Two U.S. companies in Ballet Festival of Havana

Cuba and United States joined by dance ties.

Woodland, Martha Graham Dance Company.

Foto: Kike

The 25th Havana International Ballet Festival, like the island’s other events and institutions, has benefited from the increase of cultural exchange with the United States. A sign of this was the presence in the Cuban capital’s stage of two attractive groups: Martha Graham Dance Company and the company Dance Americana.

The first could, in all its right, claim the honour of being the dean of modern dance groups in America, since it was founded in 1926. Its creator, Martha Graham, though formed by Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn, was the first to systematise on this side of the ocean the varied concerns to renovate the scenic dance that the art of figures like Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller had sustained. She had the capacity to create a school, a method, a particular type of pedagogy and even a sensitivity to absorb vital elements of U.S. culture that have made it possible to survive even after the death of the creator in 1991.

The idea that the pelvis is the centre of the dancer’s energy, her studies on gravity, overcome by the interpreter thanks to the control in the movements by the fall-recovery opposition and the placing in angle of the arms, in opposition to the rounded manner of classic ballet, are some of the traits of her method, which were not unknown by a part of the Cuban public, not because there barely remain survivors of those who attended the first visit to Cuba by the troupe in the late 1940s, but rather because this poetic form was one of the direct referents to nurture the birth of modern dance in Cuba by the hand by U.S. Lorsna Burdsall, disciple of Graham and founder of the Department of Modern Dance of the National Theatre together with Ramiro Guerra in 1959.

The programme that the company brought to the Festival combined already classical works in its repertoire and other more recent ones. Of the first it is necessary to highlight Dark Meadow (1946), with music by Mexican Carlos Chávez, which is an authentic display of the principles of choreography as well as the interpretative level of the entire group, though the most powerful impact was reserved for Errand into the Maze (1947) with a score by Gian Carlo Menotti, which retakes the myth of the labyrinth of Crete where the Minotaur lies in wait, from which it is possible to escape thanks to the thread of Ariadne. The matter, reinterpreted in a psychological way as the confrontation of fear in the interior of individual conscience, encourages a complex, tense choreography, a dialogue of passion and violence between two interpreters, in this case Peiju Chien Pott and Ben Schultz, which maintains in suspense the mind of the spectator during the minutes the piece lasts. The virtuosity of the artists, which joined to their natural gifts a demanding preparation, guaranteed the success of a work whose greatest praise would be its constant contemporariness.

Of the recent works one would have to point out Woodland (April 2016) based on music by Irving Fine, a poetic and suggestive work in which the entire company participates, and Lamentation Variations (2007), a piece in which three choreographers intervene: Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Richard Move and Larry Keigwin, who employ, respectively, works by Mahler, Savage and Chopin. It is a tribute to the victims of the September 11, 2001 tragedy, carried out based on the Lamentation solo that Graham left registered in an old film. The diversity of the authors does not affect the unity of the work, thanks to the unifying element of the style of the founder, and produces an impacting effect on the audience.

In short, the company, which gave two functions in the Havana dance meeting, achieved the applause of that more educated part of the local public, open to the most diverse proposals. In my case, beyond the evident enjoyment of those performances, I have not been able to get rid of a concern: beyond the indispensable conservation of Martha’s works, which today are already as classical as Giselle or Swan Lake, is it possible to prolong the existence of a company and encourage new pieces, in new times, without losing the urgent currency of Graham’s poetics? It seems such a difficult endeavour is still possible to achieve at this time.

The proposal of Dance Americana was very different. This group, founded by choreographer Justin Peck, is made up by figures from the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet. According to our references its repertoire combines classical and contemporary works, though for its presentations in the Cuban event they preferred to design a programme based on choreographies by Peck.

Its work style is centred on ballet, as those spectators who got to their seats very early and witnessed the lesson given with curtains up as a warm up for the group were able to confirm with pleasure. In it there was rigorous virtuosity but also authentic freshness and joie de dance, traits that they communicated to each one of the works it performed.

Increases, with music by Phip Glass, demonstrated the company’s skill – where all of them are soloists – to work together without becoming a mechanical corps de ballet but rather a harmonious entity but marked by particular features that make their dance more attractive. The Furiant duo, interpreted by guest soloists Ashley Boulder and Joaquín de Luz, not only demonstrated the technical virtuosity of the artists, well gifted for their profession, but also Peck’s ability to create a small piece, a bit in the manner of Balanchine, which translates into dance a music that was not created for it, demanding a total display of the interpreters’ skills.

In my opinion, the most significant work of those performed was the one that closed the program: Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Here the choreographer assumes an additional difficulty, while the score of Aeron Copland has been associated in the dance memory with the choreography created for it by Agnes de Mille with the Ballet Russe de Montecarlo and which had its world premiere in the autumn of 1942 in New York. The work, with argument by the choreographer, was considered one of the first truly U.S. ballets because of its type of atmosphere located in Kansas during a rodeo where two very different young women vie for the same man.

Peck preferred not only to do without the original set design, but rather any evident reference to a specific atmosphere and simply takes advantage of the grace, humour, popular air of the score by Copland to make his dancers interpret a divertimento in three movements where what the company can attain with its love of dance  is displayed with authenticity.

One cannot speak of an absolute originality in the face of this group, the influences of the New York City Ballet’s traditional neoclassicism and even the language of certain present musical comedies gravitate over the works, but the result is fresh, elegant, attractive and without projection and that is already more than enough.

Though this 25th edition of the International Ballet Festival set aside other performances in programmes interpreted by guest or local groups and soloists, these two U.S. companies, so different from each other, come to remind us how much Cuban ballet and modern dance owe to U.S. companies and choreographers, from the times in which Alicia, Alberto and Fernando Alonso culminated the learning of their dance profession in institutions like the Ballet Caravan and the American Ballet Theatre. (2016)

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