The National Ballet of Cuba brings Don Quixote to Vancouver
During her 17 years with the National Ballet of Cuba, prima ballerina Viegnsay Valdés has accumulated enough stamps in her passport to make Madonna jealous, having performed everywhere from Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London to an open-air stage beneath the Sphinx. What strikes the Havana native every time she visits Canada and the United States, however, is the way the arts just aren’t a way of life as they are in the home of Fidel Castro and Cohibas.
“Culture is very important, and it’s at the level of the people; taking part is something everyone is encouraged to do,” Valdés says in a phone interview during a tour stop in Victoria. “Everyone who wants to see the ballet can afford a ticket; it’s about 50 cents or a dollar for a ticket. Shows are sold out, and the audiences in Cuba are really knowledgeable. They’re demanding but they appreciate every detail.
“It’s not only about work and routine every day then going home to take dinner,” Valdés adds in heavily accented English. “It’s about having a life, to have those feelings that you experience when you watch a live performance. You can grow up that way; you can dream. It’s not just ballet; it’s music, painting… The arts are very popular here.”
Some would argue that’s an understatement.
Speaking to the New York Times about Cuban dancers recently, Mikhail Baryshnikov was quoted as saying: “There every taxi driver knows the names of the dancers. This is unheard of. Try it in New York.”
Vancouverites have the chance to see Valdés in the flesh when the National Ballet of Cuba comes to town for the first time to perform its signature piece, Don Quixote. Choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Alicia Alonso, and based on the 1869 original by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, it’s set to Viennese composer Ludwig Minkus’s score, which will be performed live by the Vancouver Opera Orchestra.
Valdés plays Kitri, a young innkeeper’s daughter whose father tries to stop her from marrying her beloved Basilio, a barber. It’s a role she’s especially passionate about.
“It’s one of my favourites,” says Valdés, whose first name means victory in Laotian. (Her parents were the first Cuban ambassadors to Laos and moved there when Valdés was a newborn, returning to Cuba after working there and in the Seychelles.) “I’ve become quite famous for it.”
A reviewer for the Guardian newspaper described a 2006 performance like this: “Valdés, apparently in league with the devil—or with ball bearings fitted in the pointes of her shoes—whirled through countless fouettées before pulling off a series of phenomenal balances.…The audience, barely able to believe what they were seeing, bayed like a football crowd.”
Like Valdés, ballet dancers from Cuba are known for their extraordinary skill—which is why so many of them successfully find work in other parts of the world. (Some do so with permission, some don’t; last year five NBC members defected in Montreal. It’s a subject Valdés asks not to discuss.)
Besides technical precision, what makes the National Ballet of Cuba’s version of Don Quixote distinct is the way the dancers infuse it with the kind of fire Latin lovers are famous for.
“The way that Cuban dancers dance is completely different than others,” Valdés says. “Musicality, rhythm is in our blood; we look deeply into each other’s eyes to create passion on-stage. Even though this is a classical ballet and a romantic style, in the end the Cubans’ sensuality stands out.”
Valdés credits the dancers’ strengths to the guidance they’ve received over the years from company cofounder Alonso.
A legendary dancer, Alonso worked in New York for years before returning home to help start the National Ballet of Cuba in 1948. Nearly a decade later, El Comandante himself, wanting to make the arts available to everyone, injected money—and new life—into the company. It’s housed in the Great Theatre of Havana in the Palace of the Galician Centre, an elaborate building and tourist attraction in its own right.
According to the company’s website, while Castro is known as the country’s political father, Alonso is considered its cultural mother. Now 91, she has the rare title of “prima ballerina assoluta” (meaning absolute or supreme) and continues to direct the troupe.
“I’ve learned so much from her,” Valdés says. “She’s all about the artistic details: how to move the arms, how to respect the style of each ballet, how to bring out the ballet’s distinct qualities, how to be as expressive as an actor. She’s an inspiration to us all.”
Alonso was also admired by David Y.H. Lui, the late impresario and arts producer. In fact, bringing the National Ballet of Cuba to Vancouver was his vision—hence the reason the shows here are being dedicated to him. He died last fall of cancer.
Vancouver dance producer Brent Belsher explains that his late friend and business partner had long wanted to meet Alonso. Although his health was starting to decline, Lui went to Montreal to see the company perform Giselle around this time last year.
“Alicia fell in love with him and the company fell in love with him; they would have dinner after the shows,” Belsher says in a phone interview. “He was there for the whole weekend and went to all five shows. He got his chutzpah back. He was back in his game.
“It was his idea to have the Vancouver Opera Orchestra play live. He wanted to do it right. He said, ‘This is going to be my last kick at the can,’ ” Belsher adds. “That takes a lot of nerve and passion and guts.”
The National Ballet of Cuba performs Don Quixote at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Thursday to Saturday (February 16 to 18).