The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is famous for producing wonderful dancers.
They include Carlos Acosta, one of ballet's biggest stars, who has returned to his home team for several performances of the company's British tour. In Swan Lake, which opened the season of Spring Dance at the London Coliseum, it was clear that there's more where Carlos came from. The company combines rigour with exuberant gusto: sharp footwork, soaring jumps, energy to burn.
The company was founded by ballerina Alicia Alonso in 1948. With the Cuban revolution, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba became the country's arts flagship. Communism brought strong support for ballet, and plenty of exchanges with the ballet powerhouse that was Soviet Russia. The company developed a distinctive style; virtuoso technique with its own Cuban accent.
Swan Lake was the first ballet Alonso staged for her new company. The present production has Soviet elements – a Jester, a happy ending – and some surprises of its own. In the first act, peasants start to stage a carnival satire (it's quickly nipped in the bud, but it's there). At the end, the swans join the prince and the Swan Queen in resisting the wicked magician. At the last minute, the battle won, the corps come back on in new frocks, collectively restored to human, princessy form.
As a production, Alonso's version has rough edges. There's a mix-and-match element to the designs, from Ricardo Reymena's vaguely gothic backdrops to the different times and places suggested by Julio Castaño and Francis Montesinos's costumes. Alonso's choreography draws on the traditional Petipa and Ivanov text, with some departures. The corps of swans tiptoe across the back of the set before making their traditional, flying entrance.
The momentum comes from the energy of the company, and the strength of its dancers. The first act peasants wear soft slippers, but they don't need pointe shoes to show off their arched feet. Yanela Piñera stands out from the first act pas de trois, a stylish dancer with clean footwork, springy jump and flowing line. Alejandro Virelles, like Piñera a company principal, is an alert, slender partner. If Swan Lake must have a jumping Jester, it's good to have Osiel Gounod: his straight legs have terrific force as he scissors them mid-air. The whole company are engaged in the story, reacting with confidence in court and crowd scenes.
On opening night, Viengsay Valdés danced the Swan Queen. She's strong and intelligent but not particularly fluid: her swan could be more spontaneous. Even so, this is utterly scrupulous dancing, bringing out nuances of choreography. Turned back into a woman, her Swan Queen is still birdlike, with delicate motions of the head. Her footwork is lucid, with tremulously quick beaten steps.
Carlos Acosta made a tender partner. His dancing here had a velvety ease: he pushes softly into the air, every line classically smooth. Alonso adds a solo for the prince in the lakeside act. Acosta rushes on, looks about for his Swan Queen – and, not seeing her, suddenly smiles and starts to dance. His prince is a man in love, who can't help telling us about it.
He and Valdés give a sensational, tearing-up-the-stage account of the Black Swan pas de deux. As the heroine's wicked double, Valdés's movements are broader, more voluptuous. She hops triumphantly on pointe, brilliant and hard. He answers her fouetté turns with his own exultant spins. Those turns have whirling speed and rich weight, every step given full value even as it whizzes past. Their joint gusto is irresistible.
To 11 April (0871 911 0200). The company then tours to Manchester, Birmingham and CardiffReuse content