Summer Guide: The Ballet Nacional of Cuba Steps Into BAM

Will any of the dancers make a permanent leap? Plus, summer dance picks.

After the Ballet Nacional de Cuba finishes its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, June 8 to 11, the question won’t only be “When will these dancers return?” but also “Which of these dancers might stay here?” The last time the company came through New York, in 2003, five dancers defected. The previous year saw triple that count. In 2005, Rolando Sarabia made a high-profile jump, walking across the border from Mexico and heading for Miami, where most defecting dancers go to await nearly guaranteed political asylum. In Toronto this March, five more made the break, and the possibilities for defections this visit are as alive as the troupe’s nonagenarian founder, Alicia Alonso.

Defection: It’s such a 20th-century term, especially in the vocabulary of ballet, where it trails associations with Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov, and a time when ballet was front-page news. The Cubans grabbed headlines back then, too; in 1966, in Paris, 10 defectors embarrassed Alonso and her patron, Fidel. But as Communist Cuba has outlasted the Soviet Union, ballet defections live on with it oddly, relics of the Cold War, like so much else in U.S.-Cuba relations. Wet foot, dry foot, pointed foot.

Now as then, dancers cite “artistic freedom” as their motive, the chance to stretch themselves in contemporary works not approved by the authorities. Less stressed is the fact that, for example, the four 2003 defectors who ended up at the Cincinnati Ballet were soon making twice as much in a week as they would’ve in a year back home. Post-defection comments acknowledge the lure of international stardom more openly, the desire to join the many Cubans showing off their envied, state-funded classical training in the world’s top companies. There are the defectors whom the Cuban government might or might not ban from returning home—the Feijóo sisters in San Francisco and Boston. And then there are those who received Alonso’s permission and can come and go freely: Carlos Acosta, a superstar in London and a hero in Havana; José Manuel Carreño, whose solid 16-year run with American Ballet Theatre ends June 30.

La Magia de la Danza: The classics via Havana
Nancy Reyes
La Magia de la Danza: The classics via Havana
Susan Marshall's Adamantine blows into BAC.
Rosalie O'Connor
Susan Marshall's Adamantine blows into BAC.

Alonso was in at Ballet Theatre’s founding; by the time American was appended to the front, in 1956, she was in exile from the Batista regime. She returned to Cuba three years later, on the heels of the revolution that converted her Ballet Alicia Alonso into the Ballet Nacional and incited the U.S. embargo that kept ABT out of her International Ballet Festival for a half-century. A lot happened in those 50 years, but ABT’s trip to Havana last November was evidence of what used to be called a thaw. So is the ¡Sí Cuba! Festival in New York, two months of Cuban arts and culture with the Ballet Nacional at the end.

Ann Rosenthal of MAPP Productions, which brought the treasured Afro-Cuban rumberos Los Muñequitos de Matanzas back this month after a decade-long absence, describes a loosening of restrictions after the Bush administration, which had denied visa applications or just let them languish. Even under Obama, though, the visa process is mysterious: “We’re never really told exactly what is going on.” The Muñequitos were approved, individually, a week before their tour began. On the island side, as the Muñequitos are seen to pose little defection risk, the Cuban authorities were more concerned that the group’s members—who under U.S. law cannot be paid—would be adequately accommodated.

La Magia de la Danza, the Ballet Nacional’s program at BAM, is a gala-type patchwork of excerpts from the 19th-century classics that the company maintains the way Havana mechanics do finned Chevys—as vehicles of pre-embargo style, in the mode of Alonso’s prime. It’s a program, that is, apt to display the value of the troupe’s dancers on the international market and also why they might want to flee. Viengsay Valdés, the reigning ballerina, will doubtlessly be effervescent in her endless balances. Yet excepting her, reports on La Magia in London last year spoke of deterioration, decline. Castro, enfeebled, has ceded power to his brother, but Alonso, whom career-long blindness has never stopped, will name no successor. Now, as the Cuban state begins to retrench, its storied ballet troupe may have to look to its defectors for guidance on how to thrive in a freer market.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba, June 8 to 11, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Street, Brooklyn, bam.org

Summer Dance Picks

Gotham Dance Festival
June 1–12
Another festival? Well, it’s one way for up-and-coming choreographers to build audiences at the midsize Joyce without the gamble of a week on their own. Here, four deserving troupes—led respectively by Brian Brooks, Monica Bill Barnes, Kate Weare, and Patrick Corbin—each get two or three evenings to fill, while two weekend matinees sample six more groups. Weare’s is the most promising, but Corbin’s has a ringer, the man who replaced (and surpassed) him as God of Paul Taylor Land: Michael Trusnovec. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

Trisha Brown Dance Company
June 9–11
Here’s an inspired idea. Forty years ago, Brown scattered a “Roof Piece” across the tops of Soho buildings, a kind of relay in semaphore, a magical stunt in public art that was captured on film but not repeated since. How about if she did it again, but all around the High Line, a public park that already plays perspective games with the area’s architecture? That’s what’s happening, and it’s as close to a sure thing as any event this serendipitous gets. The High Line, Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, trishabrowncompany.org

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