Cuba's digital destination
by Ricardo Alberto Pérez
At the beginning of this year 2016, following a thorough restoration process, the Gran Teatro de La Habana reopened its doors. For decades, it has had the reputation of being the grand home of dance in Cuba. The brand new feature on this occasion is the change in its name. As of January 1, 2016, the Gran Teatro de La Habana became the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. This transformation was celebrated with ballet on its stage.
So that we may understand to a certain degree how we have arrived at this juncture, let us go back to the year of 1837, the year of the inauguration of the Teatro Tacón’s. That grand opening launched a theater arts movement in Cuba such as has never been seen to date. The beauty, size and sheer monumentality of the building attracted a large number of artists and artistic impresarios. The first dance performances date back to 1838, inserted in the dramatic companies since these included Spanish dancers who performed for the audiences during intermissions.
We must point out that in the beginning, dance was rather on the fringes of the other theatrical manifestations such as opera, drama and music. Between the 1840’s and 60s, various dance shows were staged, right up to 1868 when the start of the wars of independence in Cuba brought about a visible decline in the Tacón Theater’s program. It is also interesting to mention that at that time, dance and ballet performances in Cuba were accompanied by the piano, not the full orchestra; this had the effect of cheapening the shows.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Gran Teatro welcomed foreign companies but dance continued to occupy a secondary role. This state of affairs began to change in 1948 when Cuba’s first professional ballet company was born: the Ballet Alicia Alonso. It evolved from the ballet school of the Sociedad Proarte Musical, founded in 1931, which gave Alicia Alonso her first instruction in the art of the dance.
By 1948, Alicia was a dancer with an already well-established international reputation and she had great influence on her colleagues in the American Ballet Theatre, which during those days was undergoing some internal problems. That situation made it possible for Alicia to bring a group of its dancers to her recently formed company so that they didn’t have to be unemployed. That is one of the reasons why it has been said that Alicia’s ballet company was born with both international and Cuban elements. The new company embarked on an ever-expanding trajectory based on a deep-seated taste for the ballet.
With the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the company continued fortifying its work giving rise to the first Cuban dancers who were able to achieve absolutely respectable technical-artistic levels. They started winning prizes at the most important international competitions. This went hand-in-hand with the process of gaining audiences so that ballet became a “grassroots phenomenon.”
There came a time when the company had such a great influence on the public that when the theater underwent some renovations, an attempt was made to rename it the Gran Teatro de Ballet y Ópera de Cuba. Cuba made that investment because of the professional level achieved by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as it came to be officially known after the Revolution.
Right from the 1960s, ballet performances have formed the backbone of the Gran Teatro’s program. Different contemporary dance companies, from Cuba and abroad, have performed there. The theatre’s facilities became the headquarters for the Ballet Nacional Cuba and the prestigious International Ballet Festival of Havana, both of which are a great source of pride for Cuba.
A wide range of comments and opinions surfaced when it was learned that the emblematic theater would be named Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso when it reopened its doors. On the subject of Alicia’s artistic merits that justify that honor, ballet critic and historian Francisco Rey Alfonso has written:
The figure of Alicia Alonso has great dimensions, bringing together a group of facets that few artists in the world have managed to take on. First, she is considered to be the best ballerina of her generation in the entire world. Then, together with Fernando Alonso, she was one of the founders of a phenomenon going by the name of Escuela Cubana de Ballet (Cuban School of Ballet) something that was hugely transcendental because for over four centuries, all over the world, only four schools of ballet are recognized, including ours plus the Russian, the English and the French Schools. Therefore the fact that on a small Caribbean island such a phenomenon occurred is exceptional. Besides, since 1967 she has been functioning as the Director of the Company and she has been busy both as choreographer and professor, adding luster to the world ballet scene and to our country.
After hearing Rey Alfonso’s arguments I came to be convinced that among the eleven or so names the theater has worn since its origin, no other previous name has had the profound significance of this one.