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Revolutionary Moves

Change is in the air in Castro's Cuba. Can legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso keep her Havana-based National Ballet vital in these volatile political and economic times?

January 11, 1998|Jordan Levin | Jordan Levin is a Miami-based dance writer

HAVANA — Tall trees have overtaken Calzada Street, in this city's Vedado district. Their roots have buckled the sidewalks, and more tropical greenery envelops the dilapidated fronts of mansion after mansion. Once-immaculate white stucco is cracked and stained, elaborately carved stone balconies crumble at the edges, and curling ironwork fences are rusty and bent. Before the Cuban Revolution, this was a fashionable and privileged neighborhood, Havana's Beverly Hills. Now the balconies are draped with laundry, as people make do in palatial homes that no one has the resources to maintain.

Just off the corner of Calzada and E streets, a small white sign in front of a turn-of-the-century convent quietly announces one of the revolution's showcase accomplishments: the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, founded by legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso and renowned for its Made in Cuba passion and pride.

A tall arched entryway leads through a dark hallway and into a sunlit interior courtyard, where grass springs between cracked pavers and dancers lounge on rusty wrought iron, talking and smoking. Off the courtyard, sunlight streams through open wood-slatted French doors into a soaringly high-ceilinged studio, revealing every crevice in the plaster walls. As the company's men sail through jetes in morning class, the floor vibrates alarmingly. A shaggy dog trots blithely out of a corner door and past them. In an upstairs studio, the women's bodiesecho the building's elegant lines--the graceful tilt of their heads, the long flow of their legs and precisely arched feet--though their vitality is sharply at odds with the surrounding air of shabby, makeshift practicality.

Inside a pair of shuttered doors, just past the entryway, is the company office, presided over by a vigilant secretary who guards yet another set of doors leading to the inner sanctum--Alonso's office.

A Cuban cultural icon, Alonso, 77, rules her company as she once ruled the stage--imperiously. Nearly sightless even in her prime 40 or 50 years ago, she receives visitors from behind a massive wooden desk, her head wrapped in a brilliant red scarf, her dark eyes dramatically lined in black and her lips in scarlet. For some 40 minutes she sits nearly immobile, her few gestures studied and theatrical, poses carefully struck within a small space around her. Her words, too, are studied.

"The life of an artist is not to be in a closed room," she says dramatically, without irony, in her heavily accented English, "it is to give your art all over the world."

In fact, outside the bubble of charisma and control in Alonso's office, the 120-member company she has built is preparing to do just that. The dancers are rehearsing "Giselle" for a December run in Havana, while the casting lists have been posted and the scenery shipped for a U.S. tour of the company's new "Cinderella," choreographed in 1996 by Pedro Consuegra, which opens Jan. 20 in Costa Mesa. It is the Cubans' first appearance in the United States since 1979.

And the company's momentum echoes outside the convent walls. Change is rocking Havana. Now 71, Castro cannot guarantee that the social and political edifice he has built will outlast him, and no one can say what shape it will take after him. Alonso's company, a godchild of the revolution--state supported and sponsored--will have to change as well.

But in her quiet office and behind her desk, Alonso avoids the subject.

"Ah, ah, ah," she says with an admonishing wag of a finger. "I cannot talk about politics. I can talk about art."

She is determinedly, ingenuously, optimistic. "The future of this company is like the horizon. It is always in front of us. How can we say what will be there?"

And while she won't discuss what will happen next, she is proud of what has gone before.

"Why did I start a company in Cuba?" she asks rhetorically. "Because I thought it was very important to bring culture to the people. The arts are essential to human beings, and dance is an art that expresses everything. Cuba deserved a company, it deserved a school. And I was right! Today we have one of the best companies in the world, and one of the best schools in the world, and a tremendous amount of talent. So that proves I was right!"

In the upstairs studio, Josefina Mendez--recently retired as one of the National Ballet's "Four Jewels," its four leading ballerinas after Alonso--eyes the corps with an intensity bred by 43 years of performing. "Pssst! Pssst! Gypsy!" she says, employing the incongruous (to American ears) Cuban hiss for attention. "Lift your leg!"

"Float, float!" she calls, as the dancers bourree out in the ghostly Wilis' entrance in "Giselle." "Make the fifth beautiful! Softly! Smoothly! Look at each other!"

The dancers stretch in visible effort, surging with group energy. As Mendez tells them their motivation for hurling an unfortunate character to oblivion, she goes into a kind of sing-song exhortation, softly tossing her head and hands in rhythm with her words.

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