Text and photos by Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES — With Cuba’s National Theatre having been completely restored, the doors to its enormous Avellaneda Hall — with its three levels and 2,254 seating capacity — will re-open on Sunday, October 28, for the opening ceremony of the Havana International Ballet Festival.
Surpassed in size only by the capital city’s Karl Marx Theater (which seats 5,000), the main hall of the cultural complex will show off its new look following months of renovation work. This improved image sharply contrasts with the gloomy appearance this majestic theater suffered for years.
Approval for the construction of the National Theater came in 1951, under the government of Carlos Prio, while actual work began the following year when Dictator Fulgencio Batista himself laid the foundation stone.
On June 16, 1959, with the building’s Covarrubias Hall still only half finished, the Gaceta de la Republica announced the official inauguration of the project, whose design by architect Julio Conesa had started almost 15 years earlier.
It was not until 1979 that construction was finally completed so that the facility could accommodate the Sixth Summit of the Non-Aligned Countries.
The conditions of the buildings that make up the complex had deteriorated to the point of being critical, especially the roof, the electrical and audio systems, and the stage flooring – at least those problems were perceptible by the public. The artwork in the gardens also evidenced years of neglect.
Located in the building between 1959 and 1960 were valuable natural and ceramic sculptures created by renowned Cuban artists such as Rita Longa, Roberto Estopiñan, Alfredo Lozano and Tomas Oliva. In addition, murals by Raul Martinez were placed in the garden itself and one by Rene Portocarrero in the foyer of Covarrubias Hall.
The recently completed construction work started over a year ago and included the polishing of the marble interior and exterior, as well as the replacement of broken parts and all glass in the giant façade, whose surface area is more than 1,000 square meters.
The external lighting fixtures in both the façade and the gardens have been completely replaced, while the landscaping was remodeled and replanted, including the lawn. All of the vines that had covered part of the building’s sidewall for decades were also removed.
The marble pieces in the gardens were lightly retouched and fenced off for their protection, which was a rather drastic solution as this breaks with the initial environmental concept of the theater.
The large kinetic art installation, created by National Visual Arts Award winner Osneldo Garcia, has been removed from the site.
Although the work wasn’t so very lucky, due to its location and the high degree of deterioration, it’s not expected that it will be permanently removed since it has been an undeniable part of the identity of the institution since 1979.
According to the critic Elvis Fuentes, the sculpture is “a significant work in the career of this artist, but it created what was frankly an anachronistic effect where it was located. No account of the project was made, which was conceived for placement in the back of the theater.”
Though the improvements to the interior of the hall have still not been revealed to the general public, one of the renovation workers told Havana Times that all the furnishings have been refurbished. This includes the overhauling of the entire lighting system, the stage and the replacement of all the seats.
“They’ve renovated everything,” said the worker, though he wasn’t able to confirm if the audio system (one of the main problems in Cuban theaters) has also been restored.
According to statements by a caretaker of the institution, the grand opening for the 23rd edition of the Havana Ballet Festival on Sunday will feature Cuban President Raul Castro, who was invited by Alicia Alonso, the director of the principal dance company on the island. At a press conference, the president described the improvements as “honoring the National Ballet of Cuba.”
The festival’s opening will present the company’s oldest work, “La Fille Mal Gardee,” which premiered in London in 1786 but which on this occasion will star Cuban dancers Anette Delgado, Dani Hernandez and Felix Rodriguez.
The Avellaneda Hall will only open for the inaugural gala, where Raul Castro is expected to attend, and in which Jerome Robbins’ piece “In the night” will be performed. However its neighboring building, Covarrubias Hall, will be open throughout this year’s festival until November 6.