Saturday, November 24, 2001

There was more than dancing in the air Tuesday evening when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba opened a week’s engagement at the Kennedy Center its first appearance here in 22 years.

The long absence of the company, the estrangement of the two countries and the legendary status of Alicia Alonso ballerina, founder-director of the Cuban company and Fidel Castro’s close friend placed the occasion in a realm that went beyond ballet.

The evening’s selection, “Giselle,” was perhaps not the best choice to show off the company’s strengths. The brilliance of the Cubans’ dancing was evident, but “Giselle,” the story of an innocent peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman only to find herself betrayed in that love, comes to us from the early 19th century and is full of the delicate nuances of the Romantic period.

Nuance is not the company’s strong point. Seeing the dancers at their home base in Havana last year, I found their technique strong, often brilliant, with steely balances, swift turns and an engaging, open stage presence. Appealing, too, was the joy they communicated across the footlights.

Their dramatic power evident last year in Havana, and in the passionate dancing of Alihaydee Carreno and Joel Carreno as guest artists in the Washington Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” here last spring was strangely underplayed in this “Giselle.” The evening was a dancing triumph but not the ultimately moving tale of the redemptive power of love it can be.

The evening’s Giselle, Lorna Feijoo, is a beautiful dancer and a prodigious technician who performed the difficult role with quiet control and a demure bashfulness in the first act. Her heavy makeup spelled “ballerina” however, not a dewy young girl in love. She did all the difficult things without skimping, her pirouettes were swift and razor sharp and her long balances a hallmark of Cuban ballet were astounding.

As Count Albrecht, the nobleman who betrays her, Oscar Torrado was a dashing heartbreaker in the first act and properly grief-stricken in the second. But there was no particular chemistry between the two and no character development, making it hard to believe they were truly in love. Nor was Mr. Torrado’s Albrecht sufficiently rounded to make us think something else that he was just toying with Giselle.

Although “Giselle” was choreographed in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perot, it has been restaged by many others over the years. This Cuban version, credited to Miss Alonso, draws from one staged by Anton Dolin for Ballet Theatre in 1940 for the period’s reigning Giselle, Alicia Markova.

Miss Alonso learned that version, and the current production reflects the look of dancing in the ‘40s, particularly in two striking ensemble pieces: the Peasant Pas de Deux (here turned into a pas de dix) of the first act; and the celebrated second act dancing of the Wilis, a sisterhood of ghostly maidens who die of unrequited love.

In the interpolated Peasant Dance of the first act, the 10 dancers six women, four ebullient men bring a touch of naturalism to the stage, a contrast to the mostly abstract dancing that abounds. The ensemble brings a lively, joyful moment to the stage. The women sparkle and the men ogle them admiringly and then burst into the air with swashbuckling bravado.

It was amusing to see Joel Carreno a rising star in the company taking on this secondary role with such casual good humor, joined by a fellow principal, Nelson Madrigal. Both were scheduled for leading roles later this week.

The other impressive group performance was the dancing of the celebrated ensemble of Wilis in the second act. We are used to seeing refined defiance as the Wilis dance errant males to death, but here with their razor sharp timing and steely arm movements we see a band of Amazon-like Harpies.

The precision of the corps was astounding. They enter with little tippy-toe steps, a look almost comical. At times the effect is positively martial, as the long diagonal line of dancers suddenly snaps to attention, shooting an arm in the air, or freezing into an icy arabesque.

Myrtha, the queen of this band of avenging females, was danced with regal strength by Laura Hormigon. Both she and Miss Feijoo fluttered across the stage with magically shimmering bourrees.

Galina Alvarez, who will dance the title role in “Giselle” at today’s matinee, showed self-possessed elegance as Albrecht’s fiancee. Victor Gili, who joins her this afternoon as Albrecht, acted with naturalistic conviction opening night in the far different role of Hilarion, Giselle’s importunate peasant suitor.

At this evening’s performance, the talented Miss Carreno will dance Giselle and Mr. Torrado will reprise the role of Albrecht.

The costumes, poorly designed and in harsh primary colors, added little. In the second act, the Wilis’ Romantic-length skirts were so long that they hid the line of the ankle and foot.

Conductor Ivan del Prado gave the dancers strong and sensitive musical support.

The opening evening concluded, as most Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s gala performances usually do, with Miss Alonso, 80, standing center stage, supported by her dancers, with a big sheaf of flowers in her arms and a crowd on its feet cheering in tribute.

The Cuban engagement ends tomorrow afternoon with a performance of “Coppelia,” the other ballet on the company’s schedule here, led by Miss Feijoo and Mr. Madrigal.


WHAT: Ballet Nacional de Cuba

WHEN: 2 and 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. tomorrow

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

TICKETS: $25-$65

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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