August 25, 2010

Excerpt: Cuban Ballet by Octavio Roca

[excerpted from Octavio Roca’s Introduction to his Cuban Ballet, with forewords by Alicia Alonso and Mikhail Baryshnikov]:

(In this brief section, Octavio Roca takes note, that in ballet today, Latins are the new Russians—their impact is comparable to that of the Soviet defectors who changed the face of dance in the 1970s and ‘80s, and their incomparable style and sabor also is adding new flavors to the dazzling work in progress that is American culture):

“The phenomenon embodied by the Feijóo sisters—from their respective home bases far from Havana in San Francisco and Boston as well as on their world tours alongside dancers from the Cuban diaspora—is changing the face of ballet in the twenty-first century. The sisters are a sign of the times. After nearly half a century of defections from Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Cuban dancers and teachers are exerting a powerful influence on American and world dance that brings to mind the profound impact Russian dancers brought to the West as their defections mounted in the dusk of the Soviet empire. These dancers are creating for the world the beauty they too often cannot make in their homeland.

“The growing diaspora of Cuban defectors everywhere is giving the tropical island a cultural importance that is miraculously disproportionate to its size. The entire Cuban population of eleven million could fit comfortably in greater Moscow, London, or New York. In addition to Lorena Feijóo and Lorna Feijóo, principal dancers from Cuba today star in the American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Miami City Ballet as well the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, Houston Ballet, London's Royal Ballet, Vienna State Opera Ballet, Buenos Aires' Ballet del Teatro Colón, and many other major troupes. Cuban ballet teachers, all formed in the rigorous pedagogical tradition of Alicia and Fernando Alonso, head faculties from the Royal Danish Ballet to La Scala, from Madrid to Mexico City, from Buenos Aires to Paris. The Paris Opera Ballet School, in 2003, sent a team of observers to Havana to study the teaching methods of Alicia Alonso's National School of Ballet.

(Here, also from the introduction to Cuban Ballet by Octavio Roca, the author touches on a theme developed throughout his book, that the global phenomenon embodied by Cuban dancers today—as well as their heartbreaking, life-affirming stories—is not at all limited to dance inside Cuba. Even a casual YouTube search will confirm that Cuban culture is a culture in exile, and it is alive and thriving in these amazing dancers. Ballet, an old art from the Old World is decidedly being revitalized in the New World by these beautiful Hispanics in the 21st century. These dancers are today’s ambassadors of Latin culture at its finest. Cuban Ballet is an intensely personal account of these stories—there is no other way the Cuban Octavio Roca could tell it ):

“Alicia Alonso’s lessons do not stop with Alicia Alonso. Of course, her example continues to represent a blueprint for Cuban greatness in dance—this is what a Cuban dancer looks like, this is what the New World can give back to the Old. But beyond Cuba, in fact especially in the Cuban Diaspora, what these Cuban dancers have done and continue to do is one of the most entertaining and exhilarating spectacles of dance in our time. What has been done to them, to all of us exiles, is cruel. That exile is for so much of the world a natural condition is little consolation. But the consolation is there, in our imaginations. Reinaldo Arenas once told me, far from the tropics and sitting in his cramped Hells’ Kitchen walk-up in New York, that they had taken away his beloved Caribbean Sea but now he had the freedom to imagine it, to create it anew. He did just that, and his impossibly beautiful oeuvre stands as a monument of hope and possibility in Latin American arts.

“That hope is alive in a generation of Cuban dancers in exile. There is, of course, a danger of perennial mourning for the path not taken—a danger to which both those who stayed and those who left may be vulnerable. What would have happened had these dancers not had to leave their country? What an even greater company the Ballet Nacional de Cuba might have been without Cuba’s long nightmare? But with José Martí we say, “No vamos a preguntar, sino a responder,” “Let us not ask, but answer.” What a gift to the world it has been that these dancers enrich and will continue to enrich one company after another around the world.  That is our answer.  There is vital momentum to their living history, there is hope. That, too, is our answer. They are exiles, artists who freely take up the sacerdotal responsibility of an art that becomes universal precisely because it remains so defiantly Cuban. It is a responsibility taken up not so much by followers of the Cuban School of Ballet as by heroes and heroines in their own right, creating new worlds of dance even as they struggle to keep their own identities as Cuban artists. There is a sacrament of kindness bestowed in all its holiness each time they step on stage. They dance with a Cuban accent, and their dance is at home in the world.

“Lorena Feijóo and Lorna Feijóo, Jorge Esquivel, Osmay Molina, Joan Boada, the ever-growing number of Carreños from Lázaro and Alvaro up to Alihaydée, José Manuel and Joel, Rolando Sarabia and Daniel Sarabia, Xiomara Reyes, Carlos Miguel Guerra, Miguel Angel Blanco, Luis Serrano, Isanusi García Rodríguez, Carlos Quenedit, Hayna Gutiérrez, Adiarys Almeida, Gema Díaz, Cervilio Amador, Taras Domitro, and so many more dancing in Havana but soon to arrive on foreign shores as I write this, all of them are improbably at ease while splendidly, heroically creating a Cuban culture in the absence of the free Cuba they deserve.  In the process, they are enriching the lands where at first they were strangers. American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Joffrey Ballet Chicago, Houston Ballet, Washington Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden and many more companies all are better for it, and different for it.

“There is beauty in the arduous, unwilling, often unacknowledged transformation of temporary exile into permanent immigration. There certainly is artistic fervor in these lives. This may offer little solace, an unsatisfactory substitute for the land we lost. But what a surprise it can be to find these labors are now part of the culture of new lands we might call our own.  Again let us remember Jose Martí’s dictum, that “Hacer es la mejor manera de decir,”  “Doing is the best way of saying.”  Just as Alicia Alonso once refused to recognize her blindness as a brutal limitation for her art, dancers in the Cuban diaspora refuse to recognize the loss of their homeland.  They are Cuban artists and they are free.  What they do with what has been done to them is a touching, gripping tale. Theirs is a bittersweet victory, or perhaps just a sign of the inexorable momentum of history. Theirs is above all a true tale of the greatness of the human soul, of the indomitable spirit of dance. This is their story.

About the Author:

Octavio Roca has been music and dance critic for The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Miami New Times. He wrote Scotto, More Than A Diva, and his works for the stage include commissioned translations of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, Mascagni's Our Friend Fritz, Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, and Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, as well as the original libretto for Lucia Hwong's oratorio The Unwelcome Rhythm of Your Pulse. He studied at Emory University and Georgetown University, has taught philosophy at the University of Miami and Barry University, has lectured on the arts at the Smithsonian Institution and at the Catalan Theater Institute of the University of Barcelona, and is now chair of the Arts and Philosophy Department at Miami Dade College. He was born in Havana and presently lives in Miami Beach, where he used to be a lifeguard a while back.
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