Scene4 Magazine -  Octavio Roca's "Cuban Ballet" | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | October 2010 -

by Renate Stendhal

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

October 2010


Octavio Roca's candid revelations
in his new book:
Cuban Ballet

I always liked Octavio Roca's writing about ballet when he was a reviewer at the San Francisco Chronicle. His erudition, good eye for detail and capacity for emotional response now are on display in his new book, Cuban Ballet (Gibbs Smith Publ). I can't imagine anyone giving a more knowledgeable, personal and candid appraisal and historical overview of the topic than the Cuban-born writer and university teacher, who grew up with a ballerina mother close to Cuba's grand dame of ballet, Alicia Alonso. As an exile who managed to stay in the good graces of Alonso (quite a feat, as I have come to understand), he received a kindly foreword from her for the book. But Roca has also faithfully followed the countless exiles from the company who have been lighting up the ballet stages of the West in wave after wave of defections. The going word about this phenomenon is, "Cubans are the new Russians." The sieve effect on the sourly underpaid and undersupplied company that is politically controlled, isolated and mired in the past, has served the rest of the world with miraculous dancers who brought with them a passion for dance, superb training, and the hot climate of their homeland. The most famous of these dancers are male (the likes of Jorge Esquivel, Joan Boada, Rolando Sarabia, the Carreño dynasty, Carlos Acosta, Taras Domitro…). But the cover of Cuban Ballet shows two of the most prominent female exiles, the sisters Lorena and Lorna Feijóo, to whom a part of the book (and most of the contemporary photos) are deservedly dedicated.

Any honest portrait of Alicia Alonso, the formidable dancer (and not so formidable choreographer), teacher, and co-founder/director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, has to be political as well as artistic. Octavio Roca writes a convincing homage to her impact on ballet (in Cuba and elsewhere), but doesn't shy away from the famous elephant in the room – the fact that until now, the more disturbing truths about Alonso's fifty-one-year rein under Fidel Castro's dictatorship were hardly ever written; they were just whispered word of mouth among dancers and connoisseurs, while the rest of the world kept celebrating Alonso's achievements. This year, her official 90th birthday was a big deal at ABT (American Ballet Theater), where she had danced from 1941 to 1948.

The saddest part of her Cuban rein, her wrath over her dancers' longing for freedom, has cast a long, ugly shadow. Most of the defectors deeply love their homeland, their culture, even their often cursed company. They keep dreaming of returning as guests to dance in Cuba: to be recognized and appreciated by an audience that is like no other audience in the world. In Cuba, ballet is as popular as baseball is in America; audiences know every step and turn, notice any change in an established choreography, and are highly excitable about any new technical feat of virtuosity. For Lorena Feijóo, now a much admired principal at San Francisco Ballet, and Lorna Feijóo who stars at the Boston Ballet, this dream may never come true. For them, as for many defectors, the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami with its appreciative audience of exiles is a small consolation. They are not allowed back, even though the younger sister, Lorna Feijóo, at first got Alonso's blessings when she departed in 2004, after a stellar Cuban career. Like her world-famous male colleagues, Jose Manuel Carreño (at ABT) or Carlos Acosta (Royal Ballet London), she was promised the privilege to come and go. But then, for no apparent reason, Alonso changed her mind. Just like that.


The Feijóo sisters aren't welcome any more, not even at the Cuban School of Ballet, the famous place where all the Cuban superstars are groomed and take class, where the sisters started out as little kids. We have to conclude that over night, Lorna Feijóo wasn't any longer seen as one of the official emissaries of the Cuban style, of technical  athleticism paired with extraordinary lyricism, musicality and artistic passion. Roca describes this style as the "uniquely Cuban mix of bravura and vulnerability, of classical elegance and Latin sensuality." The great Russian dancer (and defector) Mikhail Baryshnikov rates the Cuban dancers above the French and Russians. In his foreword to the book, he writes, "It's impossible not to notice when a Cuban dancer walks into the studio." But Alonso chooses what to notice. She holds the power in her balletic universe, sanctioned by the repressive government. Roca: "Since the demise of Soviet communism, Alonso's festivals in Havana have continued, with an occasional, daring influx of a Cuban-American exile artistic presence that must count as an extremely rare instance of glasnost in what remains a stubbornly Stalinist state." Nobody can question Alonso's decisions; there are never any answers from the 90-year-old tyrant who is now blind and in a wheel-chair and still decides about every move her dancers and students are allowed or forbidden to make.

Her famously progressive blindness appears as a double-edged sword. It certainly challenged and inspired the extraordinary dancer, and Roca goes into detail describing her career, her early work on Broadway and with the American Ballet Theater, with Antony Tudor and Balanchine (creating his famous ballet Theme and Variations with her partner Igor Yousekevitch, in 1947). Whole pages and "Interludes" are dedicated to Alonso's sublime, uniquely tragic Giselle. Indeed: even the old black and white snippets you can glimpse on YouTube, from a time when the dancer was already in her forties, show an almost unbelievable artistic perfection. But her blindness turned into a strange metaphor. Just like Russian ballet was forever stuck in the past until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alonso, too, in her communist haven, didn't seem to notice the modern evolution of dance.


This said, Roca makes a good case for the inevitable political denial that comes with Alonso's position in Cuba. The dancer who once was herself banned from her island (under the regime of Battista), returned and made an unshakable pact with Fidel Castro. She promised never to leave, never to betray his revolution. According to Roca, who once called her "a modern-day Teresias," this pact allowed her to save the life of her own politically astute sister and a number of suspect dancers, but there was a price to pay. Alonso was held hostage, shackled to the prison of the classical repertoire. Not a single choreographer of vision has come out of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, just as none has ever emerged from the Bolshoi or Kirov Ballet during the Soviet era. According to Alonso's ex-husband, Fernando Alonso (the co-founder of the Ballet Nacional), her capacity to remain politically blind also helped her not to "see" what was happening in her own company – a statement he also made in Cynthia Newport's 2004 documentary Dance Cuba. The bleeding of talent into the free world was simply ignored by Alicia Alonso, probably because this was one thing outside her power, and because the talent pool of Cuban ballet students seemed limitless. "This is what we have always wanted to do," she told Roca," – to share our art, to share our Cuban ballet." No kidding.

At the same time, Roca does justice to the beauty of Alonso's "museum", where she has kept polishing and refining classic masterpieces for decades – Giselle, Coppelia, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote  – to a degree that has been (and still is) breath-taking to the rest of the world. Her artistic example, after all, inspired and instructed the Feijóo sisters and all the other Cuban greats. I have studied and written about the Feijóos repeatedly and can testify that their portraits of Giselle or their Swan Queens are in a direct line of heritage from Alsonso and reflect the Russian legacy of the other prima ballerina assoluta of the last century, Galina Ulanova.

Next to the sublime, however, is the ridiculous. A "Carmen," for example, that Alonso wouldn't let anybody dance except herself --  a horror of mincing, false charm and stereotypical "sexiness" that from today's perspective looks almost camp. I haven't seen Lorena Feijóo recently take over the role in Miami, but even her natural sex-appeal and daring might not be able to save this piece of choreography from major embarrassment.

Also hard to bear, to my eyes, was watching a sublime dancer age and refuse to leave the stage. I always felt sad for Fonteyn, in her sixties, teetering on the brink onstage, and for Nureyev when he got fat, could hardly move any more, but still had to perform. Alonso, too, acquired a heaviness and unsteadiness of age, which she compensated for with exaggerated, excessive arm posturing.


She was not blessed with a face that could easily create an illusion of youth. Numerous photos in the luscious coffee table book show the awkward truth about this narcissistic stage compulsion that robbed her eager, young ballerinas of opportunities to dance and shine. (Strangely, most of the photos in the book are lacking a date). Alonso's aging turned her young swan's nose into a goose beak, her wide lips into a duck mouth, and something of a grim, unpleasant determination revealed itself in her face. She did not move me in her fifties and sixties, the way she moved large audiences in her international tours, to tears.

It will be interesting to see if one day, a post-Alonso era can bring any kind of renaissance to Cuban ballet. Perhaps Roca's honest account will open a badly needed window for discussion. For now, we have the consolation of dancers rising like one phoenix after another from the ashes of political repression, unfolding their wings in an air of artistic freedom, in exile.


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©2010 Renate Stendhal
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2010

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