Cuba’s favorite dancer, Viengsay Valdés, will take the stage at the Island’s National Theater on November 2, quite certain she won’t collapse under her.
Reprising the role of Giselle she first played 25 years ago, she can’t use Havana’s most glamorous auditorium, the Rococo Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, because it is being devoured by woodworms.
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“It’s a shame, because I would like to have the International Ballet Festival there,” he said. “It’s the home theater of [Cuba’s national ballet] company but has been under repair for a year and a half now.
The 44-year-old recently took over as director of the legendary company and thus also director of its biennial ballet festival, which opens this weekend. His arrival marks a generational shift.
Valdés became director during the pandemic, following the death in October 2019 of Alicia Alonso, the absolute prima ballerina of Cuba, at the age of 98. You now have the task of renewing the reputation of the ballet at a time when Cuba is in a deep economic crisis.
It will not only be the country’s famous and enthusiastic audience that will face in this role, but also power outages, food shortages, collapsing theaters and young Cubans fleeing the island.
And as if that were not enough, he stressed: “In the midst of all the preparation I gave birth”.
Valdés was poised and open, sitting in front of a tall sculpture in his office in a colonial residence in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Around her were the laughter and screams of the main dancers during rehearsals.
She said that in 30 years Alonso had taught her a lot, but not how to be a director: “She didn’t teach me.”
Alonso, a star of the American Ballet Theater, was asked by the young revolutionary Fidel Castro to create a national company that Cubans could be proud of, but has become almost as revered a figure as Castro himself.
In other countries, ballet is seen as an elite art. In Cuba, Alonso and her husband Fernando went on tour, performing in the back of a truck for the campesinos who emerged from the cane fields on horseback, their wives perched in front.
They created a Cuban style of classical ballet that was unique and that put their company alongside the great companies of the world. “Fernando studied the Cuban body, of which Alicia was the perfect model, and decided which of the various ballet schools – English, Russian, French, was best suited to Cuba,” said Valdés.
“They also used the musicality of the Cubans. This has given us the quality and characteristics to be different ”.
Over the decades, however, Alonso’s hold has calcified and the company, including his young dancers, has become widely regarded as a mausoleum of his own making. While the quality of the dancers endured, Alonso’s programs became an endless tribute to themselves.
Many dancers left, but Valdés stayed. “I’ve had an international career,” he said. “I danced in Japan, I danced in front of the pyramids in Egypt. And then I would come back and feel so welcome. It is nice to be an ambassador of your country ”.
Now he wants to open the company’s dancers to a world of modern dance that has been denied them.
“Dancers must be versatile, they must feel the movements of classical, neoclassical and contemporary dance. In the hardest moment of the pandemic, I brought 10 international choreographers to the National Ballet of Cuba. I want to bring a new way of seeing ”.
The problems that Valdés faces would overwhelm a less resilient figure. Almost all of Havana’s theaters are uninhabitable, including the Grand Theater, whose main stage, once named after Garcia Lorca, was renamed Alonso.
Another big problem is migration. Since the beginning of the year, nearly 200,000 Cubans have crossed the United States alone, nearly 2% of the population, often after terrifying journeys. Many are the youngest and most ambitious in the country and have included 20 dancers from the ballet company.
“Some reasons are personal, others economic, others for family reunification, but they have chosen to take a different path. I now have 70 dancers, a good number. They are very young, but I want to offer them opportunities. I want to give the younger dancers leading roles. It had never happened before. “
Traditionally, the biennial festival has been a spectacular and dramatic showcase of international talent. Despite the difficulties, it started with stars like Semyon Chudin of the Bolshoi and Roberto Bolle of the American Ballet Theater and ends in November with a performance of Carmen from the Spanish national dance company.
What seemed to excite Valdés the most, however, is the return of dancers who had once left Cuba, such as Yolanda Correa of the Berlin State Ballet and Catherine Zuaznabar, a black dancer who danced with Lausanne’s Ballet Bejart.
Alonso faced a lot of criticism for putting aside black dancers, the most famous being the great star of the British Royal Ballet, Carlos Acosta, who even made a film that included the experience, Yuli. Acosta’s company, Acosta Dance, will also perform at the festival.
As if to reinforce the difficulties that Valdés faces, the lights went out during his interview with the Guardian, one of the regular blackouts that plague Cuba thanks to a moribund infrastructure.
Not at all flustered, she gathered, preparing to go and rehearse Giselle, the role that had originally made Alonso famous. “I’m back to dancing too,” she said.