Dancers Leap Over U.S.-Cuba Political Barriers

Dancers of the American Ballet Theatre perform in Havana for the first time in 50 years, Nov. 3, 2010 i i

Dancers of the American Ballet Theatre perform last week at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. The first performance of the New York-based ABT in Cuba in 50 years is part of a gradual thawing of cultural ties between the United States and Cuba. Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images
Dancers of the American Ballet Theatre perform in Havana for the first time in 50 years, Nov. 3, 2010

Dancers of the American Ballet Theatre perform last week at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. The first performance of the New York-based ABT in Cuba in 50 years is part of a gradual thawing of cultural ties between the United States and Cuba.

Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images

In Cuba, American artists and musicians are going where tourists and politicians cannot. In October, trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis came to Havana with members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And last week, the American Ballet Theater was in town for the first time in 50 years.

It's the latest attempt at cultural diplomacy for two long-estranged neighbors with similar tastes in arts and entertainment.

For two consecutive nights, Cubans packed Havana's Karl Marx Theater to watch more than 50 American dancers leap, twirl and float across the stage.

The program included George Balanchine's Theme and Variations, choreographed in 1947 for a young Cuban dancer living in New York named Alicia Alonso.

Alonso returned to Havana and founded Cuba's National Ballet. She would later become one of the Castro revolution's most loyal cultural ambassadors. Alonso, who turns 90 next month, remains Cuba's prima ballerina.

"She was one of founding members who grew up professionally in the company and set a standard for us, and it's like she's imprinted into the genetic makeup of the company," said Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the New York-based American Ballet Theatre

"Then she took that incredible gift and brought it home to Cuba. And I feel a little bit like I've brought the family home to meet the relatives," McKenzie said.

Alicia Alonso, Cuba's prima ballerina and director of Cuba's National Ballet i i

Alicia Alonso, Cuba's prima ballerina and director of Cuba's National Ballet (center) is escorted by dancers during the opening ceremony last month of the 22nd International Ballet Festival in Havana, Cuba. Javier Galeano/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Javier Galeano/AP
Alicia Alonso, Cuba's prima ballerina and director of Cuba's National Ballet

Alicia Alonso, Cuba's prima ballerina and director of Cuba's National Ballet (center) is escorted by dancers during the opening ceremony last month of the 22nd International Ballet Festival in Havana, Cuba.

Javier Galeano/AP

New Opening For Cultural Exchanges?

The family theme is in line with the Obama administration's policy of permitting Cubans with relatives on the island to travel freely, while allowing artists in both countries to travel back and forth with greater ease.

"That we were allowed to come really represents what we hope is a new opening of allowing these exchanges to happen," said Rachel Moore, the ballet company's executive director.

"We really see that the arts connect people in a really profound way, and can transform lives, and there's a shared humanity," Moore said. "And when you come to a place you may not know very well, and you share your heart and soul through the arts, people recognize that we're all the same, and that's the power."

The cultural connections between the U.S. and Cuba — whether baseball, dance or music — may be strong, but they haven't been able to achieve a political breakthrough.

The Obama administration has responded tepidly to recent economic reforms in Cuba, and Cuba experts say the Republican takeover in the U.S. House of Representatives may chill whatever warmth these encounters generate.

But Moore says her company was thrilled to perform in a place where ballet tickets typically cost 40 cents, and male lead dancers are idolized like baseball stars.

"The audience here is extremely well versed in ballet, people are knowledgeable, and they know the individual dancers, and they have their favorites, and you walk into the theater and there's already a hum, people know ballets," Moore said. "It's really wonderful because you have this engagement you don't get in the United States."

Art As A 'Meeting Point'

With tickets at the 5,000-seat theater sold out, the Cuban government broadcast the American company's performances live on television. Ballet fans lucky enough to get in said it was an once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a company that they only knew in legend.

In the theater lobby, Leida Silva asked a friend to take her picture beside an old black-and-white New York ballet poster with a young Alicia Alonso.

"This is a symbol of friendship, which is something we really need. It's an unprecedented step forward, and art has always served as a meeting point," Silva said. "Alicia got her start with this company, so all Cubans love it."

The cultural interchange between Manhattan and Havana is likely to continue in the coming months, as the New York Philharmonic orchestra has been granted permission by the U.S. Treasury Department to perform in Cuba.

The orchestra was denied a travel license last year, when federal regulators determined that some of its patrons would be traveling as tourists.

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