María Elena Llorente and the legacy of Cuban ballet

The imprint of a singular ballerina.

Foto: Tomada del sitio web del Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

María Elena Llorente has received the 2015 National Dance Award as recognition for her outstanding career in the world of ballet for more than half a century, first as a dancer and later as a professor and choreographer. Demanding, rigorous, educated in tenacity to overcome difficulties, she has been linked to exceptional moments in the history of the National Ballet of Cuba.

When she was barely four years old her family led her to the mansion on Calzada Street that served as the venue of the Pro Arte Musical Society and enrolled her in the School of Ballet, where she would begin to channel her early love of dance, curiously in the same building that years later would house the National Ballet. In 1954 she transferred to the Alicia Alonso Academy in search of a more rigorous formation.

When I was eight years old, encouraged by my mother, I enrolled in the Alicia Alonso Ballet Academy, where I found a rigor, a discipline and an exigency I did not know. In the classes of Argentinean Marta Mahr, of Puerto Rican José Parés and of Fernando Alonso I became aware of all the defects I brought with me and I really started following my road. In the period from 1956 to 1958 I remained in the Academy “just for the fun of it” since with such an uncertain future no one could seriously think about becoming a ballerina.

The following year she participated in the production of Swan Lake by the Ballet of Cuba – she played the role of a small page boy – though her professional stage debut did not occur until June 11, 1959 when she participated in a production of The Nutcracker presented in the modest stage of the Theatre of the Teacher-training School of Havana with the Vocational Artistic Centre of Guanabacoa.

It was only in 1962 that she decided to undertake a professional career with the National Ballet. Though she entered the company as part of the corps de ballet, already the following year she would participate in the world premier of the ballet Imágenes by Menia Martínez based on music by Claude Debussy, inspired on the sculptures of Rodin. María Elena would form part of the couple of “Lovers”.

In 1967 she achieved the condition of soloist in the company. It wasn’t hard for her professors and for the public to discover that she was a dancer with good technique, but who did not point to a more or less sensationalist virtuosity but who rather was seeking to place poetic emphasis on her executions, as she demonstrated in the variation “The Dawn” of the third act of Coppelia, in Les Sylphides or in the pas de deux of Theme and Variations by Balanchine and very especially playing the cold and proud Mademoiselle Grahn in the Grand pas de quatre. Among her many roles, I take pleasure in recalling her fine creation of Lisette in La fille mal gardé, about which Spanish critic Angel del Campo said: “María Elena Llorente won over the public with her ease, class and mischievousness, in gestures and figures and for her good style, old, genuine.”

Despite this, the dancer did not allow them boxing her in the “white ballets.” Her work with the then young choreographer Iván Tenorio introduced her to the peculiarities of contemporary ballet. As she later affirmed:

Around that time I worked two of Iván Tenorio’s ballets that proposed different challenges: Introducción a una idea demanded that I dance with a very strong attack, risky pickups and being on the stage for practically the entire work, which lasted close to 20 minutes. Adajio para dos allowed me to discover new forms of movement, which were far away from the academic; but it especially required that the dance come from within, driven by feeling. I remember that to achieve the moment of separation I was forced to relive experiences and sensations. It was the first time I used the recourse of emotive memory to achieve an interpretation.

The bronze medal she won in the 4th International Ballet Festival of Varna in 1968 came to confirm that she was an appreciable dancer. While the less experienced audiences considered at the time that her best interpretation was that of the Grand pas classique by Gsovski-Auber, others, more acute, took stock of the hallmarks she would make in the contemporary works that enriched the company’s repertoire. She was very applauded by the poetic innocence of her Esperanza in Tarde en la siesta by Alberto Méndez, but also for the erotic energy and powerful gesture of Ochún in El río y bosque, by the same creator. Gustavo Herrera found in her the ideal Isabel Ilincheta, a counterpart of the lead dancer in Cecilia Valdés. Iván Tenorio would seek her to give body to the Adela in The House of Bernarda Alba, awaiting for the mad Ofelia of Hamlet and the Juliet of Los amantes de Verona.

In 1976 she was recognised as First Ballerina of the National Ballet. The following year she would perform as guest dancer of the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Company of New York. Stages in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia welcomed her executions.

Already in 1989, when she celebrated 30 years of her professional debut, the condition of interpreter and teacher coincided in Llorente. Thankful for the training she had received, she felt like the custodian of a tradition, of a way of doing:

The legacy of our school is very big and every one of us who formed part of it has the duty to perverse it. I have always seen it as something more than a technical and interpretative way of dancing, of giving lessons and rehearsals. There is a criterion of professionalism that has always taught us; this includes all the previously mentioned and also the care of the wardrobe, makeup and the stage performance; details that cannot and mustn’t be forgotten. That awareness of the collective, of knowing what surrounds you – the decorations and props as well as the rest of the dancers that share the stage with you -, has achieved that the Cuban school of ballet be above all a collective event.

Such concepts had already become visible the year before, when the National Ballet premiered on July 6 a complete production of Don Quixote, with choreography revised under the artistic direction of Alicia Alonso, by Marta García, Karemia Moreno and María Elena Llorente. It wasn’t just a question of assuming the Russian classic, but rather achieving a production more coherent with the Cervantes referent and the Spanish dance folklore that served as its base. Everything was revised: the libretto, the pantomime, the wardrobe, the set design, the stylistic details. The result was a lively and attractive production that has been in the company’s repertoire for more than 25 years and which has had resounding successes in Spain itself. In the beginning María Elena successfully played the role of Quiteria, but when it was taken out of the scene, her imprint remained in the work.

The artist made her last public presentation on October 28, 2012, in the Opening Gala of the 18th International Ballet Festival of Havana, when she premiered the work Souvenir with choreography by Eduardo Blanco and music by Massenet. Starting then, she devoted herself to her teaching work, in the National Ballet as well as other world institutions, among them the Colombian Institute of Classical Ballet of Cali, Colombia. She is an assistant permanent professor of the Faculty of Scenic Arts of the Higher Institute of Art.

The jury that granted her the National Dance Award was presided over by Alberto Méndez, which at some time was her dance partner or chose her as the interpreter of his creations. The minutes highlighted that she had been granted the award for her “imprint as a singular dancer and for being an example of tenacity, creative safeguard and for the teaching of dance shared in Cuba and abroad.” (2015)

 

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