I wasn’t planning to write about Ballet Nacional de Cuba, performing this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In fact, I was relieved that I didn’t have to. How can you evaluate a company so storied? Its founder, the incomparable Alica Alonso, is already enshrined in the ballet canon. It is rabidly adored by its Cuban fans. It has catapulted so many spectacular Cuban dancers–Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carreño, Lorna and Lorena Feijóo–into the international spotlight. The weight of its reputation, I thought, is too crushing; there isn’t any room for objective analysis. Reviewing it would be like reviewing a painting that has already been declared a masterpiece. And the problem was that, from the glimpses I’d had of the company’s dancers, I wasn’t sure I thought they were masterful.
After seeing the company perform its program of classical excerpts, “La Magia de la Danza,” last night, I’m still not sure. But I am sure that I have to write about them. They’re just so…unusual!
While the rest of the world’s ballet companies have been moving towards a universal technique–dancers in New York are now pretty much interchangeable with dancers in St. Petersburg–Ballet Nacional de Cuba, stuck in its communist bubble for so long, has maintained a legitimately unique style. That style is basically the style of Alonso herself: Clean, strong, powerful, with crisply defined old-world port de bras and an emphasis on flurries of turns and endless balances. A man behind me noticed that many of the women even looked like Alonso; they all wore her signature over-the-ears low bun. Few of the dancers have the impressive legs and feet that have become the international norm. But that means that the stage is always full of interesting bodies. (And frankly, the high-gloss perfection of today’s top-tier companies can be visually exhausting.)
For better or for worse, nobody else moves the way these dancers do. Better, in that they are fearless and unapologetic: They’re going to go for that extra pirouette, and if they don’t quite make it around, no biggie. (And if they do–often adding a breath-catching suspension at the end–it’s thrilling.) Worse, in that their dancing can be strangely airless, with more of an eye to precision in the placement of the hands and wrists than to through-the-body fluidity. They’re self-conscious to a fault.
That self-consciousness extends to their presence onstage. These dancers are Performers, with a capital P. Sometimes they’re dangerously close to just plain hammy, because they’re apt to emote at top volume: It’s either full-on “dramatic face” (as in the bits on the program from Giselle and Swan Lake), full-on “cute face” (Coppélia) or full-on “feisty face” (Don Quixote).
Yet it’s obvious that performing–even when they’re limited to the most hackneyed excerpts from the most hackneyed story ballets, as they were last night–is an utterly joyful thing for these dancers. They are the farthest thing from bored, or boring. And when they’re good–like the charming Grettel Morejón and the explosive Osiel Gounod in the Coppélia pas de deux, or the always brilliant Viengsay Valdés, who managed to make her zillionth Don Q pas de deux feel fresh–they are really, really good. These artists justify the program’s title. Forget about the history and reputation and legacy they’re upholding: Onstage, in their element, they are simply magical.