such acclaimed artists.
The Four Jewels not only danced all over the world, but they also contributed to the academy with their work as teachers in the 1960s, at a time when the Cuban Revolution supported the ideas and projects of the Alonso’s: the reorganization of the National Ballet of Cuba and the creation of the National Art School (ENA in Spanish), along with other ballet schools throughout the country, where ballet was taught for free.
Summing up in just a few words the evolution and achievements of the Cuban Ballet School is not an easy task. For many years the work has been meticulous, nonstop and systematic in the teaching methodology, artistic technical styles, stage performance and the respect for each dancer’s individuality and ethics, which have been fundamental pillars for the artistic, human and social quality of many generations of Cuban dancers.
The great stars of Cuban ballet, the long road to Carlos Acosta and Viengsay Valdés.
In Ballet, five years pass between one generation of dancers and the other, which is very different to the usual generational studies that place it within ten years.
The first graduation of the National Ballet School of Cubanacán in 1968 set the beginning of a long and brilliant list of relevant dancers, not only for Cuba, but also for the whole world. Men and women who, like the founding fathers, from the stage and after retirement, continue teaching with devotion. Thanks to them, today we can talk about the widespread diffusion of the methodology and technical principles of our school in different countries of the Spanish-speaking and European world.
The teaching of ballet, its widespread diffusion and how it is enjoyed in Cuba is not only due to technique, style and repertoire; the true secret to continuity and permanence lies in a generational conspiracy, because there is nothing like teaching ballet on this island filled with warmth, humidity and popular dancing music that starts even with the lullabies in the cradle.
That’s why every September all ballet schools (there are many in the country) welcome 9-year-old boys and girls. The girls wearing white ribbons representing first year of ballet. Boys and girls that are sculpted day by day, year by year, like ebony pieces, by incredible teachers who later present their students to the most demanding national and international ballet competitions.
We are all proud of having those kids, once the red, green or blue ribbons in fifth, sixth or eighth year are gone, and see how they succeed performing in Coppelia, or La Fille mal gardee, among other classics.
I could not fail to mention the tireless work of Professor Ramona de Saa, an icon of ballet teaching. Winner of the National Dance and National Artistic Teaching Awards, “teach” Chery, as her students affectionately call her, is a symbol of the highest values of ballet teachers in Cuba.
She, along with a group of tireless Cuban teachers, have organized the successful Encuentro Internacional de Academias para la Enseñanza del Ballet y el Concurso Infantil (International Conference of Ballet Academies and Children’s Competition).
Each April Havana welcomes students and dancers from every continent interested in knowing and sharing the Cuban ballet’s formative technical and conceptual work. They all want to learn, through theoretical and practical master classes, the impeccable technique and the valuable repertoire of the school.
The National Ballet School shaped stars like José Manuel Carreño (Honor Diploma at Varna’s International Competition in Bulgaria in 1986) and Carlos Acosta, (Gold Medal at the Grand Prix in Lausanne, Switzerland). The latter has been, by far, Cuba’s most popular ballet dancer at an international level for the last 10 years.
He was principal dancer with the English National Ballet, with the Royal Ballet in London and, since 2019, he is the director of the Royal Birmingham Ballet. This is a dual position along with the direction of his own company Acosta Danza, based in Cuba.
By the way, Carlos Acosta’s story, very well told by him in his biographical novel “No Way Home”, was later turned into the film Yuli by movie maker Icíar Bollaín. It has obtained several awards such as the Platino Award and a nomination to the Goya Awards.
Without a doubt the school, whose greatest representative is Alicia Alonso, is the reason to have beautiful and talented female dancers like Rosario Suárez, Amparo Brito and Ofelia González, who critics and ballet lovers have called Las Tres Gracias (The Three Graces), or the presence, strength and virility of many Cuban male dancers such as Jorge Esquivel, Andrés Williams, Orlando Salgado, Lázaro Carreño, Carlos Acosta and others.
In the last decades of the 21rst century, the boom of brilliant Cuban dancers can be seen in several companies of the world, especially at the National Ballet of Cuba, which is considered a Cultural Heritage of the Nation.
Viengsay Valdés deserves a special mention. Graduated in 1994 at the National Ballet School, with a remarkable career at the age of 43, she is at the top of ballet in the world. She has taken the greatest challenge of a ballet dancer in Cuba, to take over for Alicia Alonso as the director of the National Ballet of Cuba.
The National Ballet of Cuba
The life of this exceptional artistic group is extremely active all year round with the setting of new pieces, endless rehearsals of the great classics, the attendance of choreographers from different parts of the world, international tours, the training for and the preparation of Havana’s International Ballet Festival and the ballet seasons at the “Alicia Alonso” Grand Theater.
Everything in the company is important, but I dare say that, for Cuban dancers, the litmus test of their career, the one and only thing that ensures their professional success, is dancing for the Cuban public and specialized critics. That’s the opinion of the company’s current principals Sadaise Arencibia, Annette Delgado, Dani Hernández, Gretel Morejón and Rafael Quenedit.
Truth be told, the Cuban audience (that of mambo, cha-cha-chá, Rueda de casino and the juicy carnival comparsas) knows about classical ballet, packs theaters and acknowledges with a standing ovation a variation, a pas de deux, asequence of piruettes or the elegance of a balance in arabesque.
One of the biggest surprises for those visiting for the first time is to find in the audience simple people, from a humble background, with such knowledge and excitement for ballet, marking a noticeable difference from audiences found elsewhere, who tend to be less expressive and more sophisticated.
The International Ballet Festival of Havana
And we’re back to Alicia Alonso, for it was she who, since 1960, started to perform and give ballet talks at factories, farm cooperatives, military headquarters and schools. This guided education, plus the support from the Cuban government for the development of ballet in the country (including low prices for theater tickets) made it possible for a mass public, regardless of class, to have access to ballet performances.
The warmth and enthusiast applause of the Cuban audience is what makes many important international figures come to Havana’s Ballet Festival, even paying for their own expenses. Since very early, that’s how this festival was held.
With the International Ballet Festival of Havana we wrap up this almost perfect cycle of explanations as to why this tiny island has become the land of great classical ballet dancers. The magnitude of the International Ballet Festival is unexpected. It is held every two years with the participation of elite dancers from all over the world, as well as prestigious foreign companies and a showcase of pieces by the National Ballet of Cuba.
And this is the setting for the staging of new works by foreign and local choreographers, joint pieces with world stars, exhibitions, master classes and countless collateral activities held over more than twenty theaters, sometimes throughout the entire island.
The accomplished miracle
The fiesta of classical ballet in Cuba is endless, it grows every day and it’s enjoyed like baseball, guaguancó and traditional dancing music and, like almost every good thing in Cuba, it’s contagious, adds friends, specialists, fans and simple mortals who love one of the oldest artistic traditions of universal art: classical ballet, another miracle on the island of Rumba.