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Havana Blues

by Paul Seaquist

La Habana looks old and crippled, like a tired city. Strangely enough, it is actually vibrant and full of life. Slow yet alive. Life and death walk hand in hand at the Malecón every evening. Life is but one contradiction in this Caribbean paradise.

Vladimir Malakhov and I were invited to take part in this year´s 22nd version of the Festival de Ballet de La Habana. With it being an invitation from Mrs. Alicia Alonso herself (and the fact that she was celebrating her 90th birthday), it seemed like a good reason to add our names to the already distinguished guest list. And it surely was.

As with all life experiences, there are many angles to every story. I could devote this writing space to how well treated and taken care of we were by the event organization, to how interesting the city is, or to how incredible it was to share a few moments of relaxed chat with Mrs. Alonso. Nevertheless, I believe I’ll focus my intent toward my impressions of the ballet reality of the island.

The National Ballet of Cuba´s headquarters are located inside a blue and white colonial, two story house in the middle of a quiet street in the neighborhood of El Vedado. There are four studios in the building, two of them with -out of tune- pianos, and old soviet-made stereo systems. The ceilings are high. The floors are wooden and hard. It is a loud place. Dancers come and go from one studio to the other in a jovial and casual manner, sweat dripping off their bodies, cigarettes in hand, happy and aloof, young and invincible.

It is difficult, yet not impossible, to imagine that some of the most sought after ballet artists have come out of this place. Big names, such as Carlos Acosta and José Carreño did their ballet training and early steps in this atmosphere. They’ve both had long and fruitful careers. The raw talent of Rolando Sarabia, the Feijoo sisters, or the new San Francisco Ballet Principal Taras Domitro were also part of this environment, of this protected world… yet left it as soon as the chance arose.

I’ve many times, wrongly I understand now, blamed the political situation in Cuba for the continuous out-pouring of dancers. But, I have come to reassess my position. It is true that the Castro regime is an already unsustainable utopia and no doubt a more than powerful reason to want to escape the country. Nevertheless I’ll leave this analysis to political experts who will surely have a more lucid view on the situation than myself. My area of expertise is the Ballet.

I came to understand that the main reason for dancer defection stems from a serious lack of challenge and stimulus. It is true that when looking at the National Ballet of Cuba, the talent, if not the body lines, is obvious. It is true that circus and big jumps are a must to be considered worthy of respect in a company of this sort. Pirouettes are abundant, double or triple cabrioles an everyday feast, balances on pointe in any or every possible moment of a variation another apparent necessity. Yet how many pirouettes or big jumps or balances can you see before getting extremely bored? A solid career is scarcely built on the aforementioned skills. There must be something more to ballet than tricks, and serious dancers try to escape the “trick category” as soon as a deeper understanding of the art and style are made. Nevertheless, it is difficult to escape this category in Cuba since there is nothing to rest it on. Repertoire is based on a few and only a few pieces, and pieces are constantly performed over and over again. How many Don Qs, Sleeping Beauties, Giselles, Swan Lakes can a dancer do before drying up artistically, emotionally and technically?

The festival was full of dancers that shine everywhere and all the time: Vladimir Malakhov received standing ovations both nights he performed his version of Dying Swan; Roberta Marquez and Steven Mcrae were impeccable in Sleeping Beauty 3rd Act pas de deux; Tamara Rojo´s artistic power was evident in Macmillan´s Farewell, Carlos Acosta shone in Maliphant´s Two; Jose Carreño sweet and sexy in Sinatra Suites.

But I felt both touched and saddened by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s everyday routine, by pieces choreographed specially for the occasion which looked ancient and old, by the hunger in the eyes and bodies of willing dancers, of talented dancers, of dancers who will eventually escape leaving behind crying families, friends, their life as they knew it. I felt sad by the intransigence of a system, of an Artistic Director who hasn’t seen a ballet since the 1950s – a lack of development, knowledge and vision.

As I said, La Habana is a tired city… Life is but one contradiction in this Caribbean paradise.

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