Guest post by Jan Garvey
Read Part 1 here
The Opening Gala evening is a stunning affair in the newly renovated Gran Teatro; right out of the 1800’s in its design, and gorgeous marble stairs dominate everywhere you look. Every evening, audience members assemble on those stairs for picture taking, before and after the performance. And the inaugural performance does not disappoint. Our eyes follow the crowd and we watch for the arrival of Alicia Alonso, Founding Director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, who is now 96 years of age. She is helped to her seat in the middle of the first balcony. She lightly rests her hands on the railing and views her adoring audience, then, incredibly, gives us a brief image of dying swan arms, sweeping them upward benevolently in gratitude for the applause and the shouts of ‘brava’ heard from below, before seating herself. She is quite short and at that point, seems to disappear from view entirely. No matter, as she is blind - I imagine she easily enjoyed the orchestra and relived her glory days. We saw her rehearsing the defile of the School and Company members earlier in the day, a tradition which opens the Festival since its first occurrence in 1960 and even the assembled group of students, dancers and stage crew stopped everything and gave her a standing ovation when she entered the space. She was whisked away soon after... and thus the impression that she is always a fleeting image. She dresses in a flowing robe and a coordinated turban (she last danced on the stage at the age of 74) – different colours every night and always bright lipstick on her dramatic face. You know you are in the company of a beloved icon who, along with her husband Fernando Alonso, now deceased, honed the signature Cuban style of dance, which the dancers so capably demonstrate. They are athletic and dramatic, and can jump and turn like crazy! The Havana dance season continues almost year-round; that means steady employment for dancers and orchestra musicians, and a well-educated audience. In the absence of TV except for the official state channel (except for pirated access from the US) and with a strong cultural background in music and dance, the whole country appears to have been raised to appreciate and honour the classical traditions of both. Cab drivers knew about the Festival and excerpts of performances were aired on national television – much the same way that we see sports highlights on the late night news. And the Cuban audience is appreciative and vocal in their applause and approval during performances. Principal dancers pause to take extra bows after their solos as a matter of course and long ovations occur regularly – fans know when the difficult parts are imminent and they shout with every successful series of turns or jumps or pas de deux. It’s invigorating and incredibly fun!
Guest post by Jan Garvey
It’s not a long flight from Toronto to Cuba, but it is a world away. As a ballet teacher, I’m on a mission with a friend to fully immerse myself in the biennial International Dance Festival for its entire nine days – watching classes, rehearsals and about 33 international dance company performances in the evenings. After a bus ride into the old city of Havana, we settle into our hotel, the Sevilla, which is a bit weatherworn but has fabulous bones – soaring ceilings, huge shuttered windows, courtyards which channel the breeze brilliantly...and slow quirky elevators, bathroom fixtures which need to be coaxed and lukewarm heat from the hairdryer and lukewarm cold from the mini-fridge. The building is definitely from another century, and, sure enough, there are historical pictures on the walls with successive shots of the hotel front from the early 1900’s. Together they are a time capsule with a changing parade of people and vehicles from each decade since – covering over one hundred years!
When we discover our busy schedule ahead of us, we realize we will have to give up dinner each day to fit it all in – and we agree to have a big breakfast and a substantial lunch in the mid-afternoon, and see how that works. It worked well, and conveniently, we are walking distance to the main venues we will be frequenting – the Gran Teatro and the Escuela de Ballet Nacional de Cuba. In fact the Prado, the promenade that we take every evening to and from the Gran Teatro, is a study itself in the Cuban sensibility; artists with their kiosks, families, kids on skateboards, dogs running free, and music, always. Interestingly, no neon lights anywhere – just lovely lampposts from another age that grace the so-civilized pedestrian walkway. The weather varies between warm and hot; sometimes it rains but mostly not. It’s usually a passing shower or sometimes stronger than that, with high winds that stop everyone briefly while waiting it out under the colonnade of a nearby building, then we all carry on our way, freshened up a little, blinking in the bright sunshine. It’s coming to the end of the rainy season here in Cuba and people are starting to dress for winter. Long pants and long sleeves – while we Canadians are basking in the perfect mid-twenty degree days.