Inside Cuba’s dance factory

London’s Guardian has published a lengthy article on the current state of the internationally-known dance company founded by Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso. Here are some excerpts, with the link to the full article below.

Virtually blind and wearing Jackie Onassis sunglasses that might have been bought when Jackie O was still alive, Alicia Alonso has her ballerina face painted on every morning: a wide slash of scarlet lipstick, thick found-ation, flaring black eyebrows. She may be approaching her 90th birthday, but she is still the head of the Ballet ­Nacional de Cuba, still the island’s ­revolutionary prima ballerina assoluta. Talking to me in her private office in Havana, she combines diva glamour with political rhetoric; spreading her arms wide at one point, she insists: “Art is the lungs of the ­people. It is the expression of our ­humanity.” It’s a ­gesture that would carry to the back of an opera house.

Ever since she gave up her inter-national career to found the Ballet ­Nacional in 1959, Alonso has been proselytising for her art form. Fidel Castro, determined to acquire a people’s ballet to match Russia’s Bolshoi and the Kirov, gave her the funding to expand what was a private company into a state ­ensemble. She has kept it alive for 50 years despite chronic money problems and a scarcity of essential supplies, and in the process acquired a near-sacred standing in Cuba. You almost believe her when she says, serenely: “I’ll still be running this company in a hundred years’ time.”

Certainly the impact Alonso has made on Cuban dance will gain her a kind of immortality. The ballet school she opened with her former husband Fernando is now world-famous, gathering its students from the island’s rural poor and urban delinquent; Carlos Acosta was enrolled by his father to keep him off the streets. The training it gives is also world-class, producing dancers who can pirouette and jump with explosive attack, but whose musicality embraces a shimmering languor.

. . .

Stuck in a 50-year time-warp

This spring, Britain will be getting a concentrated taste of Cuba’s dynamic rhythm and heat, as both the Ballet ­Nacional and the state-run Danza ­Contemporanea de Cuba (DCC) begin UK tours. Also founded in 1959, Danza Contemporanea now numbers 47 ­dancers – almost double the size of the UK’s Rambert Dance Company. Its signature style is a bewitching hybrid, blending the blunt attack of American modern dance with the long, lean ­extensions and graceful arms of ballet, as well as the percussive syncopation and rippling spines of Caribbean dance.

Spanish choreographer Rafael Bonachela, who was recently invited to create a work for DCC, says he was awed by the dancers’ talent. “If I audition for my own company, I might see 800 dancers, but few are as good as these. They’re taught to really push themselves and they have this very old-fashioned, hardcore technique that you don’t often see.” Yet Bonachela’s voice has the guilty inflection typical of most visitors to Cuba, as he acknowledges that DCC’s unique qualities are, in part, a reflection of their long and enforced segregation from the rest of the dance world. The time–warp effects of the 50-year US embargo, and of Castro’s rule, may be fascinating to observe: a world free of Starbucks and the evils of global capitalism. But for Cubans, the reality has been grim. For all their justified pride in Cuba’s health service and education system, many Cubans long for Starbucks, or at least what it symbolises – access to basic goods and, above all, the freedom to travel. As Bonachela says: “Cuba is a waiting island.”

At the Ballet Nacional, dancers do have certain privileges, including the chance to tour abroad. But it’s evident from talking to them that this exposure to the wider world has sharpened their dissatisfaction, as they realise how far ballet has moved on, and how limited their own repertory is. It’s not just that Alonso’s taste dominates the company, a taste inevitably rooted in an older aesthetic; there is also little money to acquire new work from elsewhere.

For some dancers, the situation feels impossible. Carlos Acosta, who left Cuba for good in 1993, believed he had no choice: “Your career is so short – you have to do everything you can to find new challenges.” But others find it harder to leave, like dancer Javier Torres, who professes enormous loyalty to his home company: “It has taken me to a very high level.” Even so, an expression of longing crosses his face when he ­describes watching the Royal Ballet dance Chroma, the fiercely modern Wayne McGregor ballet they brought to Havana last year. “My body is hungry to dance that,” he says simply.

For the full article go to

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