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Havana en pointe

Times Staff Writer

In a tradition dating back to the royal courts of Europe, the National Ballet of Cuba opened its 19th biennial Ballet Festival on Thursday with a grand defile: a hierarchical parade of dancers beginning with 25 of the youngest children from the company school.

Wearing costumes of black and/or white, waves of dancers crossed the stage of the antique Gran Teatro Sala Garcia Lorca, growing older, bigger, more familiar until the current stars appeared, one by one, to screams and bravos. Finally, to a standing ovation and a ritual obeisance from the entire cast, Alicia Alonso entered at the back of the stage -- at 83 still indomitably the director general, ballet mistress and principal choreographer of what keeps proving itself one of the world’s great classical ensembles.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 30, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Cuban ballet -- In some copies of today’s Calendar section, a photo caption with an article about a ballet festival in Havana says that Alicia Alonso founded Cuba’s National Theater. She founded the National Ballet of Cuba.

Although Alonso’s festival showcases -- and tests -- her company in a daunting schedule of premieres and revivals, an array of stellar guests and visiting companies will add luster and variety to this year’s 10-day event, which has brought ballet lovers from around the globe here to gauge the state of the art and, perhaps, be among the first to discover some legend in the making. The guest artists include the already legendary Carla Fracci (still dancing at 68), four major artists from England’s Royal Ballet and top-of-the-roster ambassadors from major ballet institutions in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

In the past, the Washington Ballet, Ailey II and a few other U.S. companies have graced the proceedings, but that was before the Bush administration’s recent tightening of restrictions on travel to and business with Cuba. As a result, a planned engagement by a contingent from New York City Ballet was canceled, and the only trace of U.S. involvement will be the performances of two dancers from the Houston Ballet -- neither of them American citizens.

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With or without Yanquis, however, Alonso will present one gala celebrating the centennial of the birth of choreographer George Balanchine and another honoring flamenco icon and friend of the Cuban revolution Antonio Gades, who died earlier this year.

Beyond the galas lie familiar repertory with unfamiliar festival casting. Often teaming Cuban principals with foreign guests, performances of full-length classics (“Giselle,” “Don Quixote,” “Swan Lake”) are taking place at 5 each evening in the grimly modern concrete-and-glass National Theater. Mixed bills at the Lorca go on at 8:30 -- but so do programs by various companies, foreign and domestic, at the Mella, an exotic venue with a proscenium in the shape of a conch shell.

Of course, it’s impossible to see everything, even if you ignore 17 collateral activities (films, exhibitions of photographs, displays of handicrafts, collections of stage designs, galleries of paintings) related to ballet in general or Alonso’s career in particular. In a sense, each festival recaps that career by emphasizing the classical legacy that she brought to Havana when she founded this company in 1948 while still a great star at American Ballet Theatre.

Her versions of the classics and her new works punctuate the festival repertory. Moreover, excerpts from works associated with her -- from her evocation of 19th century ballet glamour in “Le Pas de Quatre” to the 20th century neoclassical glitter of Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” (choreographed for her) -- made the opening gala Thursday a personal statement.

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Cuban dancers may be internationally celebrated for emotional intensity and technical flamboyance, but nearly every piece on this seven-part program emphasized traditional classical values, with the most pristine elegance and unblemished refinement continually sought for but largely hovering just out of reach.

The highlights were certainly high enough -- phenomenal pirouettes by Rolando Sarabia and fouettes galore by Alihaydee Carreno in the “Coppelia” pas de deux, for instance.

But even the enchanting softness and fluidity of Sadaise Arencibia in the duet from Frederick Ashton’s “Les Patineurs” couldn’t make this excerpt work as a satisfying stand-alone showpiece. And despite the highest, straightest split-jumps imaginable by Joel Carreno, the new Jelko Yuresha staging of Anton Dolin’s “Variations for Four” needed lots more rehearsal to merge the talents of male virtuosi of varying talents and experience.

Besides Sarabia and Arencibia, the major discoveries of the evening -- for those who had seen the Cubans only on recent U.S. tours -- included Alejandro Virelles, like Sarabia a dancer of impeccable style and exemplary line who gave the nonstop technical display of the Dolin quartet a luxurious illusion of ease.

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If Alihaydee Carreno excelled, as usual, in assignments blending soubrette charm with technique of steel, Viengsay Valdes excelled, as usual, in take-no-prisoners power and technical authority. These values lent a chill to the “Theme and Variations” duet Thursday, but the company as a whole made the finale warmer and more conventionally thrilling.

The big exception to the program’s emphasis on classical purity came in a dark, incomprehensible excerpt from “Manita en el suelo,” an interspecies dance-drama by Alonso’s grandson, Ivan Monreal Alonso.

Ivan del Prado led the orchestra expertly, though Havana brass remains as unreliable as the weather.


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