Ballet Company Sets a Trip to Cuba
By PIA CATTON
American Ballet Theater announced Thursday that it will travel to Cuba to dance in the International Ballet Festival of Havana in November. The company last visited Cuba in 1960, at which time ABT was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
The upcoming festival is in honor of the Cuban-born dancer Alicia Alonso, the director of the National Ballet of Cuba, who danced with ABT in the 1940s. Ms. Alonso visited New York this spring to celebrate her 90th birthday with ABT, which held a tribute performance during its 2010 spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company’s invitation to the Havana festival came from Ms. Alonso.
“ABT has for many years seen itself as a cultural ambassador, bringing American ballet to the world,” executive director Rachel Moore said. “Alicia is part of our past, and remains part of our family. There is a special tie with the National Ballet of Cuba.” [BALLETjp] Gene Schiavone
Alicia Alonso is flanked by Jose Manuel Carreo and American Ballet Theater artistic director Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre’s salute to her 90th birthday on June 3.
The New York dance community has made consistent efforts to strengthen ties with Cuba. This will be a return trip for ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, who traveled to Cuba in 1986. Since the mid-1970s, dancers from ABT, New York City Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have made visits to the country.
In 1998, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now known as Ailey II) traveled to Cuba for the Havana festival. Ex-NYCB dancers Damian Woetzel and Lourdes Lopez hold leadership positions with the Cuban Artists Fund, a New York-based nonprofit that fosters exchange programs.
When Ailey II attended the festival, the dancers were invited to take class with Ms. Alonso’s company. “All of the festival people were there taking class,” said Ailey II’s director, Sylvia Waters, who traveled with the company.
“We did a piece by Lar Lubovitch, called ‘Marimba,’ with a score by Steve Reich,” she recalled. “People would come up after and say, ‘What was that music?’ I’m not sure how much they could express, but they would come up after, like it was their secret.”
“The Cuban people need to be able to have contacts with the outside world,” said Francisco Jose Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, adding that travel to Cuba that offers “help, support or cultural relations is welcome and necessary. The isolation of the Cuba people imposed by the Castro regime needs to be changed.”
Dance is effective in that way, said Andrea Snyder, executive director of Dance/USA, a professional-service organization: “Because dance is a nonverbal art form, it carries a unique and precious ability to break down barriers and promote shared experiences.”
To that end, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs teamed up with the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year to create DanceMotion USA. The program sent three companies to tour countries within separate regions: South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. “The feedback was off the charts,” said BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “The idea of this kind of diplomacy is to connect with people on an emotional level.”
The State Department is not funding or involved with ABT’s trip. The costs will be covered by the company’s touring budget. In order for the tour to take place, ABT must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which monitors and enforces U.S. trade sanctions. Special consideration is given to arts and athletic groups.
The company is currently in talks to determine what activities it will engage in while in Cuba Nov. 3-6. Given the short duration and the demands of performance, the visit’s value may be highest in its symbolism, said Margaret Ayers, president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, which studies and funds arts-based international exchange. “While a four-day tour is unlikely to forge the deep links characteristic of longer engagements, the symbolic impact of American Ballet Theater’s participation in the upcoming International Ballet Festival of Havana cannot be overstated,” she said.
During the festival, ABT will dance George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” and Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free.” Dancers will also participate in two gala performances.
Ms. Moore said the company will focus on ballet, not politics: “We’re trying to stay out of the political area and have it be a dialogue between artists.”