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Staging a revolution

The Cuban National ballet, performing ‘Don Quixote’ in Havana, Cuba.

Few art forms have been as influential on a nation’s identity as ballet has on Cuba. It is the preeminent form of artistic impression in the communist Caribbean nation, drawing huge TV audiences and sold-out performances. The skill of the country’s dancers is revered around the world and they take many a principle slot in major companies including the English National Ballet. This extraordinary legacy is primarily down to one company, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, established by Fidel Castro after he took power in 1959 under the leadership of Fernando Alonso and his then-wife Alicia, who despite being in her nineties continues to run the company today. A month after Fernando’s death, photographer Celia Peterson travelled to Cuba to see the company he founded perform. Along with dance journalist Lyndsey Winship, she shares her memories of the dance company that shaped a nation.

CP: “I was shooting Don Quijote, under the direction of Fernando’s widow Alicia Alonso herself. She is a frail yet incredibly strong woman. Despite being blind, she knows the steps so well that she can tell by sound how the ballet has been performed.”

CP “This [below] is Annette Delgado, the prima ballerina. Her lead status meant she got a private dressing room, but there wasn’t a sense she was above anyone – she still lives with her mum, fixes her own make-up in the interval and is extremely polite and helpful.”

LW: “It’s free to go to the national ballet school, so it’s not elitist and all the dancers earn the same, which is one reason why lots of dancers defect, or try to move abroad. Seven defected in May 2013, and the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami is mainly made up of exiled dancers. There are Cuban dancers who’ve had permission to leave – Carlos Acosta is the most famous example – but it comes down to  Alonso herself, whether she decides to give permission or not.”

LW: “The Gran Teatro de la Habana, where the National Ballet performs, is an incredibly beautiful but completely crumbling building. It has a vast and imposingly ornate interior, but part of the wall is missing on one side, where you can see straight through the building. And in the auditorium there are lights down the aisles that are just bare bulbs strung in a line. A mix of grandeur and poverty that is typical of Havana.”

CP: “The performance itself is magnificent. The audience is warm and knowledgeable; appreciative and enthusiastic. They give a huge standing ovation at the end while the two leads do the most breathtaking leaps.”

LW: “All the country’s dancers come from the Cuban National Ballet school and there’s a real focus on strength and vivacity, particularly among the male dancers. This results in enormous jumps that seem to hang in the air, endless pirouettes – five, six, seven in a row. I saw female dancers whizzing round the room in grand allegro exercises, matching the men.

CP: “Alicia Alonso was present at this performance and she was being greeted by very emotional well-wishers who had come from the US. She has the most powerful effect on the people around her. Everyone is in total awe of her.”

LW: “Alicia Alonso is one of the most famous people in the country. Everyone in Cuba knows who she is. I met her briefly, in a darkened room with much ceremony and she was kind but completely in charge and knows exactly what she wants and what questions she wants to answer (even if they’re not the questions you asked her). She has painted-on eyebrows and lipstick bigger than her lips and that old-time poise and presence of an ex-prima ballerina. Alicia has been essentially recreating dancers in her own image for decades. And that image is hugely important for Cuba internationally. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba has produced and supported this refined art at the highest level – on a par technically with the best of the rest of the world. For many, every grand allegro is a mark of Cuba’s success and civilisation under Castro’s rule.”

 

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