Cuban ballet performs in Kelowna on inaugural Canadian tour
At 91 years old, Alicia Alonso is arguably the best Giselle of the 20th century and the ballet company she founded, the National Ballet of Cuba, dances among the top tier internationally—still under her direction.
Ballet Kelowna and the Kelowna Community Theatre still aren't entirely sure whether Alonso herself will arrive with the company when it performs here early February, but they guarantee the Okanagan will experience dance as it never has before, and possibly never will again.
"I can't really tell you how excited I am as a former dancer and now as a teacher and choreographer to know that the National Ballet of Cuba is going to be here in Kelowna," said David LaHay, Ballet Kelowna artistic director. "For many of the audience that come to see this, this may be the only chance in their lives that they will get to see this stellar a company."
For those who don't know the dance world as intricately, theatre manager Randy Zaraha gave a succinct explanation.
"Talking to people in the dance world, this is the equivalent of bringing Cold Play to our stage for the music world," he said.
He didn't need to add that having a world renown ballet company wind its way to a mid-sized Canadian city, somewhat off the cultural beaten path, is unusual.
At a press conference held mid-week in the theatre, Zaraha summarized the feat by disclosing a dance promoter out of Vancouver, whose dream has been to bring the formidable artists north, contacted him last year. The National Ballet of Cuba has never graced a Canadian stage, let alone one in a smaller city like Kelowna, he said. For the theatre, it appeared the perfect way to celebrate its 50th year.
Securing the company itself is a coup, but even the mere chance that Alonso might attend is enough to attract diplomatic to attention.
"Credit for the excellence and popularity of ballet in Cuban culture rests squarely with Alicia Alonso, an internationally renowned prima ballerina assoluta," wrote Matthew Levin, Canadian Ambassador to Cuba, in a statement released this week. "At age 91 and nearly blind, Alicia Alonso is still at the helm of the Ballet Nacional, and despite her age and frail body, she shows no signs of leaving. She has played such a pivotal role in ballet, in Cuba and on the world stage, that many can't imagine life without her."
Robert Middleton, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who now lives in Kelowna, said he once entertained the dancer, who is widely credited as the cultural mother of Cuba, and described her as a "very impressive woman."
"She said: In this world, you have to struggle for what you get or what you want to obtain," he said, recalling their first meeting.
"It used to be said in Cuba that even Castro himself shivered on his legs when she came to call, she was such a formidable, personable lady," Middleton added.
Alonso has a story like no other. The ballerina experienced problems with her eyesight when she was just 19 years old and became known for dancing partially blind, her partners expected to meet their mark impeccably. Even late into life, she was capable of bringing an audience to tears when she danced, according to LaHay, who saw it for himself.
"It is her company that is her passion and they dance well for her," he said, noting he watched her dance a pas de deux in Montreal for a benefit that captivated her fans, though she was well beyond her stage years at that point.
Despite being bedridden in recovery from eye operations several times, Alonso never gave up on her love. She learned her best role, Giselle, while lying in bed. Her husband, a dance teacher who helped her found the company, traced the moves on her hand as she lay completely still, moving only her feet.
Upon returning to more normal life after a year of bed rest, she was immediately injured in a hurricane. A door exploded on her, spraying shards of glass all over her face, miraculously missing her eyes. The incident prompted doctors to rescind a ban on her dancing, saying if she could survive a hurricane, she could likely return to the stage.
Alonso went on to found the National Ballet of Cuba in 1948 and, when Fidel Castro took control of the country in 1959, used the government's commitment to making arts accessible to all of Cuba to parlay her talents into an internationally revered company.
Today, Cuban dancers, trained in the free ballet schools run by the country's communist government, go on to become principal dancers in the world's top ballet companies.
Under Alonso's direction, the impending show will showcase the spectacular Russian technique and fiery Latin passion that's made its mark on the dance world. Some 36 members of the company will perform The Magic of Dance, a pas de deux and collection of international dance repertoire. While in Vancouver, the full company will give four performances of Don Quixote.
The National Ballet of Cuba will be performing at Kelowna Community Theatre for two shows—Saturday, Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 12 at 2 p.m.