I find it ironic that Cuba—whose national ballet company is celebrating its 70th year—is as much renowned for its exceptional classical ballet, including its extraordinary male dancers, who rival the best dancers in Europe, or Canada or the States, or South America (another wellspring of gorgeous ballet dancers), as it is for its legendary baseball players. (And its cigars of course, as my employer quipped recently when we were talking about it.) In a country where machismo is alive and well, the island nation where time stopped in the 1950s, it’s honorable for your little boy to wear tights and ballet shoes and learn to dance. There is probably a cultural piece to this I can’t quite grasp.
I could give the dads at my small ballet school in Knoxville a litany of reasons for their boys to come to class, ‘til I was blue in the face. Occasionally a boy did enroll in ballet class, outnumbered by girls ten times or so. But more often a saucer-eyed boy sibling stood in the lobby with his nose pressed against the window glass in the studio classroom door, watching his sister dance, and longingly; once in a while he might try to mimic what was going on inside the classroom. The prevailing attitude among a measurable population of dads, though, stayed the same: no son of mine…. In another ironic twist, it was those same dads who could grasp what I was telling them about why their girl-child needed class more than once weekly, simply by reminding them that their boy-child had baseball (or soccer or lacrosse) practice more than once weekly. You could see the lightbulb switch on. Baseball pants, I liked to point out, look an awful lot like ballet tights. Off went the lightbulb again.
I think of ballet in Cuba, though, the same way I think ballet is or at least was in Soviet-era Russia: it’s a ticket out of ignorance and poverty. Free ballet school, a free academic education isolated from the masses, clean-scrubbed children in school uniforms with food in their bellies, access to healthcare, each child the beneficiary of top-notch instruction in the arts. Becoming a professional ballet dancer in Cuba is noble. In America, even now, most people who choose the professional ballet world instead sign on for a life of, if not poverty, then at least staying stretched awfully thin, and I mean that metaphorically in this case.
Big, renowned ballet companies in America have more healthy payrolls, of course, than mid-sized or smaller companies, but the smaller companies are most of them. The average kid who finishes training (let’s say by the end of her senior year in high school or performing arts school if she’s lucky) and manages to land a job as an apprentice or trainee in a professional company, will also spend time each week standing behind a counter somewhere and asking whether you want room for cream in your decaf, and will that be for here or to go. My own ballerina mom has helped a number of students find their way to the stage and says the same thing to their parents each time it happens: be prepared to continue to support her (or once in a great while, him).
A few forward-thinking companies even offer their dancers the benefit of slowly acquiring a college education while they’re working (the majority of dancers you see on the professional stage do not come from college dance programs, which rob talented dancers of precious career time and anyway cater to a different crowd, many of them more interested in pedagogy or pursuing work as choreographers, or working in contemporary dance, on which most collegiate programs focus in the first place). These innovative programs also give professional dancers college credit for their work. It’s a brilliant idea, because young dancers immersed in their careers rarely have the luxury to plan a future beyond the stage. But it’s hardly a standard practice, not yet. Most dancers live close to the bone until they reach retirement age (or an injury stops them), and then must either reinvent themselves in a hurry, or perhaps transition to the front of the classroom, or to the stage in another guise, as ballet master or répétiteur, or choreographer, or maybe director. Whatever the outcome, the point is, it is a tough row to hoe in America.
On Thursday Chef David and I went over to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) to catch the 2:00 curtain of the National Ballet of Cuba’s Giselle. If not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it certainly was a rare one. This was David’s Valentine’s Day gift to me, an afternoon in the make these last several months. I gave him the synopsis on the drive over to prepare him for a plot I’m frankly amazed still retains its allure in this decidedly non-Romantic era of art: peasant girl meets prince in disguise, goes mad and dies in anguish when she discovers he’s promised to a princess (never mind his true identity now revealed), rises from the dead to become a Wili (think zombie, but prettier, in romantic-length tutus and wearing tights), and somehow convinces the queen Wili, Myrtha, to save the guy from death, even though he’s obviously a cad. Eh…. And somehow modern audiences eat it with a spoon, perhaps precisely because it is lore so out of step with the here and now.
I have observations on top of observations about Thursday’s performance. Was it good? You bet, in spite of the inebriated Manhattan socialite seated next to David who felt inclined to wax poetic about there’s-just-nobody-like-Baryshnikov, and then spent much of the second act—the one that you might say matters—thrashing and flailing to the overwrought score by Adolphe Adam, like the most devoted groupie at a heavy metal concert. (Did I think they would be good? she wanted to know before the first act. Well, yes, I said, it’s Alicia Alonso’s company, a star in the classical ballet firmament who danced with American Ballet Theatre during its infancy and then returned to Cuba with a vision for her own countrymen and women—and at age 97 unbelievably still serves as general director of the company.)
Cubans are a pretty people, and from what I gather, generous and warm-hearted to boot: it shows in their dancing. The men were exquisite, and that is all. In a nutshell, Cuban men are beautifully trained, ripped, and superbly expressive on the stage. And they make it look like child’s play. I noticed some unfamiliar mannerisms in the women’s dancing and need time to ask friends in the know to pick them apart for me. And I swear I noticed movement qualities I can only ascribe to Latin culture, too subtle for words, but there it was in the hips, and again in the port de bras. The company needs more resources—better costumes, sets, and better equipment (I’ve seen dancers wear less raggedy pointe shoes for rehearsals than what some of this cast wore in performance). But Cubans have learned to be resourceful of necessity (just look at their cars), and these dancers are no exception.
What will it take for us to change how we think of performing arts, and classical ballet, and boys in ballet here in America, if ever we do? One of my beloved mentors at American Ballet Theatre addressed this idea several years ago at a teacher training and said, the leader of a people sets the tone for how people appreciate—or don’t appreciate—the arts and arts education. The glowing orb he held up to us by way of example was the de Medici family in 15th-century Italy. I recall at once thinking, ah-HA! and then, oh, NO! Sometimes I think the more we evolve as a species, the stupider we get.
Anyway, someday I’d like to see the National Ballet of Cuba on its home turf, and maybe take in a baseball game. After all, every little girl ballerina wanna-be on the planet dreams of dancing Giselle, but for every Cuban boy who wants to play baseball there’s another who wants to wear Prince Albrecht’s kind of tights.
Here is a peek into the National Ballet School of Cuba. I’m not crazy about some of the training methods embraced by the school and shown in this documentary, but I love how the dads of the boy students beam with pride and how the parents universally say they want their children to be happy. Is it too much to ask the dads in ballet school waiting rooms everywhere to let their little boys be happy?