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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

In Cuba, American artists and musicians are going where tourists and politicians cannot. Last month, trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis went 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 estranged neighbors that still share similar tastes, as Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

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

(Soundbite of music)

MIROFF: This is George Balanchine's "Theme and Variations," choreographed in 1947 for a young Cuban dancer living in New York named Alicia Alonso.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Bravo.

(Soundbite of applause)

MIROFF: Alonso returned to Havana and founded Cuba's National Ballet. She would later become one of the Castro revolution's most loyal cultural ambassadors. Today, she is Cuba's prima ballerina assoluta, and next month, she'll be 90.

Kevin McKenzie is American Ballet Theatre's artistic director.

Mr. KEVIN MCKENZIE (Artistic Director, American Ballet Theatre): She was one of our founding members who grew up professionally within the company and set a standard for us and sort of - she's like imprinted into the genetic makeup of the company. You know, it's a - and then, she took that incredible gift and brought it home to Cuba. And I feel a little bit like I've brought the family back to meet the relatives.

MIROFF: The family theme is right 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.

Rachel Moore is the New York-based company's executive director.

Ms. RACHEL MOORE (Executive Director, American Ballet Theatre): That we were allowed to come really represents what we hope is a new opening of allowing these exchanges to happen - a warming, as it were. We really see that the arts connect people in a really profound way and can transform lives, and there's a shared humanity. And when you come to a place that 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.

MIROFF: However powerful the cultural connections are between the U.S. and Cuba - whether through baseball, dance or music - 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 House may chill whatever warmth these encounters generate.

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

Ms. MOORE: 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, and people know the ballets. And it's really wonderful because you have this engagement that you don't always get in the United States.

MIROFF: 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 they only knew in legend.

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

Ms. LEIDA SILVA: (Foreign language spoken)

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

(Soundbite of music)

MIROFF: 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 here.

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

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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