American Ballet Theatre Arrives in Cuba
HAVANA (AP) - American Ballet Theatre dancers promised pirouettes - not politics - during the troupe's historic visit to Cuba this week, the first by the New York-based company since shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution turned the island into a U.S. nemesis.
America's premier ballet company was in Havana to pay homage to Cuba's most famous ballerina, 89-year-old Alicia Alonso, who danced with the American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s and 50s before returning to her homeland to found Cuba's National Ballet.
The trip is part of a surge in feel-good cultural and artistic exchanges since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, though political headway between the Cold War foes has been harder to come by.
Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the U.S. ballet company, said the dancers were here as artists, not politicians - but that he hoped such cultural exchanges could help improve understanding across the Straits of Florida.
"It is very difficult to say what political impact our presence here will have, because we are not politicians," he said at a press conference kicking off the trip on Tuesday. "It is not our purpose here to do anything but speak of our cultural sameness. I think it is that dialogue that will expand to brighter and more positive horizons in the future."
Alonso, who has been nearly blind for decades, continued to dance into her 70s and remains one of the most recognized prima ballerinas in the world.
Julie Kent, one of the company's best-known ballerinas, said it was a particular thrill to perform in front of the legendary dancer herself.
"She set such a standard at American Ballet Theater that it is one of the reasons that it is such a great company," she said. "We all feel very much that we are her grandchildren, just as the dancers in the National Ballet de Cuba are."
The U.S. dancers will perform scenes from "Siete Sonatas," ''Fancy Free" and "Theme and Variations" - a ballet written by George Balanchine in 1947 specifically with Alonso in mind - during performances Wednesday and Thursday at Havana's 5,500-seat Karl Marx theater.
They are one of a host of renowned ballet troupes from around the world who have traveled to Cuba for the 22nd International Ballet Festival of Havana, called this year in honor of Alonso's 90th birthday, which will take place Dec. 21. Dancers from the New York City Ballet were also taking part in the festival.
The American Ballet Theater troupe includes two Cuban-American dancers, Jose Manuel Carreno and Xiomara Reyes. Reyes, a prima ballerina, is making her first visit to Cuba since leaving the island as an 18 year old in 1992.
She told The Associated Press she has not slept well for weeks in anticipation of her return - a mix of excitement and nervousness at seeing old friends and performing before her own people. She said she was struck both by Havana's beauty - and the extent to which its buildings have crumbled since she left.
"I am filled with so many emotions: sadness, joy, everything," she said. "To be here and see people you haven't seen in 18 years. It is very beautiful to see that the people remember you."
Reyes said later at the press conference that she felt as if she were on "an emotional roller coaster."
"It is not just returning to Cuba after 18 years and seeing the public that witnessed the beginning of my career, which touches me deeply," she said, her eyes filled with emotion. "It is also the fact that I bring my company with me, a company which has not been here for 50 years, and which has been so important to Cuban ballet."
The last time American Ballet Theater was in Cuba was in April 1960, for the first Havana festival.
Cultural exchanges have been few and far between in recent years, particularly during the administration of President George W. Bush, who cut the number of visas given to Cuban artists and toughened travel restrictions for Americans hoping to visit the island.
That has changed under Obama. The ballet company's trip comes on the heels of a similar visit last month by famed American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. Several Cuban musicians - including Silvio Rodriguez, Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdes - have toured the United States in recent months.
The cultural exchanges have so far not been accompanied by any meaningful thaw in relations. The U.S. has maintained a 48-year trade embargo on Cuba, and has demanded political and economic openings before it lifts the sanctions.
Cuban leaders say the embargo is cruel, and that America has no business telling them what kind of government they should have.
President Raul Castro has in recent months instituted sweeping economic changes designed to inject a measure of capitalism into Cuba's tottering socialist economy. His government has also released most of the 52 prisoners of conscience it still held in jail from a 2003 sweep.
The changes have been met with lukewarm approval in Washington, where officials have said they would like to see evidence of more concrete action.
Cuba continues to hold an American subcontractor, Alan Gross, on suspicion of spying. U.S. officials have said his release is crucial before any significant political progress can be made.
Heriberto Cabezas, one of the ballet festival's main organizer, said he hoped more American companies would participate in the future.
"The fact we have not had American ballet companies here in the last 10 years is not because we didn't want them," he said, referring to the difficulty in obtaining U.S. government permission. "We are in a new era and we hope it lasts a long time."