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The Cuban connection.

IT'S A MUGGY day in late June and hundreds of nervous young students have arrived at the National School of Ballet in Old Havana to audition. Decked out in their school uniforms of mustard colored skirts or pants over black leotards and tights, the teenagers are lounging or stretching in the marble hallways of this immense building that was once a palace. They are waiting to take a class before a panel of experts who will determine whether they enter the school's intensive three-year program.

"It's not necessary that they show their full ability just yet, only the desire and aptitude," says Juan Antonio Molina, the assistant director of the school. Most of the students have been attending a five-year elementary school dance program where they've alternated academic classes with ballet, modem, folkloric, music appreciation, and the like. They dream of eventually joining the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and they know that attending the National School of Ballet is a necessary stepping stone. They also know that performing for the Ballet Nacional can sometimes launch an international career.

Described as a "miracle of the Americas," the first-rate Ballet Nacional de Cuba has impressed critics for decades with its expressive and impassioned dancing, and for ascending to global stature from a small, economically underdeveloped Caribbean island, For many years it's also been providing a steady pool of gifted international stars including Xiomara Reyes and Jose Manual Carreno, currently principals with American Ballet Theatre, and Carlos Acosta, who dances with The Royal Ballet. All three graduated from the National School of Ballet.

Twenty-four-year-old Ballet Nacional principal dancer Joel Carreno, Jose Manuel's half-brother, says the training at the school, which includes classes in partnering and character dancing, is challenging. "The professors are very demanding," he says. "They always ask you to do more and to do it very clean. We have to repeat and repeat until we do it well." However he is the one cracking the whip these days, teaching weekly adagio and partnering class to the young male students. In fact, all the dancers of the Ballet Nacional are required to teach. When the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso founded the company and school in 1962, there was a need for it. But then she realized that "by explaining the step, you learn it better," says 84-year-old Alonso.

Another rule, says Josephina Mendez, a former prima ballerina who continues to teach and rehearse the company, is that dancers must try out all the roles in the ballets to enrich themselves artistically. "When they come into the company," says Alonso, "we teach them the importance of the great classics and every role--from the greatest to the most simple. We don't just explain what they do but why they do it, so artistically they know how to do it."

Critics often remark about how Ballet Nacional dancers linger in balances, sometimes for longer than seems possible. "Because of the climate and our muscles, we dance slower," says Mendez. "Because of our way of life, adagio is easier for us. We work a lot on the placement and turns." She adds, "We also insist that the whole body dances, not just the legs and the arms. It has to come from the center of the body."

This emphasis stems from Cuba's Spanish and African heritage, and the popular and folkloric dances that have evolved out of it, including salsa, rumba, and merengue--dance styles that don't require much floor space to execute. "It all comes out in the torso," says Mendez. "We dance very much from the inside, using everything. We teach them that every step says something. It's not empty. I always ask them to not be a mechanical body."

In performance, the dancers' faces flash with meaning and intention. Part of this is the result of the intensive acting and character training that they undergo while at the school. Part of it stems from Alonso's heavy emphasis on strong communicative partnering. But part of it is also about being Cuban. After one of the other dancers plants an affectionate kiss on his cheek, Carreno says, "Cubans are very warm with each other, and that makes it possible to have the warmth you see in a Cuban dancer."
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Title Annotation:Latin Explosion; National School of Ballet
Author:Farmer, Ann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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