Menia Martínez: A Historic Figure in Cuban Ballet

By Helson Hernandez

Menia Martinez

HAVANA TIMES — “I was the first scholarship student at the then newly created Alicia Alonso Dance School,” Menia Martinez, a historic figure in the world of Cuban ballet, tells us.

HT: Tell us how you entered the world of classical dance.

MM: I was the very first scholarship student at the Alicia Alonso school. At the time, I was really more interested in becoming a musical performer, since I liked to sing, or perhaps a dancer in musical theater, which didn’t exist in Cuba in those days. My aunt had a photography studio, and a ballet dancer came in to have some professional photos made. She heard me sing, and then looking at me, she noticed more my legs, praising my limbs. She was the one who said that I had to get into the conservatory.

I began by doing Spanish dance, which didn’t satisfy me because I couldn’t see any future there.  Then, my mother learned of the Alicia Alonso School and took me for an audition. Happily, Alicia and Fernando offered me a spot. I remember that two of those who today are considered jewels of the National Cuban Ballet arrived just after I did: Martha Pla and Aurora Boch. But according to Fernando Alonso I was the first one offered a scholarship at the then newly created Alicia Alonso School.

HT: You were 13 years old at the time.  Do you consider this age as important in your artistic history?

MM: Without a doubt, since at that age I was already dancing in the Dance Company of the Cuban Ballet, without yet knowing enough. It wasn’t like this generation today which begins at 8 years old and at 13 are already stars. What I had was a lot of enthusiasm. I always remember Fernando and Alicia telling me that my form of movement demonstrated a lot of artistic quality. The Cuban Ballet opened doors to me, and the need that existed at that moment for ballerinas facilitated my entrance onto the stage at a very young age.

HT: Can you talk about the special meaning that Frank Dominguez’ bolero “Tu me Acostumbraste” holds for you?

MM: Ahh, that’s a musical piece with a close relationship to my personal history. I had an aunt who was the performing artist in the family, while I was still a nobody. She was a poet with great dreams of a brilliant career. She was always in love as well, and passed her time singing that song. She was the first who saw in me certain possibilities. It’s like she felt intuitively that someday I would be an artist, accomplishing the things that she would have liked to have achieved. When she died at 91, I wasn’t in Cuba, but my whole family said goodbye to her by singing that beautiful bolero at her tomb.

HT: Can you share some memories of that epoch and your first professional experiences in dance?

MM: It was a very difficult period socially – we’re talking about the fifties. Alicia and Fernando were trying by every means possible to conserve the School which at that time was private. We took intensive classes outside of the regular schedule, hoping to achieve a higher level of quality, because our technique still wasn’t sufficiently polished. Of course we had before us the figure and example of Alicia. That’s very important when one is beginning: to have contact with dancers who have already achieved international recognition, to see how they dance and to take sustenance from all of that. That opens your perspective greatly and speeds up your formation.

Another thing that opened the way to us was when the Revolution triumphed. We became teachers very early, due to the pedagogical necessity of the moment, and that gave us a very great capability. Those experiences marked us enormously, and as a result Lompa Araujo, Josefina Mendez, Ramona de Saa, in short that whole team of enormous figures, are extraordinary teachers today. I was a founder of the “L y 19” School, where the great names of the later generations of the Cuban Ballet were formed.

HT: You went to study in Russia?

MM: I went to study in Russia, because in those days – 1957 and 1958 – the situation on the island was very complex. My family was very involved with the Popular Socialist Party. Because of my age, I still wasn’t involved, and from the moment I had entered into the ballet my world was dancing.  The possibility arose of going to Varsovia for a Youth Festival. For me it was a tremendous experience, I could get to know almost all of what comprised Europe in the fifties.

Nicolás Guillén, the national Poet Laureate, was my godfather. He and other people encouraged me to request a scholarship to the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. They tested me, and I was accepted. Guillén, who was clandestine at the time, took on the work of soliciting from the island’s Ministry of Culture the documents they required in order to finalize my admission and make my studies a reality.

I went to Bucarest to wait for the final decision, and later the invitation arrived to enroll in the Leningrad School, in what is now St. Petersburg. The Vaganova School is one of the most highly recognized Academies in the world: Nijinski studied there as well as Pavlova and Ulanova – all of those important dancers came out of that Imperial Theater.

I hold a diploma from the Vaganova School, but my previous experience with Fernando Alonso in Cuba was also a very decisive influence. Sincerely, without that, the rest would have represented only half of a formative experience. My adoptive parents there in Europe were intellectuals. Until they died, they helped me a lot and educated me about Russian culture.

HT: How did you feel when the Revolution triumphed and you were still in Europe?

MM: Well, I was able to keep up with what was happening on the island thanks to Nicolás Guillén who was in Paris. He couldn’t travel to the island while the Batista dictatorship remained in power.  I missed that entry into Havana of Fidel, Raúl, Camilo, and Ché, a historical and extraordinary moment in the world. When I found out about all that, I wanted to return, but in the Ministry in Moscow they wouldn’t allow me to go because I had a five year scholarship that I had to complete.

HT: Everyone admires your great career as a ballerina, but many aren’t aware that you also made waves in the musical world while you were in Russia.

MM: I had a very good voice, and an orchestra heard me while I sang in a university and invited me to record with them. I still have those records. I even sang in the renowned Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow.

The director of my school didn’t want me to do it, given the amount of time that I was supposed to dedicate to my dance studies. However, I felt that by singing I was doing something for Cuba. The young people on the island were dying in the historic struggle that the nation was immersed in. My family was involved in all of that as well, and I had to do something from the place in which I found myself.

Juan Marinello came to Moscow, and they sent me to sing to him at the place where he was staying. I still have a photo of myself and Marínello, together with the great musician Achataríanas, and the director of the place handing me flowers.

HT: At the end of your studies, Europe was witness to your triumph in Ballet.

MM: In the last year of my studies, I danced with Kírov, interpreting the Nymph, Swan Lake in the dance company, but also as a soloist in Blue Bird of Sleeping Beauty. I graduated doing the pas de deux of the Black Swan, as well as Russian choreographies that are not well known in Cuba.

They filmed many of my presentations for television. In fact I was surprised to hear that even today I’m on the BBC of London website. When I go into the Internet I can find myself in a video there, dancing and rehearsing ballet with my teacher, even singing in fragments of tapes that appear in files of “ important things from Moscow”.

HT: And your return to Cuba?

MM: I returned to the island in 1960, with the revolution already established. I consider the sixties and seventies the years of glory for the Cuban revolution. I found a different Cuba when I arrived.  They called me the Russian, because many delegations from that had country begun to arrive.  Upon returning, I began working in the Cuban television, and my first steps in the dance world were with Ana Leontieva, a Russian who had settled on the island and had created the Chamber Ballet. I also worked with Alberto Alonso and his company.

A great friend, Sonia Calero, who had studied with me before, took me around everywhere and showed me all the changes in the Havana of that time. With Alberto Alonso, I again left the country, although I really didn’t want to so soon after arriving, to participate in an International Festival where Cuba took part for the first time in an official way instead of clandestinely. We also did a tour through Vienna, together with the American Orchestra. That was when that famous song was created: “Cuba, que linda es Cuba.” Afterwards, I became part of the National Ballet of Cuba and a founder of the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC).

HT: Tell us about your entry into the National Ballet of Cuba once you had settled back on the island.

MM: When I became part of that company, one of the first things I did was the great pas de quatre, substituting for Margarita de Sea. Fernando Alsonso always said that was one of my best roles. I interpreted it together with the four jewels, two of them alternating while I was Cerito. When the dancer Azari Plizetski entered into the National Ballet of Cuba as Alicia’s partner, I was already a member of the company. He was a great support to Cuba, especially to the male dancers.

I remember that he told me he had met me before, that he had stood in a tremendous line at the Tchaikovsky Theater in Moscow to see me sing, during the epoch when I was in Europe. And at that time, who would ever have thought that we would later be dancing together in Cuba. I successfully interpreted the complete Giselle, in that title role together with the group that Alicia directed. I had already danced it previously in Russia, but here in Cuba I improved it greatly, matured it further.

HT: You’ve had some interesting experiences with important figures of Cuban music.

MM: Yes, Elena Burque learned that I had made records as a singer when I was in Russia and she proposed that I do something for television. She then took me to a program where I sang a theme of Martha Valdés’. I even went to the home of this important composer to practice and prepare with her personally, and I’ll never forget that Miriam Ramos was there as well.

Martha was like my teacher, since she included me in the arrangement of her piece. Later, as part of that television program, I not only interpreted the musical work, but also danced a pas de deux from Don Quixote with Lázaro Carreño, and performed another work of Jorge Lefebre. Elena praised my voice, but I couldn’t dedicate myself to music at this point since I had an established career in dance that I had to continue with.

HT: Many have said that Menia Martinez was the fifth jewel of the Cuban Ballet.

MM: According to the teacher Fernando Alonso, there were many jewels in Cuba. Ramona de Sáa, the current director of the Ballet School of Havana is also a person with an enormous capacity for work. She holds the line with great dedication, and that school is her life. Margarita de Sáa, her sister was another one of those figures. Arnold Hasked was the one who coined the term “The Four Jewels” for the well-known figures of the National Ballet of Cuba: Aurora Boch, Loypa Araujo, the now deceased Mirtha Plá and Josefina Méndez, when he saw them dance the Great Pas de Quatre.

At that moment they were the principal figures in the company and they well deserved their honors.  The four were very different dancers and all important figures for the history of dance.

When the four jewels were created I wasn’t in Cuba; I had returned to Moscow as a ballerina. That was when I created the role of Kitri, the chief role in “Don Quixote”, in the Bolshoi. Maya Plisetskaya helped me a lot in my interpretation of that role. Previous to Kitri, I had debuted in the role of Giselle with the Kirov ballet in Leningrad, but that was not of great importance. With the Bolshoi I was able to tour all Europe, dancing the Kitri in the most prestigious theaters.

HT: Isn’t it true that the Cuban School of Ballet has graduated ballerinas who are today scattered through a large part of the world?

MM: I have always thought that when you’re outside the island you’re an ambassador of Cuban Art.  We should all feel proud when a dancer is accepted in a company that is well recognized in the world. The school has demonstrated this merit: the dancers graduated on the island are solidly trained. When you say outside of the country, “I have a Cuban dancer who would like to audition”, what usually happens is that if it’s a Cuban, they don’t require an audition. This is because they come from a solid foundation, there’s a strong school preparation behind them.

The great maestro Fernando Alonso always says the same thing, that he feels proud to know that even in the farthest corner of the world an artist whose formation has been through the Cuban School of Ballet is welcome.

HT: As a specialist in this branch of art, what new tendencies and evolution have you noted, and what is your opinion of the new generation of dancers in Cuba?

MM: I’m astonished that each time I come to Cuba there’s a new company that’s been created and is doing different things, for a diverse public who can make choices. Many groups I work with outside the country, arranging choreographies, tell me that you have to come to Cuba to present, since requesting a theater costs a lot and you must do it two years in advance and now with the economic crisis even more, but on the island it’s incredible the movement that exists.

On the other hand, what has arisen in Cuba is an extraordinary wellspring of very well trained dancers who now have the opportunity to dance anything, something that my generation couldn’t do. I believe that now these young dancers need to broaden their repertory – yes I do believe that this is a bit lacking and they have a great need of it. New choreographers should unite with the National Ballet of Cuba without losing the foundations of classical technique. The thing is that modern dance, as in the contemporary ballets, enrich the artist; you can dance Giselle today and something of Matos E tomorrow.

HT: Can you imagine a gala presentation in the Grand Theater of Havana where all of the great Cuban figures who are currently outside of the island could dance?

MM: Many of us share that dream; we’ve already talked about it a great deal. Those of us who are working outside the country imagine all the great figures, with Carlos Acosta at the head: Lorna and Lorena Feijóo, Amparo Brito, Jorge Esquivel, Ofelia González, Pablo Moré, Rosario Suárez, Xiomarita Reyes, Alahydée Carreño, Julio Arozarena who is currently the artistic co-director of the Maurice Bejart Ballet, following the death of Bejart. Many don’t dance anymore, but others continue to be active. That would be extraordinary.

Almost all us who are outside the island would want to be present at such an event, to see all those dancers reunited once more in Havana, and to be able to enjoy it from the audience.