Ballet tour brings US one step closer to Cuba

Just as officials in Washington ponder a partial easing of the ban on Americans travelling to Cuba at least for cultural, educational or research exchanges, the American Ballet Theatre has revealed that it is to perform in Havana this November for the first time in half a century.

The American company, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, is to be showcased at the cavernous Karl Marx Theatre in the Cuban capital as part of this year's edition of the biennial Havana International Ballet Festival.

The visit will hold deep significance, both for the American company and for Cuba. It was at the American Ballet Theatre that Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, a national treasure, began her career in 1940.

After briefly returning to Cuba, Ms Alonso rejoined the American Ballet Theatre in 1943 and soon after was elevated to principal dancer and was particularly acclaimed by American lovers of dance for her interpretation of Giselle.

In 1948 she went back home a second time and founded the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company.

On coming to power in 1959, Castro quickly gave her his backing, turning her company – and classical ballet generally – into the National Ballet of Cuba, a crown jewel of the cultural curriculum of his newly Marxist state.

It is quite possible that both Ms Alonso and Castro will be in the audience when the Americans perform their repertoire, which will include scenes from ballets including Fancy Free and Siete Sonatas on 3 and 4 November.

Born in 1920, Ms Alonso is almost blind but is still seen at occasional public events. Just as frail is Mr Castro who has given the country's reins to his brother, Raul. But the political backdrop is also not unimportant. Cuba recently released 52 political prisoners and put them on planes to Spain, a gesture that has brought some warming of relations with foreign capitals.

While US officials are not suggesting that the US embargo on Cuba put in place after Castro came to power is about to be lifted, they consider facilitating more cultural exchanges as significant. The move would leave intact the nearly 50-year-old US trade embargo against the island, but expand opportunities for American students, educators and researchers to visit Cuba.

The last time that the American Ballet Theatre made an appearance in Havana was in 1960, for the first-ever ballet festival. The opportunity to return 50 years later almost fell apart after the Obama White House balked at allowing outside American sponsorship to help pay for it.

When it seemed that the New York-based company would have to decline the historic invitation, the Cuban government stepped forward and pledged to accommodate the company's members while in Havana at no charge.

Announcing that the trip was now set, Rachel Moore, the company's executive director, preferred to focus on the music and dance rather than the diplomacy. "We are artists, not politicians," she said at a press conference.

"We really do believe this trip in November will be a bridge between the two artistic communities creating a dialogue between artists and, actually, communities." She added: "Fifty years is too long."

Nor has anyone in New York forgotten the ties between the company and the legendary Ms Alonso. "She's extraordinarily important for us," Ms Moore confirmed.