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!
Even the repertoire of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba is from another time – never have I seen so many of the Romantic Era ballets performed so often and so true to their roots. In fact it is indisputable that Alicia Alonso herself learned the roles from early masters across Europe, who saw and celebrated her star quality. Alonso trained in Cuba but travelled extensively as a ballerina, settling in for a time with American Ballet Theatre in New York City in the 1940’s and later was celebrated as prima ballerina assoluta across eastern and western Europe, Russia, Asia, North and South America before Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba in 1959. Always free to travel the world, she chose to move back to Cuba at his invitation to build the local culture and joined forces with her husband Fernando Alonso to create a national school of dance. Before the days of copyright and intellectual property, she brought her knowledge of the roles and ballets as her own to her tiny home country of Cuba, where she kept them alive and thriving from her memory – with just a few tiny quirky changes in choreography. Off the radar as a communist country, classical ballet thrived in Cuba under Castro’s government, away from outside influences – just the reverent, ongoing preservation of a world legacy. The company does have close ties to Spain, where it tours every year and Spanish dance is part of the curriculum of study at the Escuela. Since the start of more extensive international touring, including visits to Canada at least five times, the company’s international reputation has grown and the world is currently sitting up and noticing! I researched ahead of time and in my effort to support the Festival, I joined a British group that, almost a decade ago, began commissioning a new choreographic work for the company to premiere at each successive Festival - an important aspect of encouraging the company’s growth and vibrancy. This season’s production of Oscurio was well-received and you might think of it as a total departure for the dancers but it was good work and well done; they showed a full command of the contemporary style.
A rich lineup of performances, behind the scenes rehearsals, company classes – I lost count of the days – and such a crazy schedule is not for the uninitiated, but it felt like heaven to me...About two weeks later, filled with music and dance in my head, I reluctantly landed back in reality here at home in Toronto. Laundry, food shopping - and dance classes to plan – now that is how I will be able to relive my wonderful odyssey to Havana, and share the intriguing insights I learned from the experience. It’s definitely true that travel is educating!
Guest Author - Jan Garvey
Jan Garvey trained in Ottawa originally and is a graduate of Ryerson Theatre School (Dance). She became a registered Royal Academy of Dance teacher in 1976 and also holds teaching qualifications in ISTD Modern and National Dance. She has had an extensive teaching career in the GTA and was appointed National Director/Canada of the Royal Academy of Dance in 1988. This afforded the opportunity to work nation-wide as well as internationally to facilitate all aspects of the RAD mandate to students in training as well as the certification of dance teachers worldwide. She led a panel of dance experts during the revision of Ontario’s high school curriculum, which resulted in high school credits for private dance education, a model which has now been adopted in other provinces. Ms Garvey served on the Advisory Panel at Ryerson University which accomplished the introduction of a dance degree program at Ryerson University. She has collaborated with studios, companies and teaching institutions to raise the profile of, as well as the regulation of professional teachers of classical ballet throughout her career and remains involved to this day. She is a Board member of the Heliconian Club for Women in the Arts and recently created a Dance Artist in Residence program there. She devotes much of her time to her passion for teaching classical ballet as well as ballroom dance.