Cuba’s top ballerina takes reins amid crumbling theatres and talent exodus

Cuba’s top ballerina takes reins amid crumbling theatres and talent exodus

HAVANA, Oct. 23th Cuba’s favourite ballerina, Viengsay Valdés, will run onto the stage of the island’s National Theatre on 2 November, fairly certain it won’t collapse beneath her.Reprising the role of Giselle she first performed 25 years ago, she can’t use Havana’s more glamorous auditorium, the rococo Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, because that is being devoured by woodworm.

“It is a pity because I wish to have the International Ballet Festival there,” she said. “It is the home theatre of [Cuba’s national ballet] company but it has been under repair for a year and a half now.”

The 44-year-old recently took over as director of the storied company and so also director of its biennial ballet festival, which opens this weekend. Her arrival marks a generational shift.

Valdés became director during the pandemic, following the October 2019 death of Alicia Alonso, Cuba’s prima ballerina assoluta, at 98. She now has the task of renewing the ballet’s reputation at a time when Cuba finds itself in a deep economic crisis.

It will not only be the country’s famously enthusiastic audience she faces in this role, but power cuts, food shortages, collapsing theatres and Cuba’s youth fleeing the island.

And if that wasn’t enough, she pointed out: “In the middle of all the preparation I gave birth.”

Valdés was poised and open, sitting in front of a tall sculpture in her office in a colonial townhouse in Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood. Around her were the laughter and shouting of principal dancers in rehearsal.

She said that for over 30 years Alonso had taught her many things, but not how to be a director: “She didn’t teach me that.”

Alonso, a star of the American Ballet Theatre, was asked by the young revolutionary Fidel Castro to create a national company of which Cubans could be proud, but she became 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 toured, performing on the back of a truck to Campesinos who emerged from the cane fields on horseback, wives perched up front.

They created a Cuban style of classical ballet that was unique and set 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 schools of ballet – the English, the Russian, the French, was better suited to Cuba,” said Valdés.

“They also used Cubans’ musicality. That gave us the quality and characteristics to be different.”

Over the decades, however, Alonso’s grip calcified and the company, its young dancers included, became widely seen as a mausoleum of her own making. While the quality of the dancers endured, Alonso’s programmes became an endless tribute to herself.

Many dancers left, but Valdés stayed. “I had an international career,” she said. “I have danced in Japan, I danced in front of the pyramids in Egypt. And then I’d come back and feel so well received. It’s nice to be an ambassador of your country.”

Now she wants to open the company’s dancers to a world of modern dance that has been denied them.

“Dancers need to be versatile, they need to feel the movements of classical, neoclassical and contemporary dance. In the toughest 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 Valdés faces would overwhelm a less resilient figure. Nearly all of Havana’s theatres are unusable, including the Grand Teatro, whose main stage, once named for Garcia Lorca, was renamed for Alonso.

Another huge issue is migration. Since the beginning of the year, almost 200,000 Cubans have crossed into the US alone, close to 2% of the population, often after terrifying journeys. Many are the country’s younger and more ambitious – and they have included 20 dancers from the ballet company.

“Some of the reasons are personal, some economical, some are for the reunification of the family, but they have chosen to take a different way. Now I have 70 dancers, a good number. They are very young, but I want to offer them opportunities. I want to give younger dancers principal roles. That never happened before.”

Cuba’s top ballerina takes reins amid crumbling theatres and talent exodus

Alicia Alonso with Valdes and some of her young dancers. Photograph: Gabriel Davalos

Traditionally, the biennial festival has been a spectacularly dramatic showcase of international talent. Despite the difficulties, it began with stars such as the Bolshoi’s Semyon Chudin and American Ballet Theatre’s Roberto Bolle and concludes in November with a performance of Carmen by Spain’s National Dance Company.

What appeared to excite Valdés the most, however, is the return of dancers who had once left Cuba, such as the Berlin State Ballet’s Yolanda Correa, and Catherine Zuaznabar, a black ballerina who danced with the Ballet Bejart of Lausanne.

Alonso faced a lot of criticism for sidelining black dancers, most famously the great star of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Carlos Acosta, who even made a film including the experience, Yuli. Acosta’s own company, Acosta Dance, will also be performing at the festival.

As if to reinforce the difficulties Valdés faces, the lights went out during her interview with the Guardian – one of the regular blackouts that plague Cuba thanks to a moribund infrastructure.

Unflustered, she gathered herself, preparing to go and rehearse Giselle, the role that originally made Alonso famous. “I am back to dancing, too,” she said.