Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Passion fuelling Cuban ballet boom

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Young girls at the Havana Dance School
Ballet offers a rewarding and glamorous career to young Cubans
Cuba is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's revolution, but there is another influential Cuban who has been firmly in control for even longer.

Legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso founded what became the Cuban National Ballet in 1948.

For the past week aficionados from around the world have descended on Havana for the International Ballet Festival, marking the company's 60th anniversary.

"I think it's one of the two top companies in the world," said Clara Yoost, one of a group of Californian ballet lovers attending the gala opening at Havana's Grand Theatre.

"They have perfect training, incredible musicality and a long tradition. They are magnificent, a sheer joy to watch."

Island exports

Cuba may be better known for its Afro-Latin music and salsa, but its leading ballet dancers are also in great demand around the world.

This Caribbean island has become a major exporter of dancers, including superstars such as Carlos Acosta at the Royal Ballet in London and Jose Manuel Carreno at the American Ballet in New York.

In many places this is considered an elitist art form but in communist Cuba ballet has a mass following both in theatres and on television.

Cuban dancer Joel Carreno
Joel Carreno says ballet is well-received across the country

Jose Manuel's younger brother, Joel Carreno, is a principal dancer with the National Ballet.

"Everyone, even taxi drivers, knows about classical ballet, the company, the dancers," he said. "It's amazing when you go on stage. The knowledge and warmth of the people, everybody knows you and wants to see you dance."

Now dancers from around the world come to train in Cuba. Thomas Lund is a principal at the Royal Danish Ballet. He describes the sessions as "tough and physical".

"They are really amazing turners and know how to do big tricks in the air. I come from the Danish tradition where it's a little more understated. So for me to train here is really good," he said.

State support

The popularity and quality of Cuban dance is a tribute to Alicia Alonso. This legendary 87-year-old prima ballerina assoluta is almost blind but continues to direct the company.

On opening night she received the longest and loudest standing ovation as she was led onto the stage, guided by two of her top male dancers. She then took her seat in the audience, joining President Raul Castro.

President Raul Castro (L) with Alicia Alonso at the opening of the 21st International Ballet Festival on 28 October 2008
Both Cuban leaders and Alicia Alonso have helped develop ballet in Cuba

"If Alicia hadn't stayed in Cuba, ballet would never have come here," said Loipa Araujo, who has been with the company since 1955 and is now a teacher.

"I think Fidel and Alicia understood each other from the start. In those days Fidel Castro was interested in developing Cuba as a country and culture formed a very important part.

Alicia Alonso first found fame and fortune in the United States. In 1943 she was asked to step into the lead role in Giselle at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York after the principal ballerina was taken ill. The rest, as they say, is history.

She was also a passionate supporter of the revolution, returning to Havana following the overthrow of the former dictator Batista.

Loipa Araujo remembers taking ballet to the farms and factories after the revolution, giving performances and explaining the language and techniques of classical dance.

It is one reason, she believes, why Cuba today has such knowledgeable audiences.

"From the first moment Fidel told Alicia that he would fully support the Cuban ballet and that all he wanted was a good company. I think that has been our goal all these years."

High prestige

Communist Cuba's links and cultural exchanges with the former Soviet Union helped reinforce the interest in ballet. Like the old Soviet systems, the authorities here have also taken selective education very seriously.

Any child showing promise gets free training at specialist schools and the state pays for everything, right down to the shoes.

The Havana Provincial Dance School takes pupils from nine years old. They face a gruelling daily schedule of ballet, music and composition, along with French and physical training.

Boys train at the Havana Ballet School
Many boys, as well as girls, compete for places in ballet schools

The facilities are modest. Teachers bring their own cassette or MP3 players with the music to dance to, but the results are impressive. Carlos Acosta and the Carreno brothers both started here.

"We work hard to make them great dancers," said director of dance Raquel Aguero. "It's not just for Cuba, there's also a huge international demand."

In Cuba, artists such as painters, musicians and dancers are free to travel and to live and work abroad. It is seen as bringing prestige to the country.

The one exception is sport, which remains strictly amateur. Top athletes are not allowed to play professionally abroad.

The fact that ballet offers such a potentially glamorous and rewarding career has started to attract large numbers of boys wanting to dance.

At this school almost a third of the 300 pupils are boys, with many more auditioning than are accepted.

"It's in nature of boys to be competitive," said Raquel Aguero.

"They want to dominate the space around them and look strong in front of the girls. So when they dance with a ballerina they want to look strong, elegant; they make handsome couples."

This may be a macho country but in Cuba ballet has such a high profile that there is no stigma attached to boys who want to become dancers.

The Cuban National Ballet may be full of highly talented ballerinas. But it is the male dancers who have become one of the defining characteristics of Cuban ballet in the 21st Century.

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