The piano never stops. On the company’s stage in Vedado, Havana, Professor Ivette Gonzalez tells the students to repeat the steps one, two and three times. And she guides them again. Her girls and boys, sweating because of the rigor, move along the stage, jump, spin around, smile in the ecstasy and go from the top of the exercise once again. That’s their daily life, in training sessions that begin at 9:00 a.m. and they are still practicing after 5:00 p.m., with the indispensable recesses to take a break and eat.

There aren’t many symbols on this island nation and the whole world that combine the value of art and pedagogy at the level Cuba’s National Ballet does. Founded by Fernando and Alicia Alonso back in 1948, this center of classic virtuosity contrasts with a country that is described by many people as noisy, amusing, with lack of perseverance. Spain, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, England, United States… these countries and many other stages acclaim the performances by the people responsible for this company or they invite a Cuban maître …

We sat down with three bright young hopes, which are presently extolled by critic voices as future stars. Chanell Cabrera, Luis Valle and Gabriela Mesa will tell us the reason why Cuban ballet is so charming.

Chanell Cabrera. Picture: Jesus Arencibia Lorenzo / PanamericanWorld

Doing it with the heart

Small and beautiful, just like she could fly, Chanell smiles and explains that it takes 8 intense years of training. Five in the elementary level and three in medium level, followed by six months of practice and then the Company decides who joins it. As for Chanell, it happened in April 2014.

And once you’re here, what’s the hardest part?

«The hardest thing is the confidence on stage. But when you do it with your heart and you enjoy it, everything flows. It’s like a magical ascent, in which new goals continuously come up».

In School, Chanell performed Don Quijote (in South Africa), Bayadera, Esmeralda, El Corsario… With the Company, she has participated in El Lago de los Cisnes, Coppelia, Don Quijote, Tarde en la Siesta. «The last one took a lot of effort, since it requires high artistic and technical level, but I did my best and everything was great», she says. When this dancer was studying the 5th year of elementary level (2010) she got the Gold Medal in the Havana International Contest of Ballet Academies and the Revelation Award. Afterwards, in medium level, she won the Gold Medal in the subsequent edition of the same event. Chanell has danced in Mexico, Peru, Canada and Italy. At the age of 19, she’s coryphaeus of the company. But her eyes, firm and tender at the same time, are focused on a clear goal: «Becoming a prima ballerina and being acclaimed around the world».

Carlos Acosta: his paradigm

Luis Valle has two reasons to be happy right now. A month ago, he was confirmed his promotion to main dancer, thus skipping the first soloist step; and he made his debut as Basilio, in the complex Don Quijote. When I ask him about the rigor of the daily training, he answers:

«It’s hard. Jumping, stretching my legs, going up… it’s very hard. The precision when it comes to guiding my steps, having full control of my body. You’re being constantly challenged to do things right, to make no mistake».

Luis Valle. Picture: Jesus Arencibia Lorenzo / PanamericanWorld

Do you think that young dancers are given enough opportunities in the company or they take too long to let these girls and boys perform leading roles?

«Sometimes you insistently ask yourself: why don’t they take me? But you later understand that there is a moment for everything you do and you have to earn it. You must never stop trying, that’s the key. If you don’t push yourself on a daily basis, you’re going to lose the opportunity when it comes up».

Many people, including specialists and viewers, speak of the virility of men as a distinctive touch of the Cuban School. Luis’ serious voice reaffirms it:

«That’s something we’re taught since we’re children, when it comes to holding the girl’s hand, looking at her eyes. The chemistry of Cuban dancing couples stands out around the world. Before going on stage, you have to establish a close relation with your couple».

Some people say that this 24-year-old dancer, who admires the music of Los Van Van, looks like Carlos Acosta. When he was just a child, Luis had the opportunity to dance with the famous Cuban dancer in Tocororo. And Carlos Acosta has been his paradigm ever since. That’s a mountain he tries to climb with his steps and gestures.

There is nothing else I want to do

«There is nothing else I want to do, but to dance», Gabriela Mesa underscores. She’s been a member of the Company since 2011. She joined it at the age of 17, and she turned 18 years old here. «Sometime the body doesn’t withstand the work and you have to pull yourself together. You have to finish what you’re doing. And you succeed».

When she was in school, Gabriela participated in Varna contest, Bulgaria, and in New York’s Grand Prix, in 2010, she ranked among the top 12 ballerinas. Gabriela has also performed in Italy, Puerto Rico and she especially remembers her stay in Canada, within the framework of the celebration for the 500th anniversary of the Canadian school. «The finest 12 ballet schools of the world came together, including the Cuban one of course, and it was great. This meeting was held in 2009. It was an amazing experience, since acclaimed figures from different ballet companies and schools shared their experiences with us. They gave us lessons in such languages as Russian, English, Spanish, French… we also participated in choreographies prepared by outstanding international masters».

Gabriela Mesa. Picture: Jesus Arencibia Lorenzo / PanamericanWorld

When I ask her about the strong pillars of the company, she says: «Counting on Alicia and Fernando Alonso. Working to hold the essence. Standing for our mark. Having our mind opened, but not to the uprooting».

As for comparisons established with ballet dancers from other countries, she believes that the performance of Cuban dancers stands out. «It’s a hard and perfectionist work. We have to be demanding, just as the first figures are. The technique has been conceived for our physiognomy».

How can you deal with vanity, especially when you are so successful at the age of 21?   

«By being strict with yourself. Although the critics speak high of me, when I watch a video, I say: awful, I need to improve it. And when I walk out of the Company, I keep my ballet shoes in the purse».

Making foundations grow

«Musicality», that’s the word used by specialized critic Jose Luis Estrada Betancourt to define Cuban ballet. According to the author of such books as De la semilla al fruto. La company and El mundo baila en La Habana, musicality embraces everything: following the rhythm, correcting gestures, synchronizing the body and intention, taking to the highest level the way pieces are performed and feeling the passion in each movement. «The school is made up of professionals, so high-quality dancers are trained there», he underlines.

Members of Cuba’s National Ballet during a rehearsal sessions. They work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a daily basis. Picture: Jesus Arencibia Lorenzo / PanamericanWorld

What do you think are the company’s weak elements?

It should give more opportunities to young talents, instead of playing it safe with those that are already positioned. The company could also diversify the repertoire a little bit. I’m not saying no to contemporary works, but the potential is huge. The works should also be focused on having dancers feeling and living the romantic atmosphere of the classics. It’s not only about technique, and Alicia has always put emphasis on this matter.

How about the material conditions?

That’s a negative aspect. Ballet dancers need the same things the rest of the people do. They need to buy clothes, food; they need higher remuneration. They know that in other countries they would be given way more money than what the get here. So they walk away, they quit this great company, although they have to dance in a small and forgotten place. Fortunately, the foundations are so powerful that new generations are always being trained.

What opportunities and risks would the closing Cuba-United States relation entail for this company?

«All in all, I think that there are more opportunities than risks. There are ballet companies in the United States that stand as international artistic benchmarks, such as the American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet. Therefore, the approach between both countries would allow dancers from those prestigious institutions to exchange experiences with the Cuban school, and our professionals could perform in stages at the northern country. This situation would also give our people the opportunity to prove their worth in an environment crowded by remarkable figures from every corner of earth, as well as well-trained viewers and critics.

Do you think that it would kind of jeopardize the identity, the distinctive mark of the Island’s company and school?

«I don’t think so. Cuban professionals that have spent years dancing with international companies, still do it with our Cuban “language”. Their hair can be blond and their eyes green, just like Anglo-Saxons, but every gesture, every expression ratifies the origin and splendor of their Antillean school».

Article by Jesús Arencibia Lorenzo. PanamericanWorld. La Habana