Friday, July 16, 2004

Cuba's Brilliant Ballerinas Wow Dance World

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - From a dilapidated Havana mansion run by a nearly blind legendary ballerina, Cuba is turning out some of the world's finest ballet dancers who are hotly sought by leading international companies.

Trained by 83-year-old ballet great Alicia Alonso at the National Ballet of Cuba, the dancers blend joyful Cuban sensuality and a superb classical training combining Russian, French and English techniques. The combination has stunned audiences and won them critical acclaim.
Their success reflects the remarkable development of an elitist art form in communist-run Cuba, an island of 11 million where defections have added to a drain of talent. Carlos Acosta, a lead dancer with London's Royal Ballet, was named Britain's best dancer last season by ballet critics. The 31-year-old mulatto, who rose from the streets of Havana to dance his own choreography on a London stage, has been acclaimed as a bridge between Nureyev and Baryshnikov for his technical virtuosity and raw athleticism.

Jose Manuel Carreno, a principal with the American Ballet Theater of New York, was called "a cross between a cat-like animal and a prince" by the company's director. Several top U.S. companies have Cubans among their principal dancers. Lorna Feijoo and her husband Nelson Madrigal perform with the Boston Ballet and her sister Lorena Feijoo is with the San Francisco Ballet, where Cuban Jorge Esquivel is one of the ballet masters. "We have something different. We were trained to be very virile and gallant," Carreno said on vacation in Havana. Carreno won the 2004 Dance Magazine Award for contributions to ballet. The U.S. magazine praised his "incredible magnetism and astonishing technique" and said the 36-year-old was as "sensually passionate" as Rudolf Nureyev. He was the first Cuban to win the award since Alonso, Cuba's prima ballerina assoluta, did so in 1958.


One of ballet's greatest, Alonso danced in New York in the 1940s and virtually owned the role of Giselle at her prime. Despite failing eyesight due to detached retinas, she danced until she was almost 70. With the support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro (news - web sites) since 1959, Alonso and her former husband Fernando Alonso turned the national ballet Cuba into a world-class company which she continues to direct, even though she does not see and has trouble walking.
"We Cubans were born to dance as a people, thanks to the mix of races, the Spanish and the African, both lovers of dance," she said. "Cuban dancers immediately stand out with their expressive way of performing the great classics or the moderns."

At a rehearsal of "Cinderella," a Cuban concoction based on Johann Strauss's score, dancers soared through the air practicing jumps on the linoleum of her company's dance studio on the top floor of a century-old mansion. With her trademark scarf and dark glasses, Alonso directed the rehearsal from an arm-chair with the aid of an assistant who whispered in her ear. "Comrades, to one side. I want to see the scene with the carriage and horses," she said to the company.


Last year, Alonso toured the United States with new dancers in her troupe and impressed audiences with an exuberant version of "Don Quixote" in New York and other cities. The lead roles were danced by Viengsay Valdes, 27, and Joel Carreno, Jose Manuel's brother, whom Dance Magazine called a "master premier dancer in the making."

The tour's brilliance was overshadowed by the defection of five lesser-known dancers. Two of them, Adiarys Almeida and Cervilio Miguel Amador, both 20, were taken up as soloists by the Cincinnati Ballet. For Alonso, the defection of dancers who had received nine years of free training, was "painful." But there is no shortage of up-and-coming dancers in Cuba, where children are hand-picked for free ballet training at an early age following the Soviet system and the National Ballet School turns out 40 professionals a year.

The opportunity to join foreign companies is a big incentive for members of the National Ballet of Cuba, where a top dancer's pay is about $50 a month. Stars like Acosta and Carreno, who earns up to $10,000 for a one-night gala appearance, recognize their debt to Cuba. Most left legally and maintain ties to the homeland, returning to perform at the Havana Ballet Festival every two years.

"Classical training is very expensive in other countries. I come from a poor family and had the good fortune to go to ballet school in Cuba," said Carreno. Carreno started dancing at age 10 and joined Alonso's company right out of high school. He will dance Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Milan's La Scala opera house with Alessandra Ferri in January.

"Everywhere you go you will find a Cuban doing something well on stage," said 18-year-old Canadian dancer Carolyn Rose Ramsay from Vancouver auditioning to join the National Ballet of Cuba for a year to boost her resume. "Cuban ballet is so good. All the Cubans who are going out into the world have strength and vitality."

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Dancing and everything that it entails

by: Shlomo Sher

There are not enough seats for entertaining guests in my living room. We either crowd around the eating/writing table or find some sort of not-quite-comfortable arrangement that combines the sofa, lone chairs and standing up. Of course, I could always easily rectify the situation. I could buy a love seat and a coffee table, or at least a comfortable chair to face the sofa, but I won’t. The space is just much too precious. I need it for dancing.

I had never been to a school dance before I was 17. I was too shy. I had no idea how to dance, no rhythm, and no lack of self-conscious shame about the whole thing. But, as a late blooming dancer, I began to pick up a few moves and before long was practicing the popular dances of the time alone in my room: the Heavy-D shake, the running man, the roger rabbit, etc. and eventually hand stands, flips and rolls. I needed the space and practiced in the large room my brother and I shared at that time. My friend’s mother was a sweatshop seamstress and she made matching dancing outfits for us (diaper pants and all) which we would wear to parties and dances, where we’d sometimes battle other contenders.A year later, I left all that hip-hop pop behind me. I’d light a candle in the middle of the studio apartment I shared with my little brother and dance in the shadows to the Doors in movements about as sincerely spiritual as I’ve ever been capable of releasing.

Shortly after, I reached the apex of my solo dancing days. Every muscle of fiber was under my control after two hits of acid in the days when Raves where still called Acid Houses. Back then, I was so full of the energy and curiosity of youth that I could dance for 6 hours straight with incredible intensity and insatiable fascination with my body’s sensual possibilities. I’d dance with my eyes closed and get lost in the fluidity of Heraclitus’ river… I’d forget myself, forget the world around, and let Dionysus speak through me…And what a contrast those nights were with the heights of my mid-90s depressions. I’d light my room full of candles, lock myself in and dance in slow gothic rapture to Dead Can Dance. I couldn’t actually get myself to cry, but I could cry through my dance. I could also hope through it. I’d stretch my hand and reach out for help. I would search for and find solace in the beauty of sadness (oh, Portishead) and caress it and bring it to me, deep inside where my soul could remember. I knew I wasn’t the only one. I found peace in dancing alone among the many before, after, and elsewhere who danced alone beside me.

This is, related only in an unjustifiably limited way, the affect dancing alone has had on my life. These are merely a few random bits, really. For me, so often the first or the only on any dance floor, dancing alone had become the most intimate form of self-expression. And as Freud’s cultural descendants, we all know - self-expression is necessary for self-liberation, self-expression is necessary for mending the soul, self-expression is necessary for celebrating life right. Can a life’s worth be judged on the basis of whether or not it’s worth dancing your way through?

* * *
Dancing is one of those things so intrinsically and instinctively connected with being human that as far as I know no culture has ever not had some form of dancing one could participate in - either within a group, as a couple, or by yourself. A few random examples that come to mind are European Waltzes, Medieval dances, belly dancers, African Tribal dances, Shamanic dances, Polynesian dances, Ballet, Square Dancing. Take a look at this brief survey and what you have are dances that bring together a community, entertain others, artistically express movement, explore sexual dynamics, and invoke spiritual energy.And it strikes me as somehow vitally important that while these were the usual roles of dance for the grand history of mankind, it is certainly no longer the case today.

I imagine that today people dance more than ever before, and when they dance they usually dance in none of the above formats, but in a much newer one, novel in its simplicity, and perhaps telling of our times – they dance alone and they dance for its own sake. People in contemporary dance clubs rarely perform for each other, nor are they there to dance the dances of the community, nor is it for spiritual reasons – although of these may be (rare) bi-products. They dance because it feels good to move their body to a beat and they move it in the way that feels good to them personally – even when it feels good to them alone.I can’t imagine people really start dancing alone for non-performance purposes on a mass scale like this before the 20th century. My uneducated guess is that it had to wait at least till the days of swing, but more likely even, to the days of rock n’ roll – the kind of music which carried as one of its basic precepts the desire to break constraints and be free and unique and individual. The music of youth, difference and rebellion.

Somewhere along the way, dancing alone became the standard, rather than the exception. And I don’t just mean dancing in the sense of what one does in a night club, but something more along the lines of the way we commonly think about dancing. Having no researched facts behind this claim, I imagine that dancing at home alone, was simply not nearly as common 100 years ago as it is today. Obviously, the proliferation of radios has something to do with it, but looking back to the early days of radio, I doubt people did commonly take to dancing alone in their living room. It somehow seems culturally inappropriate – and anyways, films of those eras (musicals aside) never show people engaging in such modern behavior.

This is not, of course, to say that everyone spends several hours a day dancing alone in the privacy of their home, but rather that every so often almost everyone rocks out alone in their living room or closes their eyes and let their limbs float where they may in the privacy of their bedroom. And again, not that dancing alone is what’s necessarily (or even typically by choice) done, but often it really is preferred. This is a revolution of expression on a mass scale still getting larger! With the democratization of dancing, more people are experiencing dance than ever before and in this are becoming more familiar with the sort of spiritual/psychological experiences which arise of that sort of engagement with the world. Its effects on people’s personalities might be subtle, but radical, and should not be underestimated.

As I see it, you simply can’t be dancing alone and be truly engaged in your movements without going through a certain type of uniquely personal experience – an experience I have little difficulty regarding as spiritual on some level. Of course dancing’s always been closely associated with certain types of spiritual experiences: the wild dances of the shamans (sometimes hours long in preparation for magic), the festivals of Dionysus, Jewish celebratory group dances, and ritual dances of every type which either prepare/purify for the purposes of verbal or active ritual or offer praise for some deity.But this is different. There is no communal or even specific aim here, but only the movements, only the feeling, only the direction one intuitively guides the whole thing. To dance alone, and to do it well, is to dance for the sake of a certain psychological state – a state of losing oneself in an energetic flow (frantic or sublime or whatever) which somehow is both the result of your own consistent creation and simultaneously an external force which compels you along it. The same can be said about playing music on a high level.

To dance alone and to do it well is to attain a certain type of individual peak-experience of the spiritual type. The kind of experience which is not reached within the context of communal mythology or religious ritual, and therefore cannot be explained by them. Instead, it falls under the individual to carry the weight of interpretation of the value of a set of spiritual experiences. I find it difficult to divorce that sort of self-affirmation from a general increase in autonomous decision-making and individualistic world views. So in a sense, from heterogeneous democracy.

* * *
When I was a young kid growing up in a small town in Israel, one of my favorite things to do was to go to community sing-alongs at the park. Everybody knew most of the lyrics to the folk songs we sang, and there was something deeply meaningful and important in them for us in terms of personal and national identity. Being one voice joining many under the starry sky in those warm summer nights is was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It remains in my heart as one of my fondest blurred memories, but one which sits a bit uncomfortable in its disharmony with my identity as an American. Are not these sorts of sharing-in-community rituals and the feelings they invoke about as foreign to the common American mindset as anything? We’re an extremely heterogeneous society of irreconcilably radical differences in tradition, custom, and method. Our reconciliation with our fate has blessed and cursed us with a far greater appreciation of individuals and ‘individualisms’ than the world has ever known.

How many of your families get drunk and sing together at gatherings? Drinking has a long and proud history of bringing voices together into a community tied together by a common cultural thread. How remarkable is it that there are cultures, like Hassidic Jews, that not only constantly sing together, but even dance together as a community.

Music and dance so rarely today play the vital social role of uniting the individual with the community. Such a role is a very traditional one for dance, and historically and cross-culturally the most common. And yet, when we look around now, we find that it has virtually disappeared off the modern culturescape – rare comical abnormalities like the Macarena aside. Is it any coincidence that its replacement is the most democratic and individual-focused (the polar opposite from community-focused) dance form of all?

My nostalgic days of singing in the park instill in me with the feeling of a lack of community-connectiveness, and yet as the passages above illustrate, I consider dancing alone an incredibly valuable aspect of my life. I make no particular judgments. I’m not sure whether you can have both in a genuine way. But what I think is important, is to recognize what is lost and what is gained and what you could make your peace with….

* * *
I don’t see any way to go back, nor do I think we should necessarily return towards a meaningful socio-cultural sameness. But to miss out on the power of dance to bring us closer to others would be a sad consequence of freedom. I try to weigh the worth of being a part of a community through these distant memories of sharing a part of my soul with many. I think what it would be like to dance together, I mean really together, with the people I know – with my friends, with my family, and most bizarre of all, with my neighbors.

And then I think back to those days of being the only one on the floor, to the rush of sensual exploration, to my many shadow-dancer candle reflections and of how personally creative and expressive and uniquely satisfying it all can be. On this I try to weigh the worth of individuality.There may be different ways of thinking about what’s valuable and worthwhile about different cultures and lifestyles, but I can’t help but think that focusing on the role of dance in your life is about a grand and admirable method of answering the big questions as any other. To contemplate on your relation to dancing, if you can face it seriously, is to think about what is meaningful. It’s to focus on the most instinctual and personal notion of connectiveness and then ask yourself: ‘how do I want to feel most connected?’ and ‘what is it that I want to be most connected to?’

* * *
But the answer that the great majority of people choose by default lies in neither of the above options. The most meaningful connectives are usually not those between the individual and the community, or the individual and herself, but rather between the individual and a certain “other”. John Lennon, after dismissing all of the religious and cultural and faddish fixations at the end of “God” – the declaration song of his so admirable maturity - says “I just believe in me. Yoko and me.” When forced to bare our doubts and fears about the world, we end up holding on to the thing that really does feel as if its actuality is about as secure as anything else – our relationship with our spouse or other comparable person. “Yoko and me. That’s reality.”

Our relations to ourselves, to our kind, and much more deeply, to one other person, these determine what is meaningful about our lives. And so one more move remains…Nathalie lived on my couch for 6 months. She wanted to adequately say good bye to my friend (and neighbor) Bobby the day she left. Nothing was said. She popped in a House CD and they danced in my living room for the next 3 hours – each sharing in the expressive wordlessness of the end of an era. And then there was the time Mark and I danced to Sade together. Two men listening to music and getting up and dancing just because the beats were so infectious and her voice so so so damn sensual we wanted to counter its tongue with our bodies. And then the time when Rachel and I danced to fiery Flamenco, we let ourselves go along with its masculine passion and became creatively vulnerable together.

But, if dancing is meant to take some lesson from what most people consider meaningful or answer the question of what should be considered meaningful, then isn’t romantic or sensual or passionate or exhilarating dancing with the one you love more than merely compatible with the group and self? Bring on Sinatra, bring on Astrud or Bebel, bring on salsa and disco, and oh, please oh please, bring on the most serious moving tango and make us fight for it.And so, once in a while my love and I dance. We rock slowly together in the middle of the living room. We intensify erotic confrontations with our legs, while the rest of our body hardly moves. We spin each other and dip and laugh and spin again and grind and kiss with our hearts still beating loud at the top of our throats, our hips still grinding, our feet still wanting to move, to move, to move, and to come together despite it all, like a point of peace and perfect clarity amidst the never-ending chaotic jumble of our extraordinary lives…You see, this is why you wont find enough seats for entertaining guests in my living room. I wont allow it. The space is just much too precious.

I need it for dancing and everything that it entails.

Friday, May 21, 2004

The Problem With Smuin Ballet

by Marla Watkins

I caught the recent 10th Anniversary Retrospective recently at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and while impressed with a stand out dancer or two, came away with an uncomfortable feeling. It partly had to do with the nature of these events: self congratulatory, pitched for the big donors to pony up more funds, and at times embarrassingly immodest. Choreographer Michael Smuin used some creaky old devices for the opening remarks, placing his Board President at a bar with some fog as the curtain opened, a hammy letter reading by Peter Donat about Smuin’s achievements (obviously written by Smuin’s staff), and a video compilation of the ‘great’ moments of the past ten years.

At times it felt like the opening and closing scene in “All About Eve” where Eve is getting the Sarah Siddons award and everyone else is either rolling their eyes or bored. The evening could have done without all three devices and been much less awkward. Unfortunately the need to edit also characterized the dancing. The evening was too long, repetitive, and full of odd selections for a 10 year retrospective. One expects this from such an event, however.

The underlying problem with Smuin Ballet became apparent as the first dances floated by. The program quotes list the word “sexy” first about Smuin Ballet (“witty and ultimately moving” round out the tag line). “Sexy” is a word Mr. Smuin seems to have taken too fully to heart, as almost all of the dances in Act 1 had to do with erotically-charged phrases and movement. It is not that the choreographic eroticism is bad; it is that as displayed here it is just not very good.

During Fever with the famous music by Peggy Lee, and after several stylized couplings already in the evening, I found myself wondering what distinguished this dance from a pole dance or a stripper routine. To be honest, not much. Would I rather see a striptease in a stripper joint or Yerba Buena? Definitely the former. Would I rather see a torrid tango at the Metronome Ballroom with a knowledgeable and raucous Latin crowd or with monotone suburbanites? Again the former. There are problems of authenticity embedded in the Smuin pieces. There is also the disconcerting feeling that the audience is being purposefully fed titillation in order to fill seats.

Smuin has obvious talent. There are moments that are genuine and powerfully emotional, such as the father-son duet in The Last Song (sung by Elton John). His group work, when he is experimenting with patterns, entries and exits, and partnering—such as the tango duo of David Strobe and John DeSerio in Una Lagrimita— is sometimes inspired by a creativity that is refreshing and bold. Unfortunately these moments were weighed down by too many humdrum moments, and too much pandering to please.

One spectacular dancer on the day I attended cannot be overlooked. Roberto Cisneros is a youth of perhaps 15 who tore up the stage in a solo not once but twice. He was introduced in a video segment that charted his growth from cute little kid to teenager. When he took to the stage to dance to the music of Paul Simon’s Homeless, he displayed such range, flexibility, line, acrobatics, and power that the audience was left breathless. He did the same with It Ain’t Necessarily So, sung by Cher of all people. He seems to be a dancer with his own sense of creativity and style, while also being able to dance the classic male ballet roles. This is a dancer with a great future if he continues to train and develop his artistry.