One of the world's top ballet companies will stop at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week. But they're not Russian; they're not even European. They hail from Havana, Cuba.
The Cuban National Ballet's production of "The Magic of Dance" will feature the most beloved excerpts from 19th century ballets like "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Coppélia" and "Giselle."
Following its engagement in Orange County, the company will move to Los Angeles to perform "Don Quixote" in its entirety from June 23 to 26.
The company was founded in 1948 by renowned ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso, and has quickly risen to global prominence.
"I think we have a really strong ballet technique at our school," said Viengsay Valdés, prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet. "It's one of the most renowned ballet schools, and all Cuban [male] dancers are very strong. The ballerinas have powerful legs and strong angles and turns and jumps. Plus we have that passion for dance; the musicality."
Alonso, now 90, still serves as choreographer and directs the dancers. In her day, Alonso was one of the world's top prima ballerina assoulatas — the most prestigious title for a dancer. To date, only 11 such ballerinas have been named.
"She's rehearsing with us and teaching us all the time how to respect the styles of each ballet," Valdés said. "She teaches the mise-en-scène, the pantomime; the way that we need to move onstage. Not only for the principals, but especially for the corps de ballet [non-soloist dancers]; how they need to move to support the action that is happening onstage."
Valdés was first "scouted" by Alonso and asked to join the company when she was 17. She quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a principal dancer within a year and developing a reputation for her ability to act out lead tragic characters like Juliet, Giselle and Coppélia while delivering top-notch dance technique to Alonso's exacting standards.
Valdés' routine is strenuous, as can be imagined. In Havana, she said she spends her day in classes, rehearsals and exercise programs. On tour, her days are similar but are punctuated with performances in the evening, minus her friends and family.
Valdés became prima ballerina for the company in 2003, and has since danced in galas for dance companies and organizations around the world, along with her obligations to the Cuban National Ballet.
She listed some of her favorite memories as dancing at the international dance festival in Havana and dancing "Carmen" at the famed Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
"It was one of my most beautiful experiences I had, because there, ballet is so important," she said. "With the Russian companies there, people really appreciate and love the excellent ballet. I also danced in front of the Cairo pyramids. It was difficult to dance outside there, but a huge experience."
In a company where every dancer's name is Cuban, Valdés' first name stands out.
"Viengsay means 'victory' in Laotian; my parents were ambassadors in Laos," Valdés said. She spent her infancy there before her family moved to the tiny Indian Ocean island nation of the Seychelles, where she stayed until she was 6; her family returned to Cuba at this time, and she began her schooling.
"I started first in artistic gymnastics, and then after that I realized that the ballet was a beautiful art," she said. "I really loved dance. I remember when I was a child I danced everything I could — popular dance, ballet, everything; it was really a part of my culture. But with ballet, it's not only about the music; it's also because I can act, and I can interpret, so I like it. That's one of the reasons I started with ballet."
If You Go
Who: Cuban National Ballet
What: "The Magic of Dance"
When: June 15 to 19
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: $17 and up
Information: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org