It was 40 years ago that the Ballet Nacional de Cuba made its U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center and 30 years ago that it premiered its production of Don Quixote. It was 70 years ago that Alicia Alonso founded the company bearing her name that would become the Ballet Nacional after the 1959 revolution. And it was Tuesday night that the 97-year-old legend stood up in her first-balcony box and waved to an adoring Kennedy Center Opera House crowd, doing a little port de bras and gracefully fluttering her hands.
Ladies and gents, prima ballerina assoluta is a term not thrown around lightly, and Alonso has earned it many times over. She was featured in two Broadway shows, then danced for Ballet Caravan before it became the New York City Ballet, then for American Ballet Theatre. She worked with Fokine, Balanchine, Massine, Nijinska, Tudor, Robbins, and de Mille, and at home in Cuba founded one of the world’s great ballet companies and schools. One can only imagine, beyond her artistic skills, the combined courage and diplomacy that allowed her to navigate the towering talents and egos of New York City’s mid-century dance world, the political figures of pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba, and those of the cold war United States.
There are ballet companies with irreproachable technique and those with a steadily and universally warm, accessible presence. Rarely are those qualities combined as successfully as does the Ballet Nacional under Alonso’s continuing direction. (Oh yeah. She’s still the boss.) Don Quixote, moreover, is an especially good-natured ballet, the sunny side of the troupe’s dual bill this week. It is also performing Giselle.
After a brief introduction, Quixote doesn’t even enter the tale until close to a half hour in. The plot includes him and his faithful squire Sancho Panza, but Quixote’s presence is felt more as a rosy viewpoint through which the romantic story is told.
In Castille, the beautiful Kitri, and the barber, Basilio, are in love. The nobleman Camacho, however, pursues her too, offering her innkeeper father Lorenzo a hefty purse as inducement for her hand in marriage. Lorenzo agrees, but the young couple runs off to a Gypsy camp. She is brought home for the forced marriage, but Basilio shows up last minute, with love and trickery triumphing in the end.
Quixote (Yansiel Pujada), mistaking Kitri for his beloved Dulcinea, becomes love’s guardian and gladiator. The poignancy beyond the humor lies in the indulgent reverence with which Kitri, particularly, treats him. He’s a wise fool whose delusions are invaluable. It’s that core of sentiment that offers the bittersweet heart tugs through the townsfolk’s and gypsies’ reveries and ribaldry, and then a festive wedding. Quixote’s addled state, after he’s bested by the windmill, also allows for the enchanting second-act dances by the Queen of the Dryads and Love herself.
The dancing was, across the board, superb. Viengsay Valdes, as Kitri, won the audience just as she did Basilio and Quixote. Her tempo-teasing turns, andantes, and extended pauses and arabesques en pointe were extraordinary. Dani Hernandez, as Basilio, had a genial charisma equal to his fabulous technique in his carefully paced rotations and elegantly vectored aerial work. Ariel Martinez and his fellow bullfighters were ablaze, Martinez’s wildly arching spine apparently made of pipe cleaner. His partner, Ginett Moncho, as Mercedes, was sensuously dazzling, and Claudia Garcia and Chanell Cabrera were a stately and refined Queen of the Dryads and Love, respectively.
Alonso’s staging offers a world teeming with activity, subplots, scheming, and flirting. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under Giovanni Duarte’s baton, played Ludwig Minkus’s fun and varied score with a warm, hearty tone and admirable rhythmic coordination with the soloing dancers.
Alonso returned for bows. Through the workings of imagination, wish, and will, Quixote had had his dreams fulfilled and so had we and so had she. Then, before the curtain fell, the ballerina prima assoluta fluttered her magic hands one last time, her spell complete.
- The second, and final, performance of Don Quixote is tonight, May 30 at 7:30pm at The Kennedy Center. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs Giselle on May 31 – June 3. Details and tickets here.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba; Alicia Alonso, General Director. Don Quixote. Choreography by Alicia Alonso, Marta Garcia, and Maria Elena Llorente, after the original by Marius Petipa and the version by Alexander Gorsky. Music by Ludwig Minkus. Libretto, scenery, and costumes by Salvador Fernandez. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.