Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cuban Missiles of the Human Kind: The Ballet Nacional de Cuba's Don Quixote

Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal & Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

The castanets heard clicking through Don Quixote, the ballet that opened at Place des Arts on May 4 for a three-night run, echoed the rat-a-tat-tat of heartbeats thrilling at the return of Ballet Nacional de Cuba to Montreal following a five-year absence. The Ludwig Minkus score might have been canned, but the pulse of the Iberian rhythms felt vivid enough for the capacity audience to stand on its feet and clap along, simulating the passions of the fiery fiesta erupting on stage.

Prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso – and rare is the dancer in the history of ballet who owns that superlative title – created her version of the 19th century classic to restore the ballet to its Latin origins. While based on the Spanish novel that Miguel de Cervantes first published in 1605, Don Quixote has been in foreign hands since first appearing as a ballet in 1869. Transplanted Parisian Marius Petipa adapted Cervantes' story for the Imperial Ballet of Russia, working closely with composer Minkus to produce a four-act Spanish-accented extravaganza that many companies around the globe have since included in their repertoires. Alexander Gorsky updated the Petipa ballet for Moscow in 1900, and this is the version Alonso relied on when creating her version of Don Quixote in 1998. She likely learned it growing up, instructed by Russian teachers.

A born and bred Cuban, the 94-year-old partially-blind ballerina grew up in a communist system heavily influenced by all things Russian and Soviet. Most of her early training was in the Russian school which places emphasis on high extensions and dynamic turns. After founding the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1948, Alonso used the company to help her integrate the precision and purity of the Russian ballet with the extroverted Latino esprit of her home country. The resulting Cuban style, for which Alonso is largely responsible, is now recognized as among the best – if not the most exciting – in the world. Cubans are the new Russians, wonders of the dance world whose increased presence on the world stage is pushing ballet in a new direction. That direction is up. The Cuban style is an elevated style, characterized by earth-defying jumps that appear to hold onto the air along with hummingbird-like beats of the legs and time-stopping balances on pointe. It all adds up to a thrilling evening of dance. The energy buzz enlivens every rank, from corps dancer to soloist and principal dancer. But that's not the only reason Alonso's Don Quixote was so exciting to watch.

Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal & Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

While steeped in the mannerisms of the Russian ballet and retaining some of the old-fashioned look of the original 19th century warhorse, Alonso's Don Quixote, created in tandem with Marta García and Maria Elena Llorente, appeared as a whole new beast for being more faithful to the original text than what has come before. Equal parts robust physicality and spiritual quest, Alonso's version underscores a theme of love as a path to freedom, itself a revolutionary concept. This has been accomplished by heightening the role of Dulcinea, a central character in the book typically diminished in the ballet. In the Petipa/Gorsky version, the feminine ideal, as imagined by the ailing man of la Mancha, is barely seen save for the traditional act two dream scene conjured by the disillusioned knight-errant as he languishes on his death bed. In Alonso's, she is present throughout as a veiled vision of romantic longing who haunts the proceedings as she does in the book, start to finish.

In the dream sequence, Alonso presents Dulcinea in a red dress and veil by costume and set designer Salvador Fernández, a departure from the white-on-white portrait of perfection highlighted in other versions. The Don sees her in his dream, but instead of lying inert at the side of the stage as is the custom, he gets up and dances a pas de deux with her, engaging directly in his own vision. Dulcinea, performed with rippling refinement by the ballerina Ailadi Travieso, dances back-to-back with Kitri, the beautiful village girl who is the spark to Dulcinea's spirit, the corporeal reality challenging the ethereal portrait born of the Don's imagination. The women are mirror images of each other, a portrayal rising naturally from Cervante's original novel, a great work of picaresque fiction in which doppelgängers abound. The deluded yet noble Don Quixote (Adrián Masvidal) finds his own opposite in his pot-bellied sidekick, Sancho Panza (Dairon Darias). In the ballet, these extremes of character are reflected in choreography that combines low-heel character and flashy sword dances with pure expressions of classical ballet performed on pointe.

Exemplifying the latter is one of Cuba's leading dancers, the ballerina Viengsay Valdés who danced the central role of Kitri in Montreal on opening night. Her reputation for technical brilliance preceded her, and on this Canadian tour she more than lived up to the hype. A vivacious dancer with a sultry presence, Valdés fired up the comic role of Kitri with injections of sensuality and spunk, delivering a tour de force performance. Valdés can turn, exceptionally so, and in Don Quixote she executed multiple fouettés that were steady and complete. Throwing herself with seeming abandon into a balance held on the thinnest edge of her satin shoes, Valdés pulled off a show stopper by staying on pointe for what seemed an eternity, supported by nothing more than her own prowess and will power. Impressive. She did several like that, each more remarkable than the last, an achievement that no doubt will see the primera bailarina, one of only four in Cuba, join other ballerina greats in the history books.

Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal & Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Partner Dani Hernández showed Valdés off as if she were a jewel he was lucky to possess. He demonstrated great pride in his attentive partnering, along with a youthful swagger in his step as he held Valdés high with one arm lifts, making the feat look as if nothing. A seasoned dancer deserving of high praise, Hernández performed the role of Basilio, Kitri's barber suitor. In the ballet, Basilio must outmanoeuvre his lover's maneuvering father (Félix Rodríguez) who would rather marry his daughter off to the foppish aristo, Camarcho (a comedic Ernesto Díaz). Hernández made the farce both funny and fascinating to watch as he unleashed a cascade of leaps that propelled him forward to save the (wedding) day. He wasn't the only male dancer to watch.

Dancing the role of the toreador Espada was Ariel Martínez, a gold and silver medal winner at international competitions who many predict will be ballet's next big star. He is only 19, so there's time yet to see if the prediction comes true. But his assertive performance in Montreal made no doubt that he is a force to reckon with. Martínez performed opposite the mesmerizing Estheysis Menéndez in the role of the fan-flicking street dancer, Mercedes. A lyrical and dramatic dancer, Menéndez used her sky-high extensions and whiplash turns to expressive ends, even as she performed a pyrotechnics contest with her dashing partner.

While these days reliant on a wheelchair in order to get around, Alonso made the journey to Montreal to attend the three nights of performances her Nacional Ballet de Cuba presented in the Quebec capital, hosted by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. Before the curtain rose on her highly anticipated production, she waved her hand like a queen from an upper balcony to people cheering her from their seats below.

When the show ended just over two hours later, Alonso stood on stage, assisted by her doting dancers, basking in the glow of a standing ovation that saw the living legend showered with roses and thunderous applause. Her ballet had hit its mark. By making small but essential changes to the danced narrative and amping the adrenaline rush Alonso and her artistic team had established an emotional bond with the audience. The Cubans had come, and they had conquered.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.  

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