Pointes for the revolution

Thanks to one woman, Cuban ballet is renowned for its virtuosity. As the island's national company arrives here, Zoë Anderson celebrates her remarkable vision
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The Independent Culture

Cuba, a small, poor island, suffering from economic woes and an American blockade, turns out brilliantly-trained dancers by the dozen. With strong techniques and bold stage personalities, Cubans star in companies across Europe and America. In Britain, Carlos Acosta is the best known; his phenomenal jumps, his no less phenomenal turns, are characteristic of his schooling.

His school was founded by a single ballerina. "In Cuba there existed much talent and interest in classical ballet," says Alicia Alonso. "Many great dancers had shown their art to the Cuban public, and this had created the desire to have a company using national talent. For this reason I formed the company. It was a necessity," she concludes, "and an enormous pleasure."

Although she says many great dancers had visited Havana, there was no ballet tradition when Alonso was born there in 1920. She went to America to make her name, becoming a star in the 1940s. George Balanchine and Antony Tudor created roles for her, using her fast, strong technique and passionate sense of drama. She was a celebrated, very individual Giselle. American standards in this romantic ballet had been set by Alicia Markova, who was weightlessly ethereal in the role, but Alonso was warmly feminine - "no tubercular ballerina-peasant," wrote the critic Edwin Denby, "but a spirited girl who stabs herself." Yet Alonso was almost completely blind. In her early twenties, she suffered from detached retinas. She went on dancing, guiding herself by stage lights, relying on partners who had to be in just the right place on stage, ready to catch and support her.

Throughout her American years, Alonso remained loyal to Cuba. She and her husband Fernando returned regularly, dancing and staging ballets at home, bringing in teachers to help train local dancers. In 1959, her fledgling company was transformed by the Cuban revolution. Ballet, unexpectedly, was high on Fidel Castro's list of priorities. In the early days of the revolution, he approached Alonso and her husband, asking them to set up a state company. "The revolution allowed us to realise our dream of establishing a true school of ballet at a national level," Alonso says. Castro gave her the then-huge sum of $200,000, with a grand colonial country club as premises for her school.

Local audiences knew little of ballet, so Alonso gave extra performances for schoolchildren, workers and soldiers. In the beginning, her dancers also took part in "schemes for national improvement", helping to plant coffee in the new fields close to Havana. The critic Arnold Haskell, visiting Cuba in the 1960s, met one of the company's best-known ballerinas doing duty as a home guard, putting on uniform after her work in class and performance. Strong links were built up between Cuban and Soviet ballet, with Russian dancers visiting and praising the Cuban achievement. The central school was soon followed by others: there is now an elementary ballet school in every province.

"One of the reasons they produce so many good dancers is that access to dance is huge for all children," says Assis Carreiro, director of Britain's DanceEast, who has just returned from a week visiting the Havana schools. "They have a much broader talent-pool to choose from." Besides the elementary schools, there are community programmes, with children bussed in to classes at the national school. "I saw 4,000 children performing on stage in one night," remembers Carreiro. "There's a great passion for movement. The training, the commitment to training, is fantastic." As their careers end, dancers stay on to teach. Carreiro saw Fernando Alonso, now 91, still rehearsing students.

Dance is a prestigious career in Cuba, admired for its rigour as well as its glamour. When the young Carlos Acosta slid into delinquency, his father sent him to ballet school to learn discipline. Dancers are also relatively well-paid. The state's support, Alonso says, "remains intact today," but the school and company are desperately short of resources. When a Travel For The Arts group visited Cuba in 2004, many were worried by the state of some studios, and raised thousands of pounds to provide replacement floors.

Music is another problem. Though Cuba is a music-loving society, the national ballet company relies on a poor orchestra, or on taped music. At one performance, the CD for one pas de deux broke down altogether. The dancers, unfazed, just kept going.

Many dancers leave Cuba. There's more money in America and Europe, but also more artistic challenges. "The constant tours of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba have shown the enormous wealth and diversity of the Cuban ballet," says Alonso . But the wealth and diversity is in the dancers. Though the Ballet lists a large repertory on its website, the number of ballets danced regularly is small, and dominated by Alonso's own productions of the classics. "The training is of the highest calibre," says Carreiro. "The curriculum has been really thought through. What they lack is exposure to choreography." Cuba's splendidly-trained dancers leave to escape stagnation.

Alonso, a national heroine, still rules Cuban ballet. Throughout the country, she is admired for her achievements, and loved for her loyalty to Cuba. She kept dancing until well into her 70s and she is still greeted with standing ovations. She remains firmly in control, unlikely to open her company to other influences. There are obvious parallels between Alonso and Castro: she has been in charge for decades, and it's hard to imagine what will follow her. Ballet, she says, is "my life, the best thing I have ever been able to do."

Ballet Nacional de Cuba will be at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, 1-10 September (08707 377 737)