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Cubans clamour for Royal Ballet tickets

First tour in 78-year history sells out in hours

It is a country that follows ballet as zealously as it does more muscular national sports, yet Cuba has rarely hosted a performance by a foreign dance company in the years since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

So when the Royal Ballet announced that it would be the first ballet company for three decades to perform in Havana tomorrow, on its first visit to Cuba in its 78-year history – every ticket was sold within hours.

The tour will feature an appearance by Cuba's star dancer, Carlos Acosta, who helped to broker the five-day visit by Britain's most elite ballet stars.

The ballet company's presence in Cuba not only points towards a deepening political rapprochement between the British government and Castro's regime, but it is billed as one of the greatest cultural events to take place in Cuba. The last foreign ballet company to perform was the Soviet-run Bolshoi ballet nearly 30 years ago.

The programmes will feature a variety of the company's repertory, including Wayne McGregor's Chroma, Frederick Ashton's A Month in the Country and Swan Lake, Don Quixote and Giselle. The Company's 96 dancers arrived in Havana at the end of last week accompanied by 50 technicians.

The director of the Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason, said the passion for dance in Cuba was one of the main reasons for holding the tour: "Dance is central to the culture in Cuba. It's at the very heart of the Cuban people."

The five shows are part of a tribute to the Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso, who, at age 88 and despite being partially blind, continues to head the National Ballet of Cuba, which she helped found 60 years ago.

Dame Mason said the tribute to Alonso would include a dance from Giselle, one of her best-known performances. Alonso, who danced in the US and Europe, took over the Cuban ballet shortly after Castro's revolution. Julian Gonzalez, the president of Cuba's National Council for Visual Arts, said tickets to the performances had sold out "in a matter of hours".

Acosta had used his Cuban contacts to ensure the tour took place, ballet executives said. Acosta, considered one of the world's best dancers, was Alonso's student before leaving Cuba.

Acosta will lead the company in the its first performance of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon in Cuba on Thursday.

He said: "I'm very excited to be going home to Cuba with my extended family, The Royal Ballet.

"This is the first time that the company has ever been to Cuba and I'm proud to have been able to play a part in making this happen.

"I'm very excited to be dancing Manon. None of the MacMillan ballets have been performed in Cuba before, so this is going to be a really extraordinary visit. I can't wait to see the reaction, both the Cubans to The Royal Ballet and the company to the Cubans."

The Royal Ballet will dance at the Gran Teatro in central Havana for the first three days before moving to Karl Marx Teatro. Four performances will be shown live on big-screen televisions placed outside near the Gran Teatro.

Cuba's National Ballet is also scheduled to perform in Britain next year, accompanied by Acosta, the Royal Ballet's principal guest dancer.

When Castro came to power in 1959, he made a commitment to make the arts available to everyone and gave $200,000 to Alonso, who had supported the revolution. Under the new system of state funding, the ballet became a key part of Cuba's national identity.