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Dance review: Ballet Nacional de Cuba at Segerstrom Center

June 16, 2011 | 12:30 pm

Swan Lake
Those who have followed Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, know to expect a specific kind of classicism in its performances. 

It’s a style unearthed as if from a decades-old time capsule, revealing well-articulated, generous and exuberant dancing.

Ballet-gallery Sadly, the Cuban group was in a wan state Wednesday evening at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where it began a two-part Southern California engagement. The dancers -- ever gracious, still polished and even occasionally vivacious -- have had their personalities wrung out. Economic conditions have long deprived them of the decent sets, costumes and toe shoes they deserve. But genuine human warmth, rather than empty grinning, used to percolate in every step, from the principals through the corps de ballet. One saw few bubbles and little individuality the other night.

Undoubtedly, Alonso’s abridged choreography of the 19th century classics has taken a toll. This “Magic of the Dance” program (10 years ago, the same ballets were packaged as “The Magic of Alonso”), consisted of excerpts from “Giselle” (Coralli/Perrot), “Sleeping Beauty” (Petipa), “The Nutcracker” (Ivanov), “Coppelia” (Saint-Léon), “Don Quixote” (multiple credits, after Gorsky) and “Swan Lake” (Ivanov). The evening concluded with “Gottschalk Symphony,” a simplistic Latin-inflected work that Alonso created in 1990 using two movements from composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s "A Night in the Tropics."

The 90-year-old director, who founded Ballet Nacional and has ruled it for 63 years, has simplified and distorted the dance heritage. Distinctions among ballets have been steam-rolled, making everything and everyone look hauntingly similar. Few genuine onstage risks were allowed; spontaneity was banned. 

Danseurs were not trusted with bravura combinations. Broad gestures and self-conscious head tilts replaced expressive port de bras. Ballerinas began supported turns on their own, but were then manually spun by their partners like toys. Cuban conductor Giovani Duarte slowed down and sped up the Pacific Symphony musicians, manipulating the musical phrasing and assisting the dancers with their  concluding flourishes. 

The performers live on this bland diet, but they are well-schooled. Some managed to pull off amazing feats. They have an undeniable charisma that’s born from Alonso’s heroic style. Like principal Viengsay Valdés, most could balance unhindered by gravity. Yet certain technical flaws were also noticeable throughout the ranks, such as weak turn-out and floppy feet. 

Several dancers did make standout impressions. As Swanilda in “Coppelia,” Grettel Morejón flashed impressively crisp steps on a high pointe. Her partner, Osiel Gounod, easily lifted skyward, etching his beats with quick, solid legs. He also lifted Morejón so far over his head that she was nearly behind him, causing this viewer and others onstage to flinch. 

As Basil in “Don Quixote,” Alejandro Virelles was the night’s most tantalizing presence. One sensed underneath his super-assured demeanor, that a volcanic talent exists. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to see him fully realized.

In “The Nutcracker,” Marizé Fumero and Lissi Báez flew through the Waltz of the Flowers solos with sweet assurance. Cavalier Ernesto Álvarez jumped with distinction.  

The corps de ballet, men and women alike, supported the story-telling as best they could, given the abbreviated nature of each offering. The Cubans' appealing pride, expressed through an open, lifted and proud chest and head, made up for some shortcomings. Again, one mourned for the potential untapped.

The late Agnes de Mille, choreographer, dancer and prolific writer, once summarized that Cuba’s three chief exports are “cigars, sugar and Alicia Alonso.” It’s time that the institution and dancers of Ballet Nacional de Cuba took precedence over its founder, who loves this company, yes, but too well.


Alicia Alonso, Cuba's living legend of ballet

Dance review: Pacific Northwest Ballet premieres a reconstruction of 'Giselle' in Seattle

--Laura Bleiberg

Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787, “Magic of Dance” classical excerpts through Sunday. www.scfta.  “Don Quixote,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 972-0711, June 23 through June 26.

Photo: The Ballet Nacional de Cuba dances a scene from "Swan Lake." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times