The Royal Ballet & its Cuba Shows

Roberto Mendez Martinez

The Royal Ballet during its July 2009 Havana performances. Photo: Caridad
The Royal Ballet during its July 2009 Havana performances. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, August 6 (IPS) – Until very recently, a great deal of the ballet public and experts on the island were accustomed to referring to the “English school” as something cold and distant that had little or nothing to do with our sensitivity. That prejudice has been shattered, happily, with the Royal Ballet’s recent visit to Havana.

Just five performances, with long but very well-balanced programs, convinced spectators that the opposite was true.  We were able to watch a company that is excellently disciplined in the ancient techniques of ballet, in which all members are characterized by the cleanness of their executions, the fluidness derived from the careful legato and the fading from one step to the next.

While they do not have a hint of expressive grandiloquence or overacting, they do have a subtle mode of dramatic expression that enables them to express any emotion with a great deal of nuance and resonance.

On top of that, we must also give credit to the exquisiteness of their musicality: in the works performed, no tension was seen between music and performers; we never have the sensation that the dancers are counting beats or subordinating the orchestra director’s work to their excellence as virtuosos.  On the contrary, there was a perfect adjustment between each step and gesture and the chord accompanying it.

The Cuban public, like those in other parts of the world, carefully evaluates the technical — sometimes pyrotechnical — exhibition involved in performing certain mainstays of classical dance.

The Royal Ballet’s performers did not disappoint us; in fact, they showed themselves not to be a closed school, because their work in certain pas de deux with top dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba during the gala tribute to Alicia Alonso showed that there are more similarities than barriers between academies that share common roots: a tradition that comes from the Ballets of Diaghilev and even further back, from the centuries-old Russian, French and Italian schools.

Suffice it to cite the example of the Don Quixote performed by Tamara Rojo and Joel Carreño, to refer to the excellence attained in that exchange, whose best features were not its spectacular pirouettes and fouettés, but its care for style and the novelty which the artists injected into such a well-known piece.

Personally, I found the performance of the pas de deux from Giselle by Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg very attractive, based on Coralli and Perrot’s original version in Russia by Marius Petipa: the nobility of the male dancer, his ability to place his company’s work upfront; and in her, the perfect balance, sureness of her points and care with the details required by this paradigmatic piece of Romanticism.  It gave us an idea of how our ancestors were able to contemplate the execution of the role by Anna Pavlova, who based her interpretation precisely on this version by Petipa.

One of the English school’s characteristics is its choreographers’ interest in shaping performances derived from great literary pieces.  This not only makes it possible to work intensively with the psychology of the characters, but also to translate an environment with the greatest exquisiteness possible, by associating the music, appropriately chosen and executed, with costume designs and decorations that spare nothing in making the performers’ work more eloquent.

That was the case with A Month in the Country, choreography by Frederick Ashton (1904-1988), whose work turned out to be a cornerstone in the founding of the Royal Ballet. Derived from a drama by Turgenev, the action of its five acts is “compressed” into a little over forty minutes of intense dramatic dance, accompanied by works from Chopin’s youth, orchestrated especially by Lanchberry.

The dance is so expressive that the alternation of dance and pantomime is hardly as necessary as it is in other narrative ballets, and the performers give themselves over to what the choreographer himself calls “operatic structure,” with alternating major dance passages, similar to the “arias” with brief interludes that are like “reciting.”

Among the two casts of performers who danced the work for us, we should note the extremely meticulous performance by Alexandra Ansanelli in the leading role of Natalia, as well as that by Ivan Putrov as the inconstant Beliave and the secondary character of Kolya by the gracious and versatile Paul Kay.

While Ashton is aiming in his piece for a type of serene, luminous neoclassicism, another emblematic choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992), was inclined toward a romanticism that does not lose its currency with Manon, a version of the novel by Abate Prevost about the music of Jules Massenet orchestrated by Leighton Lucas.

This ballet, whose three acts occupy an entire evening without it ever seeming excessive, is able to contrast luminous passages, such as the pas de deux in the bedroom, in the second scene of the first act, with the sinister atmosphere of the port that opens the third, all crowned by the phantasmagorical swamp scene, that closes the ballet with a hallucinating dramatic effectiveness.

It was precisely in this work, which requires so much from performers in being careful with technique but at the service of dramatic expression, where, in my opinion, the company’s guest stars, Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, shone the most.

Tamara is a very self-assured dancer, with complete mastery of her technical abilities and a special ability for lyrical expression without over-projecting or caricatures, and her partenaire knows how to make the best use of his training in the Cuban ballet and his education in the virtues of the English school.

It is not necessary to praise his poise, Carlos’s ability to work in a duo, his endurance, his vigor; they are qualities already associated with his name as he passes from the stage of external and easy virtuosity to fruitful maturity.  Both dancers bring to Manon a unique touch that should be registered among the great performances of this work, three decades after its premiere.

Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo in Havana - Photo: Caridad
Carlos Acosta & Tamara Rojo in Havana - Photo: Caridad

It is impossible to summarize, in just a few lines, the richness of the Royal Ballet’s presentations among us: we would need space to highlight the eloquent contemporary quality of Chroma, choreography by Wayne MacGregor, as well as the enchantment of an apparently minor piece: Les lutins, designed by Johan Kobborg, a dancer with the company, or the dramatic performance of the pas de deux Farewell by Mara Galeazzi and Thiago Soares, and even then, many things would remain to be mentioned.

There was one last confirmation I was able to make at these performances.  Ballet’s internationalization process, which began in the 20th century, has deepened in our day.

When we assert that the Royal Ballet is an English company, we are referring to an original school, a way of creating and interpreting, but it is also home to performers born in Brazil, Zimbabwe, Spain and Cuba, and even one of the great female masters of the Cuban school: Loipa Araújo.

The geographic determinism used at times to define the dance scene, is, therefore, not fitting. In the Royal Ballet, there is also a considerable element of Cuban culture.