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Flash Review 2, 10-17: Oh, those
With Feeling, Ballet Nacional de Cuba Takes California
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2001 Aimee Tsao
BERKELEY -- After seeing the Ballet
Nacional de Cuba perform "Giselle" two seasons ago, I was eagerly looking forward
to its current offering of Arthur Saint-Leon's "Coppelia" which the company brought
to Zellerbach Hall this past weekend. I could only hazard a guess that it had
been almost thirty years and a half a world away that I had last seen a live production
of this ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffman's story. (He's also responsible for "The
Nutcracker"). I worried that seeing three performances in as many days would be
excruciating. Fortunately, I loved watching the company, founded by Alicia Alonso,
as a whole every time and relished the different interpretations of the three
As with "Giselle," this production
suffers from the same economic straits that prevent the Cubans from having the
costumes and decor that they deserve. Yes, politics does affect the arts. And
ideally, I would like to think that the arts influence politics though the cynic
in me would most likely deny it. I am not about to starting ranting, I leave that
to my editor, but the United States's embargo of Cuba is the reason this company
has to creatively make do with whatever material resources they can scrape together.
What it lacks in rich fabrics for costumes and funds to build and transport substantial
stage decor, the performers more than make up for with their dancing and acting.
And that drives home the point, once again, that it's the human element that really
matters. How many times have we been to see a sumptuous production of one of the
classics, replete with gorgeous costumes and elegant decor, only to be bored with
one-dimensional pyrotechnics or worse, and left wondering why we haven't been
magically transported to another realm? Money does not necessarily buy artistry.
Vermin in Versace gowns are still vermin.
But those Cubans! They have two very
important things going for them. First, their culture almost guarantees a love
of dance and music, and the ability to meld them together. And second, they receive
some of the best dance training in the world. Together those two aspects make
for amazing performances. In "Coppelia," as in "Giselle," the entire corps de
ballet becomes a perfect frame for the soloists. They become real townspeople
and peasants who live and breathe, talk and laugh, and care about each other.
The power of their commitment to their roles pulls you into their world so strongly
that you forget yourself. Unfortunately, although the company had been promised
an orchestra, we suffered through taped music. In spite of that, the dancers are
still extremely musical, and in combination with their precise footwork and perfect
synchronization, they are remarkable, both in their dancing and their mime.
Friday night's performance featured
Lorna Feijoo as Swanilda and Joel Carreno as Franz. Both dancers come from dance
dynasties. Feijoo's mother danced with the company and now teaches in the school,
while her sister, Lorena, is a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. Carreno's
brother is Jose Manuel Carreno, principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre, and
his cousin Alihaydee, is a premier dancer in the Cuban company with him. Feijpo
posesses an impeccable technique. From astonishing balances to fleet footwork
to perfect pirouettes, she never leaves them as mere tricks, but imbues them all
with intelligent and subtle nuances completely in character with the role. Her
open face is a perfect slate for showing all manner of passing emotions. In the
second act, her mechanical doll variation is uncannily robotic, while her Scottish
fling shows off her incredibly fast and precise feet. Feijoo only gets better
in the third act. In the series of three arabesque balances, lifting her hands
from her partner's arm, she increases the length each time until she easily holds
the last one for five seconds. But her fouettes, and I am not usually impressed
by those sorts of things, are unbelievable. Not only does she alternate singles
with doubles, but in the doubles she nonchalantly places one hand behind her head
and the other on her hip!
Carreno's boyish naivete works well
for Franz and his elevation and turns are stunning. Even when he runs out of steam
in his third act variation, you don't care because he comes right back and dances
his heart out. Like all the Cuban male dancers I've seen, he is an attentive partner,
always presenting the ballerina in the best light and effortlessly spinning out
more supported pirouettes than seems possible.
There is an art to matching up partners
for leading roles, or maybe it's science since chemistry is the most essential
aspect. Putting Viengsay Valdes and Victor Gili together for Saturday night's
performance shows that someone knows the finer points of casting. Both these dancers
have so much warmth and joie-de-vivre they seduce each other, everyone on stage
and in the audience. You love them instantly. At first I thought Valdes wasn't
as assured technically as Feijoo, but she proved me wrong. By those third act
fouettes, she is whipping them off, two singles and a double in attitude derriere
en dehors. I especially noticed her arms and hands, which were always used with
finesse. Gili is an excellent actor and superb comedian. Even in doing the same
mime as the other Franzes, he manges to embellish and flavor like a good chef.
One small detail involved climbing through the window of Dr. Coppelius's house.
Instead of merely popping up into the open window, he opened the shutters, still
unseen, then placed his hands on the sill before cautiously peering over it. He
does not have Carreno's or Oscar Torrado's technique, but you don't care in the
least because his enthusiasm and immersion in his role override any shortcomings
on that score. Again, the human element wins out and the audience gives them the
longest and loudest applause of the three performances.
By Sunday's matinee, everyone, myself
included, seems just a bit tired. The corps de ballet is still wonderful, and
Laura Hormigon and Oscar Torrado show still another perspective on these roles.
Getting off to a bad start, Hormigon has the misfortune of being slightly nervous
for her opening solo and having the audio system suddenly start making a low,
powerful rumble. But as time goes on, she relaxes and shows that she, too, is
a wonderful dancer. Torrado has the best balance of technique versus acting. Supple
landings from soaring jumps, poised turns and convincing mime make him my all-round
You would think that I'd had my fill
of Cuban dance by now. No. Monday night finds me at "Words on Dance" at the Cowell
Theater in San Francisco expecting to hear Lorena Feijoo and fellow SFB dancer
Joan Boada in conversation with local dance critic Octavio Roca. Boada is unable
to come having had knee surgery on Saturday, so we are left with just two Cubans.
Feijoo re-iterates the excellence of the training and coaching for performance,
but also reminds us that the economic conditions in her homeland are forcing many
dancers to seek careers elsewhere. The result is that instead of twenty ballerinas,
there are only a handful left. She also comments on the shortage of resources
for good costumes and decor. Later she mentions that her sister Lorna is lucky
that Alicia Alonso brings her back pointe shoes fom her trips abroad because the
Cuban-made ones are like blocks of wood. I had heard from a friend who attended
the Dance Critics Association conference in New York City this past July that
Laura Alonso, who also attended, said that the dancers and students are in desperate
need of pointe shoes. I managed to collect about thirty new pairs from several
Bay Area ballet companies that had excess inventory due to personnel changes or
generous dancers, and give them to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. If you have extra
new shoes that you don't want or can't use, please give them to this incredible
company when they are performing near you. While recent events have caused the
dance community, like most communities, to pull together, we should not forget
our fellow artists in Cuba who can use our help in a situation that has prevailed
for far too many years already. Regardless, go see them! It's both a satisfying
arts experience and an education.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba comes to
City Center in New York November 8 through 11.
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