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

Susan Marshall and Company
June 9–11
For her troupe’s 25th, the MacArthur-winning imagist brings her two most recent works to New York. The visual wit of Frame Dances springs from how she corrals her cast in a series of tight spaces, while a video camera frames them from other perspectives. For Adamantine, the canvas is theater-large: wind machines, revolving curtains, swinging sandbags. People collapse, slap each other softly. Blackouts come like blinking, masking small and disorienting changes. Shadows behave independently. Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, bacynyc.org

Ben Munisteri Dance Project
June 16–19
Munisteri is a formalist, a real patternmaker, capable of distributing a design of engrossing complexity across multiple bodies or just one, and making it legible. Catalog, from 2009, sets its clockwork to Radiohead songs. Binary 2.0 matches its counterpoint partnering to Debussy. The mechanical character of those dances carries into at least the title of the premiere, Robot vs. Mermaid. Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, dancetheaterworkshop.org

Mariinsky Ballet
July 11–16
While still rare, a visit by the Mariinsky isn’t the geopolitical, glimpse-behind-the-Curtain event it was back when the marquee read “Kirov.” One of St. Petersburg’s prima ballerinas, Diana Vishneva, is now a regular guest with American Ballet Theatre, and most of the ballets in the luggage this trip are by Alexei Ratmansky, the international top dog who just signed on for another decade at ABT. Those stagings, though, are Russian-themed and new to us—The Little Humpbacked Horse and Anna Karenina, a comedy and a tragedy. How our Mariinsky-trained Balanchine gets handled (Symphony in C) will be another gauge of a great tradition’s health. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, lincolncenterfestival.org

Merce Fair
July 16
Imagine a loved one with a terminal diagnosis but no evidence of decline. Every appearance of the Merce Cunningham company, scheduled to disband at year’s end, is precious. This day-long bazaar packs together a company class, DIY workshops for regular folks, music concerts, screenings, lectures, exhibits, and the evening performance of a few mid-career gems. More going on than the mind can take in: very Merce. Frederick P. Rose Hall, Broadway at 60th Street, lincolncenterfestival.org

Lincoln Center ‘Out of Doors’
July 27–August 14
Apart from Eiko and Koma barely moving in the reflecting pool, what’s most enticing about the dance selections this year is the accompanying music. The Idaho-based Trey McIntyre isn’t at his best doing ersatz Big Easy, but the Preservation Hall Jazz Band can handle the authenticity part just fine. Who knows how Gabri Christa’s conductor-led improv will work, but Greg Tate and Don Byron can be trusted with the aural side. David Dorfman’s got the Family Stone—sans Sly, but still! Lincoln Center, lincolncenter.org

Mark Morris Dance Company
August 18–20
The Music Man at Mostly Mozart—mmmm. It’s a fixed point on the dance calendar, recompense for sticking around in August. This program balances a we’ll-see premiere (set to Stravinsky’s Renard) with two in-case-you-missed-them recent winners: Socrates, severe and beautiful, and Festival Dance, playful and snowballing. Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street, mostlymozart.org

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