by Helson Hernandez
HAVANA TIMES, Jan 4 —Spanish dance is now taught and recognized at the university level in Cuba. Among those artists who have mastered this style is the dancer Leslie Ung, one of the privileged performers. As she commented, “Dancers in this profession here on the island should work more on our Cuban interpretation of flamenco.”
HT: You belong to one of the first generations of graduates from the new Escuela de Danzas Españolas de Cuba (Spanish Dance School of Cuba).
Leslie Ung: With the emergence of the Ballet Español de Cuba (Spanish Ballet of Cuba), directed by Eduardo Veitia, there was always a clear definition of the need to train people in Spanish dance here on the island. A year later they approved the study plan for the creation of the “Artistic Dance Teacher Unit” as a course within the Hispanic Dance Program of the National Art School. The aim was for this specialty to become recognized as a professional career track.
Since then, I’ve combined my work as a dancer in the company with my work as a teacher. I believe that the teacher’s work during those four years of school requires a great deal of responsibility and commitment to the student. It’s our goal to train dancers in the style of the company. In this, they need to be trained to carry out its repertoire with the professionalism required.
HT: To you, how important was it for this major to be officially recognized and included as a degreed program.
LU: Due to the surge in Spanish dance in Cuba right now and the interest in its development in recent years, I considered it very important for it to be recognized officially as a program. It’s inclusion as a degreed program meant the work of training dancers in this discipline was formally recognized.
By meeting the academic requirements, it’s possible for youth to be trained at a highly technical level, which is the artistry required today by the demanding public, in addition to connoisseurs and lovers of dance. This is particularly the case with Spanish dance, but also with Afro-Cuban dance, which is part of our folklore; it is where both African and Hispanic roots played the most outstanding role during our process of transculturation.
HT: Are there are differences of opinion between dancers trained in pure flamenco in clubs and those like you who come from an Academy?
LU: Undoubtedly there are differences of opinion. The dancers from flamenco clubs, who are called “bailaores,” are different in that they develop flamenco in a full range of styles – from the joy of a buleria to the pain and sadness of a solea [both being styles of Andalusian dance].
As a dancer trained in our school, one has to master all four styles of Spanish dance, but with a foundation in ballet training. One’s performance is aimed at large audiences, and sometimes they reflect their dance in relation to a particular dramatic work, where the movement corresponds to the characteristics of the figure being portrayed.
HT: When and under what circumstances were you made the principal dancer within the Spanish Ballet of Cuba, which is under the direction of Eduardo Veitia.
LU: I think I’ve been a dancer presented with great challenges – ones that helped me grow artistically. I’m also very attentive to the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m versatile on stage, a quality that has allowed me to enjoy myself while interpreting different characters in the repertoire of the Spanish Ballet of Cuba.
In 2011, and as a result of eight years professional performance on stage, I was promoted to the prima ballerina of this company, which has been and will always be a tremendous school for me.
HT: Have you been able to compare flamenco styles here with those of artists from the land that gave rise to that dance?
LU: Yes, we’ve taken classes, in important conferences from dancers like Eva la Yerbabuena, Maria Juncal, Manolo Marin, Cristina Hoyos, Antonio El Pipa; and the director of the Spanish Ballet of Valencia, Marieta Romero. These were exchanges that allowed me to enrich my knowledge of Spanish dance in general.
HT: What details do you think distinguish the Cuban way of dancing flamenco from the Spanish style?
LU: Flamenco is a dance form that is identified as the ultimate physical expression achieved by the Spanish dancer, transmitting a range of feelings and externalizing their deepest inner emotions. I think our style differs fundamentally in the dancing of women: our sharp hip movements, our charisma and sensuality.
However, both the club dancer and the academically trained dancer in this profession in Cuba should work more on showing flamenco based on our Cuban style, and with a vision of today. But this should be done without losing its essence, while not trying to be so rooted in the country of its origin, even if our sources of inspiration are recognized dancers from the Iberian Peninsula.
HT: Not all dancers show choreographic concerns at some point in their career. Do you have that virtue?
LU: Although choreographic work has spurred a certain interest in me because of its complexity — where you don’t only feel the dance but are also required to think — undoubtedly dance continues to be my priority today. I’ve had the chance to carry out choreographies for the company. As a work of greater complexity this has meant assuming the staging of works for training workshops and for the “Artistic Teaching Unit.”
These have included my Spanish dance version of Jose Marti’s poem Los zapaticos de rosa, as well as Pinocchio, a version of the fairytale by Carlo Colodi translated from the Florentine environment into Spanish. That latter combines selections of distinguished Spanish classical music written by renowned authors and different styles of Spanish dance. This is a challenge that means my having to continue improving myself in this work, which in addition to dancing requires great commitment and dedication.
HT: Summing all this up, what does Leslie Ung become when she goes on stage to dance?
LU: I turn into another being, charged with transporting myself into the universe of whatever character that Leslie has to interpret, always through codes of Spanish dance.