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Alicia Alonso - Cuban National Ballet
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Photo by Nancy Reves
Swan Lake - Cuban National Ballet
Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs an impassioned version of quintessential classic Swan Lake at the Tivoli theatre, with prices and views substantially more appealing than those of the Liceu.
Founded in 1948 by iconic prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, Cuban Ballet rose to world-class status through "grit, tenacity and revolution" (The Guardian). Havana-born Alonso, who is 90 and wears heels, still spearheads the troupe, which she ran with little financial support until the Cuban revolution in 1959. Then, with Fidel Castro's policy to make art available to everyone, a programme of government funding and free tuition for Cuban dancers saw dance flourish in the country, though both developed in isolation from international influences.
Alonso has been partially blind from the age of 19, developing an acute sense of balance by "visualising herself internally" as she pirouetted. She performed in America and with the innovative Ballets Russes in her youth, and continued to dance the lead in Giselle with her own company into her 60s. This level of dedication has been ploughed into a first-class training programme, which has produced dancers who pep up Russian-style classical training with bursts of Cuban spontaneity. In high demand internationally, many choose to remain in Cuba where they enjoy enviable prestige and decent wages.
Swan Lake is Cuban Ballet's signature piece. It was developed 65 years ago, based entirely on Alonso's memory of versions that she had seen in Europe, or danced in the US. Yet, claims Alonso, speaking at a press conference earlier this month, it is a version that remains faithful to that first performed in St Petersburg in 1895. "There is a laziness," she warned, that blights dance these days, which is why she emphasises "enrichment," rather than renovation, "and increasingly demanding displays of technique ... It's the least the public deserves!".
While few critics dare to deny the brilliance of the troupe, comparisons are inevitable between Alonso's enduring dominance of the company and the stoical defiance of her country's ailing leaders, "I'll live to be 200!" she announced, when asked about future plans for the company. This attitude is also reflected in performances. Swan Lake "feels old-fashioned," said The New York Times in 2003, while Judith Mackrell of The Guardian became "giddy with pirouettes," rather than "romance," when she saw the production in London last year. Yet, both admit, this is a matter of taste and not necessarily a flaw. "It is hard not to love...this fearless and beguilingly Cuban" production, the latter admitted, "it is one of the more entertaining Swan Lakes you'll ever see".