Dancers Present Their Art to a Knowledgeable and Grateful Audience

The 26th International Ballet Festival of Havana includes a special program this year to “honor the past, celebrate the present, and reflect on the future” This beautiful and simultaneously challenging concept was explained by Heriberto Cabezas, general coordinator of the Festival, and head of the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC) public relations department, in an

This year it’s the 75th anniversary of Alicia Alonso’s debut in Giselle. (Photo taken from

The 26th International Ballet Festival of Havana includes a special program this year to “honor the past, celebrate the present, and reflect on the future”

This beautiful and simultaneously challenging concept was explained by Heriberto Cabezas, general coordinator of the Festival, and head of the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC) public relations department, in an interview with GI.

This program imbues the event with new color…

This year we have anniversaries to celebrate and this has conditioned the Festival a little. First of all, is an anniversary that is not the most publicized and yet, for us, it is the most important. It’s like the big bang – from there everything else emerged – it’s the 75th anniversary of Alicia Alonso’s debut in Giselle. If that had not happened, Alicia would not have become a star and would not have founded, in 1948, the company that first carried her name and today is the National Ballet of Cuba.

How is the Festival organized?

From the point of view of organization, it’s curious because each year we face a challenge – the writer faces the blank page and we are faced with a blank program, and say: What are we going to do? And with the resources we have, because we can’t dream as big as other festival directors, who spend their time traveling the world, choosing what they want for their festivals. Logically, we don’t have the financial capacity to choose. When it comes to coordination, we start from a concept that helps us get the ball rolling in the search for artists, because we don’t accept anyone who wants to come. Keep in mind that this is mostly a classical ballet festival, and we must maintain that to a large extent, although we also include some other forms of folkloric, contemporary, and modern dance.

Tell us about the invitations…

Before it was easier, I mean budget-wise. We must remember that the Festival was never interrupted, not even in the most financially difficult moments of the ’90s, due to the determination of Alicia Alonso and the willingness of the country to support it. The titanic task of organizing and securing those needs was at that time very hard, and still is. In all festivals around the world, artists are paid expenses, transportation, lodging, food, and for their work. In our Festival, artists are not paid for performances. One may think that this is simple, but we must bear in mind that those who come here are losing potential earnings, and artists live off these. They really make a big effort. They come to gift the public with their art.

And are there many who want to come to Havana…

In this task of inviting and convincing, I have two great aids: the first is Alicia Alonso, and citing BNC historian Miguel Cabrera, her “rallying gift” is real, she had it and still has it – her name opens doors. And second, the Cuban public. The greatest reward that the artists who come to perform at the Festival have is the applause of an audience that knows ballet. In other places, who goes to see the ballet? The people who have the money to pay for the expensive tickets. Here, thanks to a policy of the Revolution to make culture accessible to all, we know that there is a large mass of spectators knowledgeable about the art of ballet, and that is the greatest prize artists receive.

Let’s go back to the concept for this Festival…

This year in particular, we set out to honor the past, celebrate the present, and reflect on the future, because 70 years is an important anniversary, in which there is a story to honor – in the figure of Alicia – and we are lucky that she is still with us.

And to celebrate this present and see where that history has led us, and reflect on the future, where we are headed and what we are going to achieve. Contrary to what some believe in other parts of the world, especially those who believe that ballet is not going to thrive on a small island like Cuba, it is quite the opposite –ballet is rooted, almost in the DNA of Cubans, and that will not change. And we have ballet schools and therefore we have guaranteed the future of the company, as well.

How is this reflected in the programming?

To honor the past we have all the galas, particularly that of November 2, which we have prepared specially – a unique Giselle, with many surprises, within a program created, logically, in tribute to Alicia Alonso. The 2nd, marking the anniversary, is for her, to honor that debut moment.

Included in the program are great names of the international scene, such as the principal dancers of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), Hee Seo and Cory Stearns, and Isabella Boylston, and Aram Bell; Maria Kochetkova, who is now with the Norwegian National Ballet, together with Joaquín de Luz, who ends his artistic career with the New York City Ballet (NYCB) a few days before, and comes to dance this Giselle – it is a great attraction to see him, even more so as the NYCB doesn’t perform this classic; Xander Parish, an Englishman who dances in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, will be the partner in Giselle of the BNC prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés. From the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón, of Buenos Aires, come Camila Bocca, Juan Pablo Ledo, Macarena Giménez and Maximiliano Iglesias; the international star Rasta Thomas returns; Rainer Krenstetter, of the Miami City Ballet; Marian Walter, from the Munich Ballet; the Cuban Javier Torres with Julie Charles, from the Northern Ballet of the UK, and the Cuban Jorge Vega with Valeria Alavés, from Mexico.

Of course the principal dancers of the BNC will be very present, and for example, Sadaise Arencibia will perform in Giselle with Rolando Sarabia, one of the most important names of the Cuban ballet diaspora. He is one of the main guests that we have to reconcile with dancers who were once in the company and are no longer there, but who have returned to honor these anniversaries. Another dancer who returns to perform in Giselle is Hayna Gutiérrez, who will be accompanied by the principal dancer of the BNC, Dani Hernández. The galas in which the stars will participate will be held, as always, in the Grand Theater of Havana.

A new feature is the presence of many Cuban dancers who are with other companies…

The BNC is a family that is reunited in this edition of the Festival. That’s why we have some dancers who left for different reasons, and the BNC welcomes them alongside its principal dancers. I speak of those who are going to dance, among them Yanela Piñera, Camilo Ramos, Taras Domitro, Carlos Quenedit – because there is another opportunity for reunion at the Alicia Alonso Pedagogical Conference, master classes and a colloquium to be held at the National Ballet School. They were principal dancers and come to give classes, to transmit the knowledge that they obtained here, as well as that they have accumulated – I refer in this case to a younger generation: Lorna Feijoo, Nelson Madrigal, Lienz Chang, and Víctor Gilí.

The companies?

This year we are inviting the Ballet of the National Theatre of Prague; Stars of American Ballet, who are basically NYCB dancers, but there are those from all over the United States, among them Daniel Ulbricht, Teresa Reichlen, Ask la Cour, Sterling Hyltin, Adrian Danchig Waring, Joseph Gatti, Danielle Diniz, Indiana Woodward, Antonina Skobina, Denys Drozdyuk, and Gonzalo García; Danish Dance Theatre, which is contemporary and directed by a choreographer who has worked on other occasions in the Festival, Pontus Lindberg; and the Ballet of the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which brings a magnificent version of Carmina Burana. The international companies will perform at the Mella Theater and the Covarrubias Hall of the National Theater.

There is always a strong Spanish component. Is that the case on this occasion too?

Indeed, we will have the Rafael Amargo flamenco company; a show by the Antonio Gades Foundation, which could not be lacking in this anniversary given Gades’ relations with the BNC and with Alicia, and the flamenco dancer María Juncal returns. All the Spanish performances are concentrated in the Martí Theater, which is added as a secondary venue for the first time.

What is your view of all these coordination efforts?

It’s a challenge, but I have history behind me. Having the list completed is satisfying. I trained at Alicia Alonso’s school, that is, at the school of work. Alicia’s bar is always set very high, and that is what one tries to keep doing. When I start a task, I think about it and I have to do it at the highest level, not for any fee, but because a job well done, besides being a pleasure, must be an indisputable principle.

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