Review: Ballet Nacional De Cuba in Magia De La Danza at London Coliseum

Performance: 6 - 10 April 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 7 April 2010

Ballet Nacional de Cuba 'Magia de la Danza' 6-11 April, Part of Spring Dance at The London Coliseum

Invariably, classical ballet is a medium for telling stories through codified dance and mime, and so I’ve never understood the appeal of galas – which pull together filleted extracts from several ballets – although they often serve a purposeful celebratory or charitable theme, which makes the string of diverse snippets palatable through some other linked connection. In effect, Magia De La Danza is a gala without purpose; other than to showcase the maximum number of Cuban Premier Dancers and Principals in a single evening of dance. All eight of them are on duty in this show.

The routine, mechanical format took six of the best-known classical pas de deux and introduced each with an ensemble dance from the same ballet. So for reference, and in order of performance, we had Hilarion’s death and the second act pas de deux from Giselle; the Polonaise and Grand pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty; and the Waltz of the Flowers and the Grand pas de deux from The Nutcracker before the interval. The second part incldues the Mazurka and Grand pas de deux* from Coppélia; the Matadors’ dance and Grand pas de deux from Don Quixote; the dance of the two swans and the white act pas de deux from Swan Lake; ending with the Creole Party movement from Alicia Alonso’s Gottschalk Symphony, which seemed to largely consist of a Cuban Conga and served no purpose other than to get all eight leading dancers back onto the stage for a curtain call.

The lack of context for each dance is inevitably a problem, made much worse by the logistical difficulty of constructing a makeshift set design relevant to each scene. The relevance was also sometimes taxing: it was unusual to see the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux in The Nutcracker danced in front of a giant detail from the Christmas tree in the Stahlbaum’s living room rather than in the Land of the Sweets. The more general problem was capturing the nobility of courtly grandeur, particularly in the Sleeping Beauty extracts; and understanding the context of each piece within its intended scenario, which was especially true of the Swan Lake and Coppélia pas de deux. I’m afraid that it was all made much worse by an orchestral performance that occasionally disguised some of the most recognisable tunes in ballet; and amateurishly stereotyped set designs. The same stylised dead trees appeared in almost every backdrop (and actually exploded into many colourful versions for the finale), each looking like some sinister bacteria under a very powerful microscope. As with the full Swan Lake that opened this season, the production values of the company are now atrophied beyond the point of quaintness.

However, all that aside, there was again some genuine magic in the dancing. Viengsay Valdés ripped through her cameo as Kitri in Don Quixote with verve and incredible strength and balance. She is a naturally vivacious, showy dancer completely in command of the roles of Kitri and Odile in Swan Lake; but less consummate in capturing the more ethereal flavour of the second act Giselle and Odette. Another individual highlight was the performance of Yonah Acosta (the nephew of Carlos) with a performance of elegance, precision, and virtuosity as Franz in Coppélia that showed the magic of genealogy. This young man has a very bright future. At the other end of the scale was a woefully pedestrian Sleeping Beauty pas de deux that lacked grandeur and power. The better of a generally poor first act was The Nutcracker pas de deux of Anette Delgado and Javier Torres. Yanela Piñera and Dani Hernandez gave a reading of the Swan Lake white pas de deux that had all the right ingredients, yet remained strangely flavourless and dispassionate.

The Cuban corps de ballet is generally a delight with well drilled timing. The men, in particular, land softly and together almost without fail. Here, however, the rushed costume changes and lack of depth in the Coliseum stage meant that even these uniformly excellent standards were compromised to some degree, especially in the very first scene in Giselle where some of the Willis had to reposition themselves in order to avoid bumping each other or the makeshift scenery; and the synchronisation of the Flower Waltz was inaccurate at times. The corps de ballet was, however, again magnificent in Swan Lake (and the Mazurka and Polonaise were impeccable, too) which indicates to me that the problems were essentially ones of unfamiliar staging.

It is a given that all these Cuban dancers have tremendous technical skill in their legs and feet and can jump and spin with an effortless ease. The arms and upper body are often less conventional, a deviation from the normal traditions of classical ballet that sometimes adds to the profundity of the phrasing but, also, can create a less pleasing line that detracts from the natural elegance of the body’s shape.

If the Magic of Dance is to be measured in beautiful steps and virtuoso leaps and spins then there is plenty to be seen in this mixed series of divertissements; but for me the Magic of Dance is much, much more than just disciplined and extreme movement and this programme is just far too diverse: it skims the cream from the surface of classical ballet but is devoid of any depth, meaning or integrity. It is above all else dated and banal and, while the Ballet Nacional de Cuba retains outstanding dancers and can teach us much about the beauty of dance, it is a company in need of a radical makeover.

* a pas de deux is simply a duet for both principals; a Grand pas de deux is where this duet is followed by a solo variation for each (always man first) and a coda where they both come together again.

Ballet Nacional De Cuba are at the London Coliseum until Saturday 10 April. More details

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