Saturday, November 17, 2001

Of all the arts, dance is about as universal as it gets. Both artists and governments are aware of this, and many countries are only too happy to send their dance companies out as goodwill ambassadors.

This fall Washington-area audiences have seen shining examples of dance that lie outside Western conventions: the beautiful, hypnotic dancers from Cambodia; the Japanese Butoh influence that finds its way into the inspired work of the dancers Eiko and Koma (who now reside in New York); and the Chinese-born Shen Wei.

Two more foreign companies arriving this week show a fascinating assimilation of several cultures, putting their own stamp on art that has come to them from abroad. The Hong Kong Ballet dances this weekend at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba appears next week at the Kennedy Center.

The Hong Kong Ballet, in its debut performance here, will stage a lavish production of “The Last Emperor” tonight and tomorrow. The ballet begins with a Chinese subject the story of the last emperor of China and a commissioned score by Su Cong. But its structure was inspired by the film of the same title directed by the Italian Bernardo Bertolucci, and the choreography is by Canadian-born, California-raised Wayne Eagling, who was a principal with the Royal Ballet and now directs the Dutch National Ballet.

Most of the Hong Kong Ballet dancers hail from that city or other parts of Asia, but their training has been strongly influenced by the English classical style and by their artistic director, Stephen Jefferies, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet.

“The Last Emperor” was created as part of the ceremonies marking the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The ballet mirrors the episodic structure of the Bertolucci movie. With opulent costumes by Wang Lin Yu and an ingenious set by Liu Yuan Sheng, a Beijing designer, it has a score that combines Chinese motifs with Western melodies.

The dancing, created by Mr. Eagling, also combines styles in a kind of international dancing stew. The ballet includes naturalistic movement (although the women are usually on toe), modern dance, Chinese martial arts and social dances of the 1930s.

Next week the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, directed by its founder, the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, will turn to a different source of inspiration and dance two 19th-century ballets of French origin the 1841 “Giselle” and the 1870 “Coppelia.”

The Cuban dancers bring powerful dancing and a warm, dramatic stage presence to the classics that form the backbone of their repertoire.

The company established a special Washington connection a year ago when the Washington Ballet appeared in Havana at an international dance festival. Seeing the company on its home ground was a revelation.

There probably is no other country, including Russia, where dance is so popular. The Cubans are dance fans who follow their favorite players as if they were baseball stars.

Another reason ballet plays such a large role in Cuba is Miss Alonso, who left a promising international career and threw in her lot with Fidel Castro’s revolution.

She has become a mythic figure in Cuba, prompting cheers and standing ovations whenever she appears in the theater. Her friendship with Mr. Castro has ensured that the ballet is well supported. She has used that support to build a carefully structured dance curriculum that enables children with talent to receive the training they need.

The result is a large crop of good dancers from this relatively small country and even a handful of dancers with the technique and charisma to become world-class stars. Cuban dancers Jose Manuel Carreno of American Ballet Theatre and Carlos Acosta of the Royal Ballet are two examples.

What awaits Washington next week is the chance to see a new crop of what will undoubtedly become international stars. Local audiences had a good look last spring at two of the most talented ones Joel Carreno, half-brother of Jose Manuel Carreno, and Alihaydee Carreno, his cousin when they appeared as the lovers in the Washington Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet.” They demonstrated the beauty and power of their dancing and their passionate acting.

One of the dancing highlights of last year’s festival in Havana was the Cuban premiere of George Balanchine’s riveting “Ballo della Regina,” staged for the company by Merrill Ashley. She is the onetime New York City Ballet ballerina for whom the ballet was created.

It is a difficult balletic romp, and Lorna Feijoo, another extraordinary Cuban ballerina, triumphed in it.

Her partner was Joel Carreno, who attacked his role with ebullience and a joie de vivre that makes his dancing especially appealing.

The company’s own choreography has not been notable, at least as seen in last year’s festival. (The physical isolation of the dance company might be responsible for this.)

Perhaps that is why we are seeing ballet classics such as “Giselle” and “Coppelia,” or maybe the company just wants to show its world-class technique with these numbers.

The enthusiasm of the dance company’s Cuban audience is sometimes a mixed blessing in shaping the Cuban style.

On one hand, it inspires the dancers to an unusual verve and prowess in delivering pyrotechnics.

On the other, it seduces them into ignoring sometimes the subtle refinements of their art to produce the roars of approval that greet them in Havana.

Cuba shares with Denmark the distinction of being a small country that has turned out a large number of extraordinary dancers.

Last week, the company performed in New York, at City Center, to rave reviews. Next week promises to be a treat here for dance lovers


WHAT: Hong Kong Ballet in “The Last Emperor”

WHEN: 8 tonight and 2 p.m. tomorrow

WHERE: George Mason University Center for the Arts, Braddock Road and Route 123 on the Fairfax campus

TICKETS: $25 to $50

PHONE: 703/218-6500

WHAT: Ballet Nacional de Cuba

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $25 to $65

PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

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