“The story of Cuban ballet is funny—it’s like a novel that just happens to be true,” Octavio Roca said when asked about his relationship to Alicia Alonso, the great prima ballerina and pioneer of the Cuban school of ballet. Roca, a former dance critic for The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle and now a philosophy professor, revealed that writing his new book, Cuban Ballet was in many ways like reflecting upon his own life journey.
Having grown up watching his ballerina mother dance in the Ballet de Pro-Arte Musical in Cuba, Roca witnessed the flourishing Cuban ballet movement at its inception. In the first ballet he ever watched, Giselle, Alonso was Giselle (the peasant girl) and his mother one of the Wilis (evil spirits). Thereafter, Roca covered Cuban ballet throughout his critical career, writing about Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the waves of Cuban dancers (many of whom received their training at Alonso’s company) defecting to dance companies abroad. Thus, Roca has known Alonso his whole life, both of them proud Cubans and avid lovers of dance.
Equipped with his extensive knowledge of the arts, Roca chronicles the history of Cuban ballet through vivid anecdotes and scores of gorgeous photos, written with an honest and yet impassioned sensibility to dance and its most inspiring figures.
Cuban Ballet—A School of Its Own
Today, the growing number of Cuban dancers in exile, especially those who defected to America, has profoundly influenced American and world dance, much like how the Russians did in the '70s and '80s when they left the Soviet Union amid its disintegration.
But the dance world did not immediately recognize Cuban ballet as a distinctive school capable of revolutionizing the art. “A lot of [critics], especially political critics, assume that because Cuba was under the influence of the Soviets for so very long, that the ballet must be the same. Actually, it’s not. It’s a very different tradition …The important thing is that they have a very New World look,” Roca explained.
When Alicia Alonso established her own Ballet Alicia Alonso (which later became Ballet Nacional de Cuba) in 1948, the company already had its own training and style of dancing attached to it. Roca took note of the differences between the Russian and Cuban dancers’ movements: “For example, in terms of preparation, the way a dancer prepares for a step, the Russians are known for their time … there was a way of taking a deep breath before going into a step … Cubans are the opposite. Because they began working at the same time as George Balanchine started working in New York … and what they do is they hide the preparation completely, so their moves come out of nowhere. They’re very, very fast. They have the same articulation as the Russians do, which is very clean, but they have a faster way. In many ways, they’re even a step ahead of the beat. It’s a very different look.”
Cuban dancers also have “strong backs” and emphasize the upper body, giving their movements a distinct Latin flavor. Roca said it is inevitable that dancers bring facets of their background to their performances. “All artists do that. You can’t help being who you are. But for an artist like a dancer, where your body is your instrument, it’s so personal. So vulnerable and so fragile, but really so honest. So when you see a dancer up there, that’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing some of everything the dancer has done throughout his or her whole life, and that finds its way to the steps.”
The great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov writes in the foreword to Roca’s book: “What also makes the Cuban dancers stand out, I think, is their ethics. They have a respect for ballet from an early age. It’s been said before that no one is born a dancer; you have to want it more than anything. These Cubans want it and feel privileged to be a part of it.”
Roca voiced his appreciation for the dancers’ dedication to their art. “That kind of commitment, especially in a world where so many people are homogenized, and everybody looks the same, you have to be grateful for dancers who look like what they are.”
Art and Politics—Ballet in Castro’s Cuba
But how does art survive in one of the world’s most oppressive states? After the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s coup d’etat in 1959, Alonso, having moved to New York, returned to Cuba in support of Castro’s communist regime. Since then, Alonso and her Ballet Nacional de Cuba “has grown continuously in artistic and political significance,” Roca writes in his book. Then, is ballet inextricably connected to politics in Cuba?
Roca replied, “That’s of course the elephant in the room. What Cuban artists have to go through, and dancers of course … like everyone else in Cuba, nobody should have to go through. What they have to get over, nobody should have to be able to live with. They live in an oppressive system that’s been there for half a century. They’re heroic in that they continue to make art, under really horrible circumstances … There’s no easy answer, really. Is it separable from politics in Cuba? Yes and no … What’s interesting about the Cuban company is the company itself, the repertory, is not political. That is, they dance Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty… those are things you see at the American Ballet Theater … in other words, they’re not out there doing propaganda for the regime. They’re doing ballet.”
Roca continued, “And another thing that’s worth remembering, ballet is the one thing that works in Cuba. Nothing else, frankly, especially after 1989, when the Soviets stopped supporting them financially, nothing else is working.”