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June 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: June 13, 2011
Category: review

Ballet Museum Makes Rare Tour

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK – Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s founding Artistic Director Alicia Alonso, former prima ballerina with the likes of the American Ballet Theater and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, is now nearing 90. Her 52-year-old company, installed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 8 for a rare three-day run, bears the mark of isolation from a half-century of development in the dance world. Compared to today’s warp-speed ballet vocabulary, her choreography is old-fashioned and visually dreary, even on her astounding cadre of dancers.

Their technical strength is rooted in the Russian tradition, which Alonso absorbed in her heyday, and which puts a premium on uniformity (the corps moves with mirror-like synchronicity) and virtuosity (most principals perform triple turns, some do seven). Also like the Russians, Alonso holds fast to the late 19th-century repertory. The program for the company’s four-city U.S. tour was comprised of excerpts from “Giselle,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker,” “Coppélia” and “Don Quixote”—all as staged by Alonso.

A few principals broke through the leaden choreography with their vivacious personalities. One was the young Osiel Gounod, performing Franz in “Coppélia.” With a glowing smile, he finessed ballet steps like an expert surfer riding a gargantuan wave. At one point, he managed to virtually catapult himself into space, just using ballet’s codified lines and shapes. The vibrant sound of the live Orquesta Cubano (conducted by Giovanni Duarte) undoubtedly provided inspiration.

Alejandro Virelles also made a virtuoso showing, as Basil the barber in “Don Quixote.” With panther-like grace, he beat his legs, made multiple revolutions in the air and landed on one knee to salute the audience. Like his colleagues, however, he didn’t seem to care a lick about his character — most disconcerting, since these story ballets require acting as much as impressive technique.

Another stand-out was Yalena Piñera as the Sleeping Beauty. Despite the fact that her partner nearly dropped her in her second of three swan dives, she never lost her cool; her balances and turns never strayed. As the flirtatious Kitri in “Don Quixote,” Viengsay Valdés was girlish, athletic and lithesome, teasing through her pointes and sideways glances. Isabel Santos, on the other hand, the senior ballerina of the company, resembled Alonso in her final dancing days: maximum facial expression, minimal bodily nuance.

The evening ended with Alonso’s “Gottschalk Symphony” (1990), a coda ballet in which eight principals execute brief solos of dastard difficulty — the steps of which they had performed previously as Romantic heroines and heroes. “Gottschalk” included the most inert and constipated conga line this reviewer has ever seen. Did the dancers project their sensuality and individual flare? Not a whit! Taking baby steps and keeping their bodies as erect as rulers, they became cookie cutter personas. The good girls performed with their boss’s signature downward demure glance. The good boys facilitated their partners’ pirouettes, like master potters at their lathes.

The fanciful sets (particularly those of Ricardo Reymena, Isabel Santos and Erick Grass) reflected Cuba’s Caribbean hues of aquamarine and fuchsia. Like the old days, when ballet troupes traveled with the trappings of Barnum & Bailey showbiz, BNC brought seven backdrops and one curtain on their tour, along with 100-odd costumes. It’s certainly a throwback to a time when choreography took a back seat to larger-than-life ballet careers. One can only hope that BNC’s marvelous dancers will one day get a chance to move beyond their leader’s impaired vision.

Musical America


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