Balanchine in Cuba

Of all the contradictions possible from Cuba, it should be noted that there is a segment of ballet-crazed Cubans.  What is this a contradiction?  Simply put, why should a people who have suffered daily deprivations from the economic embargo and facing imminent invasion for the past forty years care about some series of unnconnected movements performed on stage?  Here is Alma Guillermoprieto's Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution.  In this extract, she was a visiting ballet teacher in Cuba during the 1960's and she had just gone to the movies with friends in Havana.

The night was promising and should have been pleasurable.  But before the movie started, the Cinemateca showed a newsreel from the Instituto de Arte e Industria Cintematográfico -- the ICAIC -- and in that newsreel I, who had no television, who had never seen a news broadcast, now saw the Vietnam War for the first time.  I saw the Vietnam War, filmed from the Vietnamese perspective.

After the movie Galo and Pablo gave their friends Lydia and Mireya a lift home, and Carlos and Boris went with me to the bus stop.  "Are you all right?  You're very quiet," said Carlos, scanning my face.  The bus finally chugged into view.

"I'm perfectly fine.  I'll see you here tomorrow.  I known how to get here now."

Before the main attraction began the next evening, I saw the same images in the same newsreel once more.  Images of dead Vietnamese, burned alive by napalm, of children fleeing their thatch-roof homes in terror.  The shrill whine and unbearable thunder of falling bombs dug in under my skin and stayed there.  Later that evening, when I turned out the light in my room, they came alive and I could find no switch to silence the bombardment of the questions that echoed through my head.  If a thousand bombs are falling, can anyone know where they'll explode?  If it's useless to run, how many seconds do you have to wait to die?  How does napalm feel when it starts to burn your skin?  What does your own burning flesh smell like?  After that evening at the Cinemateca, I was incurably altered by the consciousness of living in an obscene world; whenever I was sleeping, and even sometimes while I was awake, I would experience my own body as a vast cage for storing corpses.  If a country insisted on being independent and Communist, too, did it deserve to be burned alive?  If a woman had five children, would it hurt her less to lose two of them?  How could I understand the image I'd seen in the movie theater of an enormous gringo with a horrible smile, proudly holding up what was left of a human torso?

I suppose I had some sort of breakdown, though it wasn't a change any observer --- much less I myself --- would have noticed.  Day my day I simply lost the logic of things and their pleasure.

Monday afternoon found me back in the studio with Sandy's dance.

From the first position, big jump into the second position plié.  Stay in plié and sweep the left leg into attitude behind.  Stay in attitude and rotate slowly outward on the right leg.  Turn.

I ended the rehearsal after fifteen minutes.  What kind of dance was needed in Cuba?  The kids were right, I thought.  No one here was interested in socialist realism, but neither did it make any sense to reproduce the latest innovations of the New York avant-garde.  If Cuba was so resolutely Cuban, what was I doing here with my abstract dances and aleatory "events"?  What in hell had I come to Cuba for?  What was I doing here?  Turn turn turn turn.  From one moment to the next, Sandy's dance had stopped making sense to me.  Whom was it for?  By what right could I ask an audience to witness this unrelated series of movements?  I couldn't justify the solitary performance I was rehearsing on the basis of the pleasure it might give someone to see me: I was not beautiful; I was not a great dancer.  I wasn't going to take anyone's breath away with my technical prowess.  I had nothing to say to people living in a country that faced, day after day, the danger of atomic annhilation, invasion, a war like the one Vietnam was waging against imperialism.  It made no sense to do what I was doing.  My dance had no meaning.  For what?  For whom?

I sat down on the beautiful worn mahogany floor and jotted down a few ideas in my notebook for a possible dance, or event, to take place in the school, making use of its strange architecture that was somewhere between modern and prehistoric, its labrynth of jungle paths.  I stopped writing and raised my eyes.  The brick vault over my head reverberated with a silence that suddenly grew heavy and threatened to crush me.  I felt the walls and ceiling collapsing around me, but when I focused carefully, I realized that all the bricks were still in their places.  And what was more, they could be counted, one by one, and thus their threatened collapse could be warded off.  I lay on the floor for some time, counting bricks, until the heavy silence that was pressing me against the floor lifted a little and allowed me to go back to the dormitory.

I don't think the internal fracture caused by the newsreel images of the Vietnam War resulted from any excessive ignorance of horror on my part.  Perhaps it was more the opposite case.  Among the readings that had fallen into my hands when I was a child were two books by John Hersey, one about the explosion of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the other about the extermination of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.  These reports were written with minute attention to detail and without rhetoric or undue emotion.  I wasn't yet twelve when I read them, and I imagine they contributed something to the bad taste that, in general terms, the world left in my mouth.  The description of the victims who were gassed in Auschwitz and burned alive in Hiroshima endured in my mind not as nightmares but as a kind of absolute proof of the existence of Evil.  What I had just discovered in the ICAIC newsreels, with their appalling images of war and its butchery, was that Evil wasn't something that existed only in that prehistory before I was born.  I had lived alongside Evil --- and in willful ignorance of it!  It was in the air that I breathed; it existed with my complicity and bloomed because I had allowed it to.  It was as if my own blood had become a poison.  The images of Vietnam, cruel death, and senseless destruction pursued me.  So did the questions: How?  How did they resist so much horror, so much hatred, in Vietnam?  How had this happened?  And above all, how had I allowed it to happen?  Very small children were dying while I went on living, effortlessly and painlessly, and I hadn't done so much as raise my voice in protest.  I could no longer sleep in peace and breathe freely.  Nor did I do the only thing that might have afforded me perspective, companionship, and consolation: I didn't talk to anyone about what was happening to me.  I was ashamed.

(New York Times)  Balanchine in Cuba, Despite Barring of Americans and Authenticity Debate.  By Erika Kinetz.  November 7, 2004.

The International Festival of Ballet here, which ends on Saturday, has given some ballet-crazed Cubans their first chance to savor the choreography of George Balanchine.

Lourdes Libertad, a bolero singer, saw the work of the man many say was the 20th century's greatest choreographer for the first time on Monday night. "It's very beautiful," she said at intermission. "It's different. It's more contemporary."

All that is true. But is it Balanchine?

Only one of the seven pieces performed this week is currently licensed by the George Balanchine Foundation. Two have expired licenses, and the rest were copied from videotapes.

The debate over the authenticity of these productions has emerged at a festival already hurt by the United States government's restrictions on travel to Cuba. Nine dancers from the New York City Ballet and one from the Dance Theater of Harlem were barred from attending, making this the first time in 30 years that an American has not performed at the festival.

Piracy is rampant in Cuba. A sampling of the shows offered by state-run television this week includes "Charlie's Angels,'' "Law and Order" and the film "The Truth About Charlie.'' The problem is also acute in dance, a medium whose integrity depends on human contact.

"Cuba does not acknowledge the Geneva Conventions, so we have no control over what they might perform," said Ellen Sorrin, the director of the Balanchine Foundation in New York. "If they lived anywhere else in the world, they'd have to license the ballets. The copyrights are owned. None of those ballets are in the public domain.''

The foundation's mission is to preserve the artistic integrity of Balanchine's legacy. As part of the licensing process, the foundation sends a teacher to present the material on a new company. It also charges a fee and, said Ms. Sorrin, vigorously pursues any copyright violations that come to its attention.

"Our preference would be to have someone go and not only stage but keep the ballet looking as it should," she added. "But it's been difficult to do that. There used to be a time when there was more opportunity to do that, when the cultural exchange was more open."

Alicia Alonso, the director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, invited Nilas Martins and eight other New York City Ballet dancers to perform an all-Balanchine program at the festival this year, but the Treasury Department barred their participation, citing a regulation that prohibits Americans from taking part in international festivals in Cuba.

In addition, Rasta Thomas, from the Dance Theater of Harlem, was invited to perform "Don Quixote" with one of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's biggest stars, Viengsay Valdés, but was unable to attend.

"We don't license travel to Cuba when you could be engaging in similar activities elsewhere," said Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department. She added, "There are countless countries around the world - not ruled by an oppressive and dangerous dictator - in which Americans can participate in and promote cultural exchange at the international level." Those who travel to Cuba illegally can face penalties of up to $65,000.

Two dancers from the Houston Ballet - Zdenek Konvalina, a citizen of the Czech Republic, and Leticia Oliveira, a citizen of Brazil - arrived in Havana late Monday and performed a licensed version of Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" on Tuesday. They did not apply to the Treasury Department for permission because, Mr. Konvalina's agent said, they had been advised by a lawyer that it was unnecessary.

Nilas Martins and Company (featuring dancers from City Ballet) was to perform licensed productions of Balanchine's "Sylvia Pas de Deux," the "Minkus Pas de Trois," "Tarantella" and excerpts from "Who Cares?" and "Chaconne" at the festival. What Cuban audiences are seeing instead are performances of "Theme and Variations" and "Apollo," which have expired licenses, as well as unlicensed performances of "Agon," "Scotch Symphony," the "Sylvia Pas de Deux" and the "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," performed by dancers from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. "Ballo Della Regina," which Merrill Ashley taught to the company in 2000, is the only authorized production.

"It's a shame in the sense that they would have been bringing to Cuba what they've missed in these last 45 years of dance," said Lourdes Lopez, a Cuban-born former City Ballet dancer who is now the executive director of the Balanchine Foundation. "They've been in many ways left behind. George Balanchine is the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, and they have no access to his work other than through pirated tapes."

To be sure, Ms. Alonso, the director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, is no stranger to Balanchine's work. She danced in his production of "Apollo'' in the American Ballet Caravan, a precursor to the New York City Ballet, and Balanchine created the ballerina role for her in "Theme and Variations." But neither she nor anyone else in Cuba is authorized by the foundation to teach Balanchine's ballets, and it is unclear how effectively Ms. Alonso, who is nearly blind, can ensure the integrity of the choreography.

"If the National Ballet of Cuba is mounting ballets based on film or video or someone's memory of something, there is no question the performance will suffer," Ms. Sorrin said.

The Ballet Nacional is known for its careful allegiance to stylistic variations, and Miguel Cabrera, the company's historian, maintains that the company has been vigilant in its respect for Balanchine's work.

"Alicia knows there are international regulations for Balanchine's pieces, and she respects them internationally,'' he said. "But in the national context, she thinks the Cuban public has the right to enjoy Balanchine's pieces."

He added: "Here it is considered that Balanchine's work belongs to humanity. These economic rules civilization has imposed against the spiritual enrichment of human beings, I am 100 percent against." Ms. Alonso herself was not available for comment.

Loipa Araújo, a ballet master with the company who spends much of the year teaching abroad, said that she had watched authorized teachers present Balanchine's works to European companies and that she brought that knowledge back to Cuba.

The embargo has also made it difficult to maintain ballets by American choreographers, and some say that the quality of even those ballets that were obtained legally has decayed over time. In 1978 Jerome Robbins's production of "In the Night" was licensed for two years to the Ballet Nacional. In 1998 Ms. Lopez went to Havana to dance in the International Festival of Ballet and saw the piece performed. "The ballet was unrecognizable," she said. "It had disintegrated. The choreography had been changed. Hard steps were taken out. I know this ballet well. I had danced it. The music was slow. It was not the same ballet."

Ms. Araújo said the dance had been pulled from the company's repertory. "Alicia thinks it is not done the right way," she said. "It was something given to her by Jerome Robbins, and she takes good care of it."

Another dispute involves the costuming in the Ballet Nacional's production of "Apollo." When it was performed on Monday, the three muses, who are usually bareheaded, wore sparkling white caps. In the original production, the three muses wore wigs, but Balanchine quickly discarded them.

"If for 30 years, 'Apollo' under George Balanchine had not been danced with the wigs, who are you to put a wig on it?" Ms. Lopez said. But the Ballet Nacional maintains that both early and late versions of a ballet are valid.

"We keep the piece like Balanchine created it," Ms. Araújo said. "It's not that we invented the wigs. It was the first vision Balanchine had of 'Apollo.' "

"If you want to see how the first 'Apollo' was done," she added, "come to Cuba."