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Castro’s Cuba Is an Unlikely Island of Superb Classical Ballet

WASHINGTON POST

The cabdriver knows exactly whom you’re talking about. “Ah, Sarabita, the ballet dancer!” he exclaims when you mention Rolando Sarabia, a rising young star of Cuba’s National Ballet. The dimpled 18-year-old is so popular that his fans have glued the suffix of endearment, -ita, onto his name like a kiss.

The scene at the National Theater on a brilliant Saturday afternoon is even more astonishing. Sarabia is debuting, in “Don Quixote,” and the theater is mobbed. Not just with graying, well-heeled theatergoers but with scores of young people, many no older than Sarabia himself: beautiful young women in short skirts, guys in T-shirts and jeans.

For Cubans, it seems, ballet is no elitist art form: Tickets are cheap, performances are plentiful and crowds are appreciative. Witness Sarabia’s dazzling flourish to end a devilish combination--is it nine pirouettes or 10? He is a whirling blur until his raised leg shoots out like a switchblade, carrying him around for one last revolution. As he lands smoothly on one knee, hundreds of throats roar at once with a force so deafening you fear for the plaster.

It is a rock-star roar. A home-run roar. A 15th-round-knockout roar. And it fills the theater again and again. In a country where, many Cubans say, you learn to dance before you learn to walk, ballet has gradually become a passion comparable to baseball and boxing. A smart program of public education and performances in the provinces--in the sugar cane fields, even--has produced a nation of knowledgeable balletgoers and a world-class company.

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Imagine: a small tropical island competing for medals against the mighty Russians--and winning. And sending dancers such as Jose Manuel Carreno and Carlos Acosta into the top tiers of the world’s leading ballet companies. (Carreno is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre; Acosta stars with the Royal and Houston ballets.)

This marvel has happened because of one woman, a ballerina of surpassing technical strength, who began losing her eyesight at the apex of her career and danced on even after she was virtually blind. Who convinced Fidel Castro, fresh from his victorious revolution, that what their island needed was a premier ballet company and a national training system to feed it.

Alicia Alonso had inspired such choreographers as Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille and George Balanchine. She became a national heroine when she left American Ballet Theatre to build the company in her homeland, along with her then-husband, Fernando Alonso. The ensemble she founded in 1948 now numbers some 70 dancers and tours frequently.

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The Cuban National Ballet is also perhaps the most prominent racially mixed classical ballet company. While its numbers of Afro-Cubans aren’t exactly in proportion to Cuba’s population, they far exceed the number of black dancers in any other leading troupe. Acosta is the only black ballet dancer of his international stature, period.

The company has built a worldwide reputation for the power of its male virtuosos. In a country that venerates machismo, attracting boys to ballet can be a chore, but the company has always managed to do it.

Even if it meant raiding orphanages to find them.

Throughout Havana, ornate buildings peel and crumble from lack of maintenance. But every summer the ballet company’s studios are repaired and painted. In one office, shuttered against the sunlight, Alonso sits behind a large desk empty but for a few porcelain figurines. With pale, powdery skin and black hair pulled back under a scarf, Alonso looks younger than her 80 years. She removes her customary Jackie O sunglasses.

She says she can see a bit out of one eye, just shadows, mostly. But blindness, and the arthritis that makes walking difficult, hardly interfere with her work. She fully controls her company, though she leaves the technical training to her teachers. What concerns her most is philosophy.

On male dancers: “We teach first the style of the different ballets, and second, to dance with movement that is stronger and more sharp and vigorous than the woman. And he must be conscious that he is dancing with a woman as a partner, must treat her as something delicate. So that the dance of men and women is a contrast.”

On what distinguishes Cuban ballet dancers: “It is the musical accent that we give which is different. And it is also how quick we move, how big the extension is in the woman, how we balance and turn.”

What her dancers lack in finesse they supply in bravura, and this is Alonso’s bequest.

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“I had the strongest technique in the United States,” she declares. (Who can say, but she was surely among the standouts of her era.) “Dancers of today are paying for my technique. They inherited it.

“Oh, my goodness gracious, what I’ve done to the dancing world!”

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“Dance is in our skin and in our blood,” says Ismael Albelo, a specialist in dance for the Cuban ministry of culture. “It’s part of our identity, a very important part of our identity. The two cultures that formed our identity are dancing ones.”

Albelo is referring to the Spanish, who conquered Cuba in the 15th century, and to the African slaves brought in to work the land. Rumba and salsa, among other music and dance styles, grew out of this heritage.

Ballet, however, has shallower roots.

Touring groups came to Cuba as early as the mid-1800s, when the jewel of Austrian ballet, Fanny Elssler, performed in Havana. Legend has it that her carriage was pulled through the streets by her newly bewitched fans.

But Ballet Alicia Alonso was one of Cuba’s first classically oriented dance companies, making its first professional appearance on Oct. 20, 1948--a date that for years has marked the opening of Havana’s biennial International Festival of Ballet.

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Known worldwide, Alonso had a flourishing U.S. career as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. But in 1950 she opened a school, and her focus became building ballet in Cuba, and on being its diva.

Castro’s 1959 revolution brought about what former ballerina Loipa Araujo calls “our big luck--a government that would support dance. We had the possibility to just think about ballet, and not worry about anything.”

With secure funding, the school began to expand. Talent scouts were sent all over the island seeking students.

All the provinces had feeder schools, training children from the first through fifth grades. Those selected can attend one of the two middle schools in Havana and Camaguey. Another round of auditions leads to the upper school in Havana, from which dancers are chosen for the company.

Like all schooling in this communist country, ballet training is free. It is taught as a profession; many parents see it as their children’s path out of poverty.

Carlos Acosta wouldn’t have set foot on stage if not for the free education. The youngest of 10 children, he was sent to ballet school by his truck driver father in hopes he might emerge with a paycheck.

Dancers are paid well by Cuban standards: about $25 a month, as much or more than doctors and many professionals make. They enjoy high public status but must endure many of the same difficulties of daily life, such as food rationing and long lines for buses, as anyone else. Dancers can earn vastly more in guest appearances abroad, though this involves the complicated process of paying a certain percentage of earnings in taxes and to the company.

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Amid Cuba’s economic travails, the Cuban National Ballet is a company in a state of suspended animation: it pays rigorous respect to ballet history, and is scrupulously attentive to the differences in style between a romantic ballet like “Giselle” and a classical one like “Swan Lake,” or one with Spanish flair, such as “Don Quixote.” These are distinctions that are sadly blurred in many upper-echelon companies.

But that also makes the company somewhat stodgy. Attempts at contemporary choreography are naive at best. The repertoire reflects the same isolationism that characterizes the island.

Primero bailarine Oscar Torrado, who is Spanish, welcomes the emphasis on classics. “In Spain we don’t have a classical company. It’s a terrible thing,” he says. “Here, the classical repertoire is very complete. In the world, classical ballet has disappeared.”

Other dancers express impatience to learn more forward-looking choreography. And the trickle of dancers to the United States and Europe continues.

Sarabia is biding his time. “I would like to be on some other stages, maybe with the Royal Ballet or ABT,” he says. “I would like to work in other companies but still come here from time to time to dance, like Jose Manuel and Carlos Acosta.

“I want to stay here,” he says, smiling, “but I would like to learn some other styles.”


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