Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

City Center New York, New York October 15-19, 2003

LIKE MOST ballet regulars and, dare I say, most ballet critics, I admire many dance companies, but actually love comparatively few. High among those I love is the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It was founded in 1948 by the great ballerina Alicia Alonso. Two years later she established a school in Havana, and since then the company and school have consistently produced whole generations of outstanding dancers. Thus, in 1978 the company was ready to make its New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was last in New York at City Center only two years ago when it brought a patchwork sampler of excerpts from its formidable classical repertory. Those bits and pieces provided a fair overview of the dancers but it gave little idea of the present artistic shape of the company itself. Even so, I noticed particularly the promise of Viengsay Valdes, Alihaydee Carreno, and Lorena Feijoo (now with the San Francisco Ballet) among the women, and Joel Carreno, and Victor Gili among the men.

In 2002 at the Havana Ballet Festival my impression was confirmed that the company--after a generational turnover of stars over the past five or six years--now represents virtually a new young brood of Cuban dancers. On the return to New York last October, dancers such as Valdes, Joel Carreno, and Gili (Alihaydee Carreno, cousin of Joel and his American Ballet Theatre elder brother, Jose Manuel, stayed in Havana to take care of her new baby) remained prominent, but there were many other wonderful dancers on display during the company's six performances, each performance with a different cast.

The season opened with Alonso's own staging of the full-evening Don Quixote, which had received its premiere in Havana on July 6, 1988. It was a shrewd choice since it ideally revealed the youthful zest and classic attack of this new-look company. Alonso's staging, with its simple scenery and costumes by Salvador Fernandez, is sweet, dramatic, and original. It casts the ballet in three acts, combining the Tavern Scene (where the hero Basilio comically feigns suicide to win the hand of his beloved Kitri) with the final Wedding Scene, a condensation that works very well. Another significant change has Don Quixote himself (a noble Octavio Martin or, at one performance, Miguelangel Blanco) taking an active role in the Dryads Scene.

At the opening, Kitri and Basilio were played enchantingly by the 26-year-old Valdes (whose turns and breathless, motionless balances were exquisite) and the 23-year-old Carreno, a master premier danseur in the making. Valdes and Carreno are also an off-stage partnership, as is the second couple to appear, Laura Hormigon and Oscar Torrado, who together were also as brilliantly dashing as they were charming. To top it all, the final pair as Kitri and Basilio, Barbara Garcia partnered by the 19-year-old Romel Frometa, both dazzled with their brave (there seemed nothing they would not dare) pyrotechnics. Added to this were the suave classicism of Jaime Diaz and Hayna Gutierrez as Espada and Mercedes, and the sharp humors of Javier Sanchez, Felix Rodriguez, and Rolando Sarabia Martinez in the various character roles.

The repertory program opened with Alonso's delicately sensitive staging of Swan Lake Act II, which replaced the announced Les Sylphides on the unconscionable demand of American Ballet Theatre (did its management not know who Alonso was and what she had once meant long ago to the emergent Ballet Theatre?) which apparently has bought exclusive New York rights to performing the ballet for three years. The substitution was a happy one in that it showed us the same three Don Quixote pairings, but this time as the tragic Odette and Siegfried, and all three were just as outstanding as was the perfectly schooled corps de ballet (what a joy to see those backs, arms and hands!). Valdes and Garcia, with their respective partners, also produced coruscating, if sometimes overdramatic, accounts of the Black Swan pas de deux, with the third couple being a young and promising Anette Delgado matched with the experienced Martin.

Azari Plisetski's 1973 work Canto Vitale, a virtuoso piece to Mahler for for men, seemed less heroic than I recalled, but its almost acrobatic technical difficulties were smoothly encompassed by a shifting team of dancers consisting of Martin, Blanco, Frometa, Joan Reyes, Javier Tortes, Elier Bourzac and, at all three performances, an astonishing agile Daniel Sarabia.

Completing the program was Antonio Gades's version of Blood Wedding, originally staged for Gades's own flamenco troupe. This Cuban version, given a classical slant, was admired by many. However I found it dramaturgically clumsy, and as a whole, the ballet had less power than Alfred Rodrigues's 1953 work on the same subject.

No matter. By that time the Cubans, as lovable as ever, had triumphed.

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