Cuban ballet brings its charisma to the US

Dancers' technical prowess on view this week

Cuban ballet dancers have brought their fiery passion and Russian-based technique to American audiences for decades, despite political tensions between the two countries.

That tradition continues this week when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba launches an American tour - its first since November 2001 - and Cuban superstar Jose Manuel Carreño debuts with the Boston Ballet in "Don Quixote."

Prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso set the stage for Cubans dancing in the US in the late 1930s. She performed with Ballet Caravan, the predecessor of the New York City Ballet. Now she is general director and choreographer for the Ballet Nacional.

Performing abroad is a liberty that Cuban dancers enjoy today largely because of the high standard Alonso has set and her devotion to her native land. Dancers are given elite status in Cuba, and the government proudly sends them abroad as cultural assets, despite economic embargoes and travel restrictions.

Mr. Carreño, who marks his first performance with Boston Ballet this week, has also danced with the English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet in London. For eight years, he's been a member of American Ballet Theatre.

"I will always be Cuban but my dancing now is so international," says Carreño from his home in New York. "I spent four years in the company in Cuba, and I learned a lot those four years. But I had done everything in the classical repertoire. That's when I went to London."

Carreño says he was initially lured overseas by the opportunity to work with choreographers such as Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe. "I was hungry to do something else," he says. "In Cuba they cannot afford to bring in these huge and amazing choreographers."

Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen hired Carreño to dance the lead in "Don Quixote" and to fill a temporary vacancy in the ballet's principal dancer ranks. Carreño joins two other Cubans in the company, Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal. In November, a fourth Cuban - the latest wunderkind, Rolando Sarabia - will join Boston Ballet.

Mr. Nissinen says he hires Cuban dancers not to show favoritism to that method of training, which combines Russian, French, and English techniques with Cuban charisma, but because Cubans are some of the best-trained in the world. He adds that Cuban dancers' desire for a better life often fuels their passion, a different motivation from their American or European counterparts.

"Being a [Cuban] ballet dancer, being able to tour internationally, gives you a little bit better life than you might have access to otherwise," Nissinen says.

"Cuba is training incredible dancers," he adds. "They have a wonderful dance tradition."

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Havana operates the way ballet companies did in Communist Russia. Children are handpicked to attend ballet school after passing stringent physical exams.

Once they enter the school, they train, tuition-free, and are groomed for professional ballet careers. Students study at the elementary level for five years and at the secondary level for three years. Then they are eligible to dance in the company.

Cuban teachers and choreographers are thoroughly involved. Dancers are given a solid technical foundation and this enables them to push themselves artistically, whether jumping higher or expressing deeper emotions.

This year, Ballet Nacional de Cuba celebrates its 55th anniversary. Since becoming the country's official company, it has toured to more than 50 countries. The Ballet presents two classical programs in New York this week, including a full-length version of "Don Quixote."

Director Alsonso hopes New York audiences are impressed with the dancers' bravura, which she says comes from a combination of good training and natural ability.

"It comes because of the mix of the races ... tradition, popular dance, a very good ear for the music - and a wonderful climate," she says via telephone from her home in Havana.

Alsonsosays the future of the company depends on whether it can hang on to talented dancers. She has mixed feelings when dancers leave for careers in America or Europe.

"Sometimes we allow them to do so," Alonso says, "to give guest performances or to have an exhibition. That is something we are very happy about. But we worry that they must have training with us and keep the Cuban school tradition very much alive. We are very careful that these styles are not only kept but that they are developed with more richness."

Alonso hopes Cuban dancers will always return home, just as she has, despite opportunities to dance with companies such as Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. "I never 'moved back' to Cuba, I was always in Cuba," Alonso says. "I was traveling ... but I'm always coming back."

Jose Manuel Carreño performs "Don Quixote" with the Boston Ballet at the Wang on Oct. 17 and 19. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs at New York's City Center through Oct. 19.

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