Last night was the long-anticipated start of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s run at the Coliseum, an event I’d been waiting for breathlessly since I first saw it mentioned last fall in a Sadler’s Wells program. I’d especially booked to see Carlos Acosta, who was fortunately performing on opening night. The combination was magic (of the box office sort, at least), as the giant barn of a theater was filled to the rafters with wittering ballet fans. How exciting, to see so many people all together to enjoy ballet! The atmosphere was positively electric.
I’d actually not bought the program beforehand (in part because I showed up about two minutes before curtain up), so I didn’t know if we had a 3 or 4 act (answer: 3) or which ending we were going to get (tragic, sad, or inappropriately happy), though I was told in the cast sheet that the curtain would drop at 10 PM (actual: 10:15). The lack of program left me with a few moments of confusion during act one (what was up with the people in the animal masks coming out from behind the screen – and were those ravens or swans with very thin beaks?) and an utter shock at the very end (I was not expecting the ending they chose). However, in most ways, it’s not as if there was going to be a different story up there than Swan Lake: the difference was going to be in the dancing.
And the dancing: so, so very good! One of the things I’ve come to believe about BNC (based on having seen them twice before) is that theirs is a very pure dance tradition, one I think hews closely to the earliest interpretations of these dances. Thus, in these performances for which composers especially made music to be danced to, in BNC we see dancing that hews tightly to the music, where so many of the movements enhanced the music played with them, so that it seemed the dance served the music. I noticed this first during the first act, when the leaps of Yanela Pinera, Amaya Rodriguez and Alejandro Virelles, in their pas de trois, appeared to have organically developed from the efforts of the brass section. Then, in the third act, the fouettes of Odile (Viengsay Valdes, rather adorably credited with this role as if we did not know she was also Odette) seemed, for once, not a prima ballerina foot-twirling death march, but rather a musical illustration of the martial music underneath it. Each dip of her toe matched up with a blare of horns, and, for the first time I ever, I saw this bit of choreography as something to do with Tchaikovsky and not just with showing off technique. So many times I have felt like dances are being done by people counting beats in their head; but with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, it really seems the dancers are listening to the music, and the difference is truly remarkable. It just all feels so very right, this marriage of music and movement, and I found myself getting goosebumps over and over again, seeing this best of ballet scores come to life. It was great.
I also enjoyed the differences in this version from many of the ones I have seen. All of the first act takes place in the court, and the dances seem to be done spontaneously by the staff to cheer up Prince Siegfried (Carlos Acosta). There were additions I’d never expected – a maypole, a jester (who is a big player), a strange bit in which the jester becomes a crossbow, the animal masquerade (mentioned above), and this whole “mystical experience” thing where Siegfried seems to suddenly be struck by the idea of looking for a swan. As it turns out, when he finally meets Odette, he just kind of steps onto the stage from the wings and grabs her from the waist, which is utterly anticlimactic. However, prior to this we have the most glorious dance of the swan corps ever, whom, despite their smallish numbers (twenty, when I think some company brags of having forty or so), utterly mesmerized me with their movements across the stage, forming and reforming shapes just like real birds do in the sky, only instead of just Vs and teardrop shapes we got circles and a gorgeous set of lines with offset dancers in the middle. I … I mean, I’m sure it was just standard stagecraft, but it was just … goosebumps again. Lovely.
Then we were barelling on to Act Three and Siegfried’s betrayal, and of this act I have to say RED AND BLACK ODILE! This isn’t what most people would have noticed, but it was a novel costuming decision, and I’m a bit obsessed with the color combination. And Valdes’ transformation – it made it impossible to see how Siegfried could have possibly mistaken the one for the other, she had so utterly changed her self presentation on stage. Her seduction of Siegfried seemed ever so much more cold and calculating than in other versions of this show, though, truth be told, the vision of Odette that appeared behind the scrim was so poorly lit that it almost seemed a metaphor for Siegfried’s poor memory. The ending, well, just in case you like surprises, I’ll say a bit of it was clunky and horrid and some of it was magical. Odette’s inability to resist Von Rothbart seemed like it was physically manifested, though, and Valdes did some powerful dancing in this act – but what can I say, being evil always makes a performer more interesting, and it was her Odile I loved best.
Costumes have been a bit of a problem with BNC for me before, because, though the dance preserves well over time, the costumes go stale. I enjoyed them, though – the court was very medieval a la Disney’s Cinderella meets traditional Russian clothing, and the costumes for the dancers in act three were great. Best was the third act’s black and white theme for the jester and the prince, which showed clearly the tug between Odette and Odile that was to come. Foreshadowing via costuming: nice! And the sets were simple but servicable, Gothic and eerie and easy to pack into a shipping container.
At the end of the night, we were treated to the Grande Dame herself, Alicia Alonso, coming on stage to take a bow besides the dance company that she has made, and a dancer that she helped create – Carlos Acosta. She really is a treasure and I feel lucky to have actually seen her, especially since I felt she was wholly responsible for the wonderful evening I’d just had. Who’d think in a world in which there is so much bad dance that one night could be so magical? Even though last night was sold out, there are seats available for £35 for the non-Carlos nights – and, dammit, it’s impossible for me to go back. But I really and truly wish I could. At least I’ve got their Magia de la Danza program to look forward to after Easter, and may I suggest you book for that, too, using the same £35 deal to get lovely stalls seats.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, March 20th, 2010. Ballet Nacional de Cuba continues with Swan Lake through Sunday April 4th; their residency at the London Coliseum continues through Sunday April 11th. Don’t miss it. Really. No matter what Ismene Brown says.)