Yanela Piñera and Alfredo Ibáñez in The Sleeping Beauty.
Photo: Jack Vartoogian.

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba presented La Magia de la Danza at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s Howard Gilman Opera House during a run from June 8-11, 2011, as part of New York’s ¡Si Cuba! Festival. The company, founded by Alicia Alonso and accompanied by the Orquesta Cubano conducted by Giovanni Duarte, suggested nothing more Cuban than in the Spanish names of the performers—i.e, Rodríguez, García, Molina, Gómez. This was traditional, classical ballet in every sense, with excerpts from six of the best-known works in the ballet canon.

No one has done more than Alonso to develop a Cuban ballet company, which she founded in 1948 after a successful career in New York with the American Ballet Theater and as a guest star with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Her company flourished in Havana under the generous cultural aid which Fidel Castro’s government provided to the arts after the revolution of 1959. With state funding her ballet school expanded, and gifted students from all over the country were recruited to study ballet in the classical Soviet style.

The program at BAM mostly featured Alonso’s versions of the works of such traditional choreographers as Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Jean Coralli. The evening was a compendium of excerpts from GiselleThe Sleeping BeautyThe NutcrackerCoppeliaDon Quixote, and Swan Lake—ballet’s greatest hits without any of the boring parts. It was executed with precision and discipline, but almost rigid perfection and little to suggest a specifically Cuban style. Alonso’s interpretations are firmly in the tradition of her predecessors. This is probably intentional, as she is so keenly dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of classical ballet. But the BNC might never produce a superstar despite their competent and credible interpretation of the classics. The troupe seems too constrained and disciplined, too intent on working as a team, to allow for any individual to stand out.

The ominous opening bars of the orchestral introduction in Giselle cued the appearance of the evil spirits, the Wilis—although only a single discreet tombstone suggested the cemetery setting. Perhaps love and passion could have found more of an outlet from beyond the grave, but Anette Delgado as Giselle maintained a grim death mask throughout, while delivering a picture-perfect performance.

In The Sleeping Beauty, with the court resplendent in orange and gold, the prince and princess in white, the music and moves were perfectly aligned and the charm of Princess Aurora (Viengsay Valdés) was conveyed in a wreath of smiles. Also notable was Yanier Gómez in Swan Lake, who made a lasting impression as Prince Siegfried.

The «Waltz of the Flowers» and the «Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy» from The Nutcracker worked its magic for the audience of ballet enthusiasts, who showed their appreciation by applause and cheers. Coppelia, always a crowd pleaser, was a merry version in folkloric costumes. In Don Quixote the group did have a chance to show some Spanish flair, with the bullfighters in red capes, sashes, boleros, and caps, and an intense percussive score, while Swan Lake returned to the well-trained, disciplined, restrained balletic tradition of this troupe.

The performance ended with the only original work created by Alonso: an excerpt from the Gottschalk Symphony called «Creole Party» (with music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the nineteenth-century Caribbean-American composer), which premiered as a ballet at the Gran Teatro de La Habana in 1990. This was not the outburst of enthusiasm and rhythmic intensity that might have been expected in a finale. Does the restrained, controlled, disciplined training suck out the life?

Costume magic was created by four different wardrobe designers: Salvador Fernández, Felix Avila, Ricardo Reymena, and Julio Castaño, while the settings were mostly serviceable and functional backdrops.

The Ballet Nacional de Cuba could challenge itself a little more—more nontraditional repertoire, more racial diversity, more dynamism, more Cubanismo. If it only aspires to be a classical ballet company with its feet firmly planted in the nineteenth century, or a crowd-pleaser that even a schoolchild could love, then it succeeds admirably. As evidenced by the great enthusiasm of the audience, they’ll always be welcome in Brooklyn.