- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

Hot Latin music, cold rum drinks and a good-looking crowd ensured that the Washington Ballet's welcome-back-from-Havana party would be the liveliest event of the week, and if that also made it the noisiest, so be it.

Not all the din was due to the Sin Miedo mambo band thumping away inside the Swiss Embassy's Cuban Interests Section Friday night. A determined band of anti-Castro demonstrators also made sure their protests were heard.

"Castro kills. Don't go in," they chanted from their picket line across upper 16th Street NW as guests, mostly members of the Jete Society, the ballet's junior support group, entered after passing muster with check-in attendants stationed behind the building's heavy gates.

Once inside, political tensions were largely forgotten. After all, there was so much to celebrate. The ballet's weeklong, State Department-sanctioned tour had been judged a critical as well as popular success on both sides of the political divide, with every performance sold out and the dancers lionized by adoring fans.

"The Cuban people saw something they had never seen before: contemporary ballet with blues music," said ballet director Septime Webre, who characterized the works his company performed there as "quintessential expressions of American dance."

There was certainly no denying that the ballet's repertoire, performed during an international festival sponsored by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, was a radical departure from the 19th-century classics Cubans see time and time again.

The best part, Mr. Webre said, was that the experience forged "an intense connection" between his dancers and their audiences: "a triumphal moment for dance," that went well beyond anything he had previously experienced in his art.

Cuban Chief of Mission Fernando Remirez de Estenoz greeted the crowd warmly but seemed wary of expressing anything more than hope for "friendship" and "increased connections for artists" while conversing inside a roped-off area of the imposing edifice, which served as his country's embassy from 1917 until 1958 when diplomatic relations with the Castro regime were severed by the United States and is now its "interests section" under Swiss government auspices.

Such tensions seemed all but forgotten as the evening's cool breezes blew through open windows into the glorious gilded ballroom where Mr. Webre and company members tried mambo, rumba and salsa moves with assorted guests until the party ended around 10 p.m. notably early by Latin standards.

Ballet chairwoman Kay Kendall, a former dancer herself, did her part as well, coaxing Jonathan Ledecky and Conrad Cafritz onto the floor while her daughter, benefit chairwoman Sarah Butler, energized a younger crowd that included Nancy Bagley, Brad and Denise Alexander, Daphne Glover, Winston Bao Lord, Phil Deutsch, Izette Folger, Timothy Rooney, Page Schwartz and Chris Trotter.

All agreed it was a marvelous, sexy party despite the rum running out early (the ballet's fault, not the Cubans) and the lights being a bit too bright for amor. Not that anyone seemed to mind, since half the guests headed over to Cities in Adams Morgan where things stayed hopping 'til the wee hours.

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