On a Mission to Cuba, Bearing Balanchine

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Sun Jun 11 17:40:57 MDT 2000

New York Times June 11, 2000

On a Mission to Cuba, Bearing Balanchine


HAVANA -- PLEASE don't laugh," says Lourdes Lopez, a former principal
dancer of New York City Ballet, "but I had a sort of second coming."
Ms. Lopez, who left her native Cuba when she was one year old, is
describing her first trip back here in 1997, at the age of 39. "For
the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere."

Upon returning to New York, Ms. Lopez called Ben Rodriguez-Cubeñas, a
Cuban-American program officer of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. "I
said, 'Ben, now is the time,'" she says. "So we got our act together
and founded the Cuban Artists Fund." The fund supports New York- and
Cuba-based artists working in all mediums. "We are trying to
re-establish cultural bridges, as well as promote better
understanding," Mr. Rodriguez-Cubeñas says. "The arts are a great
force for bringing people together."

Cuba has a strong artistic tradition, fostered by a system that
provides free higher education to those who exhibit talent. Working
in old studios where both the floorboards and the pianos are
splintering, the Cuban Escuela Nacional del Arte has a nationwide
enrollment of more than 1,200 and has produced dancers and musicians
of international acclaim. Carlos Acosta of the Houston and Royal
Ballets and José Manuel Carreño of American Ballet Theater are two of
the most famous alumni of this system.

Cuban artists work with a wealth of knowledge and a constant lack of
the basic materials of their craft. Their persistence and
resourcefulness impressed Ms. Lopez. She and Mr. Rodriguez-Cubeñas
began traveling to Cuba lugging "extra suitcases filled with brushes,
oils, canvases, point shoes, tights, CD's, music sheets, clay,
plaster of Paris, pens -- you name it," she says.

They soon learned that carrying donations to Cuba isn't easy. Most
airlines have a weight limit of 44 pounds, and point shoes are heavy.
Although Air Jamaica can be softhearted regarding humanitarian aid,
Marazul, which flies direct from New York to Havana, charges $3 per
overweight pound. "We had no money," says Ms. Lopez. Showing their
own resourcefulness, they held a benefit. Happily, they soon
discovered what is now common knowledge: Cuba is hot. The fund even
found support among Cuban-Americans in their 60's and 70's,
frequently the most virulent enforcers of the 38-year-old United
States embargo of the island.

On Tuesday, the Cuban Artists Fund will hold its second annual
benefit, "New York for Cuban Artists," at Wallace Hall on Park
Avenue. The fund has reason to celebrate. This October, at the
International Havana Festival of Ballet, the hottest ticket will most
likely be "Ballo Della Regina," which George Balanchine made for the
ballerina Merrill Ashley in 1978. In March, Ms. Ashley traveled to
Cuba to teach "Ballo" to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, in the fund's
first major collaboration with a Cuban arts organization.

When Ms. Lopez first considered traveling to Cuba in the early 90's,
she says: "It was still dicey. My parents didn't want me to go
because of repercussions in Miami. I was still actively performing in
City Ballet. My mom said, 'If you come to Miami to dance, what's
going to happen?' I was afraid for my mother. She was getting some
funny phone calls. Her friends in the tight Cuban community where she
lives said: 'I hear your daughter is going to dance in Cuba. What is
she, a Communist?' " Ms. Lopez canceled her trip. A few years later,
she retired from dancing, joined a WNBC news team and traveled to
Cuba with other journalists. Since it took place under the aegis of
the news media, her trip was overlooked by Miami Cubans. She
interviewed Alicia Alonso, the artistic director of the Ballet
Nacional and a former star of American Ballet Theater. Ms. Alonso
lured Ms. Lopez out of retirement. (When the younger ballerina
protested that she had already retired, Ms. Alonso laughed. "It's
December," she said. "I'm giving you eight months to get into
shape.") Ms. Lopez didn't dance again in Miami, but she danced in
Havana. While there, she noticed that the Cuban repertory was
distressingly light on Balanchine, and she set about remedying the
situation. She thought it was essential to give the Cuban dancers
firsthand information from someone who would demand the most of them.
"I had a sense that Merrill and the Balanchine Trust would agree,"
she says.

The Balanchine Trust protects the choreographer's copyrights.
(Paradoxically, because the United States and Cuba have no diplomatic
relations, and intellectual property is as foreign a concept to Cuba
as the Nasdaq, it's unlikely that anyone could prevent the Cubans
from dancing whatever ballets they choose. On the flip side, the
byzantine regulations guiding relations between Cuba and the United
States specify that Cuban artists working in the United States cannot
be paid.) Artistic solidarity prevailed over political punditry: the
Balanchine Trust licensed "Ballo" to the Ballet Nacional for free.

Ms. Lopez still had to get Ms. Alonso's approval. "It was like
visiting the Pope," she says. Ms. Alonso had hoped to get another
Balanchine ballet, "Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2." Ms. Lopez felt
it was too difficult for dancers unaccustomed to the Balanchine
vernacular, and began to describe "Ballo."

"I kept saying, 'If you could see this, I can send you the tape.' "
To which Ms. Alonso, who has had many eye operations and is almost
blind, responded, "Well, Lourdes, that's just not going to help me."

Ms. Lopez described "Ballo's" "little variations, hops on point,
brisées, cabrioles, tours to the knee," and the engaging energy
contained in the 20 minutes the piece takes to perform.

"Que sabrosa tu eres," said Ms. Alonso ("How delicious you are").

Ms. Lopez laughs at the memory: "That was the O.K."

Ms. Ashley describes working with the Ballet Nacional as "one of the
highlights" of her life in ballet. "They were so eager," she says. "I
didn't have to teach the men to do double saut de basques or multiple
pirouettes; they could do them at any speed." Ms. Ashley noticed an
unusual camaraderie among the dancers, "all of them rooting for each
other, helping, excited by each other's successes." Though the
dancers lack good shoes, tights and vitamins, they have a "supportive
attitude, rather than what I see in many companies -- each person
trying to outshine the next to get a better role," she says.

Like Ms. Lopez, Ms. Ashley was surprised by what the dancers did
without. "It didn't occur to me they wouldn't have a Band-Aid,
silicone pads, normal things ballet dancers now use."

Ms. Ashley anticipates returning to Cuba in October to rehearse
"Ballo" before the premiere. While Congress considers softening the
embargo to permit exports of medical products to Cuba, the ballerina
considers what to pack. "I'm inspired to bring a whole suitcase of
dancer medical supplies," she says.

Suki John, who writes and choreographs in New York and Cuba, is
working on her first book, ``Cubanilla: A Dancer in Havana.''


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