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The London Royal Ballet in Havana

The London Royal Ballet in Havana

Dame Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet since 2002, has succeeded in preserving the stylistic tradition of the English school of ballet despite the diverse zorigin—19 nationalities—of its nearly 100 dancers, which makes it all meritorious thanks to the elegant, smooth and connected manner (legato) of their performance; the precision of their positions and movements, or danse d´école; the importance they bestow on transition steps and to musicality, as well as their expressive mime devoid of excessiveness, yet no less notable (for instance, in choreographies by the emblematic stalwarts of British tradition of classical ballet, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan). 

As expected, the gala of the 15th of July was the most brilliant and warmly rewarded of the five performances programmed by the Royal Ballet on this occasion, by express wish of Ms Mason and the patrons at Covent Garden—a sincere tribute to Alicia Alonso, the grande dame of ballet in Cuba and the world.

The former prima ballerina and today’s artistic director of the principal British ballet company missed no opportunity to explain the reason for this tribute to Alonso: “Ever since I saw her dance in London, I became her admirer. She was technically exceptional and this is why George Balanchine created his Theme and Variations for her. Besides, she deserves this recognition for a lifetime dedicated to the splendor of ballet. It is also marvelous to be able to pay this tribute to a country that has produced such a fine a dancer as Carlos Acosta.”

We could equally describe as a historical coincidence the fact that this tribute was programmed for the 15th of July, exactly 63 years after Alicia Alonso danced Giselle together with André Eglevsky at Covent Garden when she was a principal star with the American Ballet Theater. 

The originality of this gala at the Gran Teatro de La Habana lied in the divertissements—inserted between Wayne McGregor’s contemporary ballet Chroma and Frederick Ashton’s neoclassical A Month in the Countryside-—in which dancers from both troupes shared the stage. Ms Mason also dispelled the journalists’ doubts regarding the potential difficulty posed by the different choreographic versions and schools of ballet. “The rehearsers of both companies,” she said, “will work with the dancers and adjust the final product. Dance is a melting pot of art; therefore, it cannot be divided. There are only two types of ballets in the world—good ballets and bad ballets.”

We were able to witness the excellent performance of the fragments selected from Theme and Variations by Federico Bonelli (Italy) and Cubans Anette Delgado and Yolanda Correa, the latter in the Variation, to music by Tchaikovsky. Especially meritorious was English rehearser Christopher Saunders’s performance of Mr. GM in MacMillan’s Manon, where he corroborated his rank as a leading character dancer. 

Next came two well-known and regular pieces in any international arena—the pas de deux from Act III of Don Quixote (Petipa/Minkus with arrangements by John Lanchbery and costume design by Barry Kay), performed by two experts: the Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo (impressive acceleration in her turns and magnificent extensions) and the Cuban Joel Carreño, a gallant and graceful partner, performer of a spectacular coda of jetés manéges.

With the preceding ovations still echoing in our heads came a splendid Viengsay Valdés (National Cuban Ballet) in the role of Odile of the pas de deux from Act III of Swan Lake, together with the prestigious danseur, the Brazilian Thiago Soares (Royal Ballet), as the attentive prince. Both pieces were rehearsed with the customary rigor of the Cuban dancer and teacher Loipa Araújo, together with Alexander Agadzhanov and Roland Price. 

Acting as a catalyst for the emotions caused by the previous performances, the Royal Ballet presented us with their most recent ballet, Les Lutins, choreographed by the Danish Johan Kobborg, and performed by a trio of inspired dancer-actors: Alina Cojocaru, Steven McRae and Sergei Polunin. The violin virtuoso Charlie Siem on stage and Henry Roche at the piano in the pit played the beautiful and difficult music of Henryk Wieniawski.

Alicia Alonso’s emblematic ballet, Giselle, could not be absent from this tribute to the great ballerina. The famous pas de deux from the second act, based on the choreography by Coralli-Perrot and Petipa, and to music by Adolphe Adam revised by Joseph Horovitz was chosen for the occasion. The experienced English rehearsers Lesley Collier and Roland Price contributed to the supreme lightness and vulnerability of Leanne Benjamin’s performance joined by the elegant and attentive Carreño in his second performance of the evening.

Finally, it was pandemonium in the packed theatre when two idols of Cuban ballet lovers came on the stage: Tamara Rojo (in her second performance of the evening) and the exceptional Carlos Acosta in the pas de deux of Le Corsaire, choreographed by Petipa, to music by R. Drigo and original costumes by André Levasseur. Their performance was a dazzling display of technique, with coherence in every gesture and incomparable skill in every movement, including Acosta’s amazing exit with his elevated saut de chat, or cat’s leap.

The ovation granted by the audience for this last performance merged with the closing ceremony of the Royal Ballet’s tribute to Alicia Alonso, who elegantly dressed and escorted by Rojo and Acosta, joined the rest of the dancers on stage. There, Dame Monica Mason greeted Alicia with a great bouquet of roses and a low royal bow.

Although discerning music lovers were not entirely satisfied, the performance of the two Cuban orchestras under the direction of two Englishmen was commendable. Daniel Crapps conducted the Gran Teatro de La Habana’s own symphony orchestra during the first three nights at the Grand Theatre, while Martin Yates conducted the National Symphony Orchestra during the last two nights at the Karl Marx Theatre. The latter played the difficult compositions by Massenet chosen by MacMillan for his Manon (a sublime Tamara Rojo and a grand Alina Cojocaru shared the main role).

Clearly, the Royal Ballet’s visit to Cuba is a milestone in the history of ballet in the island and people will speak of “before the Royal Ballet” and “after the Royal Ballet.”  Despite some reluctance—very little actually—I am completely certain that its presence on the Cuban stage has, artistically and culturally, enriched artists and audiences alike.
April 2015 This article formed part of the March 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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