Viengsay Valdés: “I still have much to dance”

The director of the Cuban National Ballet bets on dancers who can take on a wide range of styles and languages. She granted us an interview.

In one of the halls of the National Ballet of Cuba, prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés rehearses with Dany Hernández one of the most challenging pieces within the historical repertoire of the company: Tema y variaciones. It is George Balanchine’s choreography, which was created for Alicia Alonso in 1947. It is being said that the celebrated choreographer made it difficult for her as sessions were basically a battlefield. Challenge after challenge, the piece was staged.

Viengsay Valdés, everyone knows, never takes rehearsals lightly. “Not to mention this one, which was meant for Alicia. It is challenging to trying to be on her shoes. I got to do it right.”

The truth is that Viengsay Valdés is no longer one of the leading stars in the cast, but she is now the general director. Hence, she has no much time to spare. Therefore, she granted us this interview on a short break.

—After your appointment, the support of the government, cultural institutions, artists, and public in general has been awesome. Recently, you were congratulated by Raúl Castro himself…

—He saw me dancing several times and the fact he congratulated me, on the basis of mutual respect and admiration — knowing it was me the chosen one — has been certainly a pleasant surprise and, above all, a commitment.

—You have stated that such commitment is based on continuity, but also on renewal as ballet is not an art museum.

—Continuity, of course, implies the respect for a historical legacy. But it is not alienated from renewal, evolution, the upgrade of the Cuban ballet.

“I believe there is no need to lose our essence, roots, in order to contribute with our company, its repertoire, the daily work in the halls as well as the final result on stage. Much remains to be done.

“Since my appointment as deputy artistic director, I was pretty clear. And I am very clear now that I am in charge. It is my way to brewing a change from the inside, which is paramount from my personal view.

“Dancers need versatility. It is essential to develop not only the great classic pieces in the repertoire, which is actually what we have been doing so far. We also need dancers with certain degree of skills, a wide range of styles, that may lead them to perform with any choreographer, any language.

“This is vital. We cannot be labeled as a company that only focused on dance. We need to be a comprehensive dance company by boasting an international signature.

“A signature, of course, to make the company stand out. This is not about encouraging individualism. But you need to see diversity in styles and expressions.

“That is my goal with dancers. That is the way to finish off the artistic and technical development of them all.”

—There is a tradition of dancers who have led companies while still dancing. Alicia herself did it for a while. To what extent is it a challenge for you?

—I can confirm it is tough. Nobody can imagine my daily routine. I devote my morning to the physical side, my training, improve my technique…classes, rehearsals. In short, my constant improvement as a dancer.

“But it is totally the opposite in the afternoon: I have to address the administrative part. A lot of things; for instance, the schedule — especially now that we are organizing the International Ballet Festival, dedicated to Alicia in her centennial anniversary.

“There are many things at once. A lot of details come up along the way. My days are now longer. I sometimes start at 8:00 and I am still here at 19:00. Twelve hours working hard. It is exhausting, as a matter of fact. Luckily, I may de-stress the following day while dancing. Dancing is always cathartic.”

—In other words, you have no plans to stop dancing…

—I think I am experiencing one of the best times of my life, my career, and I will take the most advantage out of it as dancers’ career is short.

“If I can keep dancing, I will do it for my fans, my public. I still have much to dance.”

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Díaz/CubaSí Translation Staff

Frank Fernandez evokes Alicia Alonso at Ibero-American festival

'For Alicia Alonso, Ave Maria by Schubert,' the famous Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez offered at the opening of the inaugural gala of the 25th Ibero-American Culture Festival.

The event takes place in the eastern province of Holguin, about 734 kilometers east of the capital, from 24 to 30 October, and the composer was the deluxe guest of a ceremony that ended Thursday with the Teatro Eddy Suñol applauding.

Wearing mourning clothes, Fernandez assured Prensa Latina that Alonso's death left him speechless, because Alicia is a piece of the Homeland, this cannot only be seen as the death of a personality.

Her legacy was transcendental, so I wanted to give something spiritual to her and maybe that is why my most emblematic theme, perhaps the one that has lasted the longest in time, has been the love song of the great rebellion and I arranged that officially all programs say 'dedicated to Alicia Alonso,' he emphasized.

It's a token of my respect, my affection and my sadness, because somehow this song, although full of vitality and love, also has a touch of lyricism and tenderness, he said.

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Cubans bid farewell to Alicia Alonso

Thousands of Cubans converged at Havana´s Great Theater on Saturday to bring flowers and bid farewell to the legendary ballet star Alicia Alonso who died in Havana on Thursday at 98.

Multiple floral wreaths, led by those sent by Cuban Communist Party leader Raul Castro and President Miguel Diaz-Canel, escorted the coffin which was placed in front of the Theater´s grand staircase. The auditorium, which currently bears her name,  was the venue where she first performed 69 years ago, with her first company.

People from all walks of life, authorities, ballet students, artists, intellectuals and admirers lined up to file past the artist’s mortal remains.

Since the announcement of the ballet star’s passing, numerous events have been held island-wide to celebrate her life and legacy. A planned performance of the National Ballet of Cuba, scheduled to inaugurate the newly refurbished Sauto Theater in Matanzas, went ahead Friday evening as planned, in tribute to the Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s concept of the show must go on.

A live national television broadcast started at 9 am carrying images of the funeral of the founder of the Cuban National Ballet, of the Cuban School of Ballet and one of the most extraordinary figures of world dance art of the last century.

The burial ceremony was scheduled for 5 pm.

A declaration issued by the National Unmion of Writers and Artists – UNEAC, stated  that Alicia Alonso "was and will be one of the most intimate symbols of national culture."

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Alicia Alonso Awarded Insignia of the Valencia College of Architects

The Cuban prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Alonso, HAS received on Friday the insignia of the Official College of Architects of Valencia, Spain.

According to a letter sent by the Dean of this center, Luis Sendra Mengual, the insignia is granted in recognition of Alicia Alonso´s professional and personal career, and in defense of the Fine Arts.

As stated in the letter, such merits are supported, among other distinctions, by the declaration of the prestigious National Ballet of Cuba (BNC) as Cultural Heritage of Cuba and international intangible cultural heritage.

The professor, academician and President of the Science Commission of the Valencia Culture Council, Jose Maria Lozano, awarded Alonso with the insignia at the house of the Cuban dancer, in Havana, where she was born 98 years ago.

I find it too hard to talk. Dancing is what I really love the most, said the BNC director before thanking repeatedly the distinction and gift of the first 15 copies of a new edition of the book entitled Alicia Alonso, Beyond Technique, by Maria del Carmen Hechavarria.

With such a reissue, the Polytechnic University of Valencia commemorates the 20 years of the Doctor Honoris Causa awarding to this living legend, and to differentiate the work she enriched it so as to present a bilingual volume (Spanish-English) and with some bibliographic updates.

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The other Alicia Created by “The Friend” Nelson Domínguez

Alicia in Black and White, in colors, sitting and dancing, flying, in life, many times Alicia and only one woman reinvented,seen from the admiration and friendship, drawn from portraits in body and soul, all presented by Nelson Domínguez to his friend Alicia.

The National Prize for Plastic Arts invites to contemplate, on his own words to CubaSí, much more than portraits of the Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso:

“I think that in this exhibition I created another Alicia, people can imagine that she is Alicia, I sometimes painted it and thought: Is this Alicia? The concern was never to paint a portrait, the intention was to make a work born on teh spur of the moment, of the will, of the inspiration, that is what prevailed in this exposition.”

"My Friend Alicia" is the name of this permanent exhibition at Events Room of the Great Theater of Havana as part of the celebration for the 26th International Ballet Festival.

During the opening, Miguel Cabrera, historian of the National Ballet of Cuba, commented the traditional connection between plastic arts and dance in Cuba, marked by names like Carlos Henríquez, Servando Cabrera or René Portocarrero and he highlighted that this collection shows a very particular vision:

"… it’s the communication of two very special beings, among which, and I am witness to this, have been a current of mutual sympathy and admiration. Nelson gives us something that has not happened and I think that any Plastic Arts historian could prove me wrong, I don't believe that no Cuban plastic arts artist has made such a complete work about the image, the being, the work and humanism of a figure of our culture… nothing escaped him and there is the human being, the teacher, the choreographer…

In exclusive talk with Cubasí, Nelson explained that he worked fom pictures of different moments on the life of the creator of the Cuban school of ballet to develop 42 portraits with diverse techniques and formats, at the same time he remembered: "Over the last years I have had three models who have inspired me greatly, they are Robaina, Fidel, and Alicia Alonso and I have been working with them… "

It’s a loving, honest work, loaded with spirituality, without abandoning for a second her style, Nelsón delivers images more or less realistic, more or less colorful, but always Alicia, multiple, admirable, transcendent:

"She baptize me with the nickname "the friend" and whenever there was a ballet event she said: “did you already invited the friend?” Always in all shows I was near her, because she had sent for me; I cooked for her many times, I have a girl who studied ballet and let me tell you it’s very sad, because if my father had had the opportunity to bring Picasso home and never brought him, I would condemn him for eternity, my daughter cannot condemn me, because I brought home the Picasso of ballet dance."

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A BALLET, A NATION: The National Ballet was Created by the Cuban People

A conversation with doctor Miguel Cabrera, historian of the National Ballet of Cuba, about his close relationship with a group where he has worked more than half of his life…

If there’s anyone in doubt, or needs any data on the ballet in Cuba, there is a person who can be of great help: historian Miguel Cabrera. Famous for being an open and accessible man, prove of this is the affability he showed when he receives us and answers our questions.

What has meant for you to be the historian of the National Ballet of Cuba for so long?

First, I have to tell you that it has been a great honor, because I studied history, and I had my first contact with the National Ballet of Cuba precisely in the year of its twentieth anniversary, in year 1968. Since then I started a systematic work with the company. On year 1969 we created the radio show Ballet and in 1970, the magazine Cuba in Ballet. It was a superb job, because everything was starting fresh. It was like changing into a living thing, in something useful everything that had been kept in the files of Alicia Alonso, a patrimony zealously kept by a woman with huge influence in this history, named Angela Grau.

"I worked doing the records, ordering. First I began logically with Alicia's work. But it was a multiple task. I didn't just do that in the company. I had to do a very diverse work, but basically were the things related to the history.

I faced a beautiful work, as are all the foundation works, I had to organize and establish the repertoire of the company, Alicia's career everything, and the career of the main figures of the company: like Fernando, Alberto, also the four jewels of Cuban ballet. But they also gave me the task of working in the magazine, in the radio show, of delivering lectures, of giving courses at the National School of Art, in the University… All in all to do what I consider is the most beautiful part in my life: this work of making ballet more popular that has led me from Maisí to Mantua.

 

"But when you ask me the question, I remember a recent interview to doctor Olga Portuondo, when she said that her appointing as historian had not been official, there is no ordinance that declared her historian of Santiago de Cuba, but it was rather by her own right. Something similar happened to me. There was a person working in Propaganda, that person was in charge of writing the shows; one day she stepped into my office and told me: “I have a surprise for you, and put me on a show, and in the show I was presented as: Miguel Cabrera, historian. Hence, my name appeared for the first time, as historian. I asked: What about this? And she replied: Alicia said to put it this way.

“The appointing as historian could not be more honorable if the founder of the company, the key figure has decided so. I have always been presented like that: our historian. My most important status. I have received several distinctions in Cuba and abroad, but for me that detail of seeing my name in the show in the early 70’s (and still on air) it’s something that honors me".

The history of the National Ballet of Cuba is written black on white especially thanks to your work. What has it implied for you that responsibility?

When you are set to the task of pioneering, it’s something very big. I have always believed something I repeat to myself many times, I said it when my book National Ballet of Cuba was premiered. Half century of glory, in 1998: I belong to a very prestigious company, next to people who have been supreme, and I have always thought that the shows are made, the glory nights pass by, the applauses fade into silence, flowers wither, but that fact must stay. That has been my modest work. With great passion, with almost a sickening passion for justness, to write down history as it was, without alterations.

"When I published a more recent book, named Ballet in Cuba. Historical notes, a person who right now occupies an important position in this country, phoned me, and said: that book is one of the prettiest gifts I have ever had, only you could have written it, because it has everything with everyone.  

That has always been my concern: everything with everyone.

"That makes a foundation, which is a starting point.

"I inherited something from a beloved old friend whose name is almost forgotten he is José Antonio González. He left me the foundations. I took advantage of them. But when I look at the Ballet of Cuba, I see its dancers, I see Alicia's career, that of Alberto, Fernando, and the four jewels, the three graces, the choreographers, when I see I was able to capture all that in books, I think that is a source.

"Immodesty is really bad, like fake modesty. I know I have left very valuable books, but not because I wrote them, but for the greatness it carries what I have gathered. My task has been to be next to that. What does it make me a unique historian? Well, many historians are very good, they are devoted to study the sugar industry, but have never walked into a sugar cane factory. And I have written those books from inside, I am a member of this company. I have seen those choreographers grow, those dancers. I saw that generation that began in 1968, in the summer. I gave my first lecture on September 25th, 1968 here. So since that generation, I have seen them all enter. I saw the jewels become acclaimed figures. I have seen entire generations of dancers grow. I have been the chronicler."

Which has been the contribution of the three founders of this company to the Cuban culture?

I am a very lucky person. I graduated from history, but when I came here my true university began, from Alicia's hand, Fernando and Alberto. Do you imagine the honor that such personalities believe in you? That they turn everything you have inside? Imagine that those people give you the technical, aesthetic and ethical reasons that have ballet in Cuba…

"Alicia, Fernando and Alberto are the foundations of ballet in Cuba. I struggle a lot, as outcome of my investigations, to bring together their roles in the history. It is not true (only someone who doesn’t know history would say) that Alicia is just the great dancer that Fernando is only the great teacher, that Alberto is only the great choreographer… that is a limitation on the greatness of them three.

“Can somebody say that Alberto Alonso, the director of the Ballet School of Pro Art, since 1941 until 1961 who has been teacher in the musical theater who trained Josefina Méndez and Loipa Araújo, was not also a great teacher? Fernando was also a dancer, and a person who passed on his experiences. He knew a lot about kinesiology and muscles, but he knew it mainly because he had felt it in his flesh and blood.

"And Alicia? What can we say about Alicia? Of course, the classroom was filled mainly by Fernando, but one is not only a teacher when giving a chronology or a class, but when one sets the example. And Alicia did that and even more, she did it when she made corrections to the other dancers, when she offered lessons on style…

"I believe that the most beautiful thing about this I heard it from Fernando Alonso. One of those days, when listening to those polemics of people who love gossip (I have always been in the party of those who unite), Fernando said: do you know who made the National Ballet of Cuba and the Cuban School of Ballet? They were created by the Cuban people".

A New Giselle Season at Havana’s Grand Theater Alicia Alonso

The ballet Giselle will again thrill audiences at and bring beauty to Havana’s Grand Theater with a Cuban National Ballet Company season Feb 23/25 - March 1/4.  

Choreographed by Cuba’s dance legend, Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso, after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, the shows of the ballet classic will be danced by premier dancers Anette Delgado, Viengsay Valdés and Grettel Morejón and Sadaise Arencibia. The role of Albrecht is set to be assumed by Rafael Quenedit, Patricio Revé and Raúl Abreu; while Hilarión will be danced by Ernesto Díaz, Luis Valle and Ariel Martínez. Claudia García and Chavela Riera will make their debut as Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, a role who will also be danced by principals Ginett Moncho and Ely Regina Hernández.

Inspired by a German folk tale, Giselle is one of the most important pieces in the repertoire of the Cuban National Ballet Company. Cuban ballet and dance were recognized in the world scene for the first time with Giselle and Alicia Alonso as its exceptional performer.

Edited by Damian Donestevez
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Inside the Theater

This will be a new proposal of the Great Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso, since June 30 as part of the guided journeys they organize every Friday.  

This new activity of that outstanding cultural institution is part of the celebrations for its 180 years of foundation, about to turn in 2018.  

Therefore, starting this week visitors will have the opportunity, every Friday, in the first journey of the day, to know spaces and workspaces to which they usually don’t have access with the guided visits.  

In these halls that will be included in this new journey, it’s developed the entire process of preparation for the shows to be on stage. Among the spaces to be visited appear: the stage, the behind curtains, the basements, the theater’s roof and the dressing rooms. Undoubtedly, a very special attraction will be the visit to the dressing room which regularly used the mythical Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso, head of the Cuban National Ballet, during her memorable performances in that theater.  

With this new option, it’s encouraged a better approach of the public to that representative theater through its history, its performances and the traditions gathered behind its walls for over 180 years.  

Across from the Cuban Central Park, in the Prado of Havana, the Great Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso rises as one of the architectural jewels of this capital city holding great relevance for the city life. Inaugurated in 1838, as Tacon Theater, that institution is today a valuable treasure of culture and Cuban identity, as well as a landmark when spoken of history

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