Even to the most admiring observers, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba has appeared, for a really very long time, an establishment caught in the previous. One cause has been particularly conspicuous: the superior age of the firm’s creative director, Alicia Alonso, now 98.
Over the years, rumors of doable successors have surfaced and vanished, as Ms. Alonso, at least partially blind since the 1940s, talked of residing to 200. But her grip has lastly loosened. In January, the Cuban ministry of tradition appointed Viengsay Valdés, the Ballet Nacional’s 42-year-old prima ballerina, as the troupe’s deputy creative director.
In Cuba, the place audiences sing alongside to ballet scores and ballet dancers are beloved celebrities, Ms. Valdés is one thing of a hometown hero. And she is aware of her mission: “I have the legacy of Alicia Alonso to maintain, but I also have to update the company,” she mentioned throughout a go to to New York final week.
The appointment — it got here “in the middle of the ‘Swan Lake’ season, which I was getting ready to dance,” she mentioned — was a shock. But after 25 years with the firm, she is aware of the way it works and is raring to “check every gear,” from the nationwide college upward, and to give the entire group an intensive tuneup.
Deputy creative director could sound like a subordinate place. But Ms. Valdés mentioned she is now accountable for all creative selections: programming, casting, promotions. Which signifies that, for the first time in the historical past of the firm — shaped in 1948 as the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company by Ms. Alonso, her husband, Fernando, and his brother, Alberto, and renamed the Ballet Nacional after the 1959 Cuban Revolution — somebody aside from an Alonso is in cost.
Ms. Valdés “is the perfect choice,” mentioned Lourdes Lopez, the Cuban-American director of Miami City Ballet. “She’s a product of the school and the company, but also of the country, and she’s lived through its challenges. She’s danced outside of Cuba, yet she’s stayed very loyal.”
Born in Havana, Ms. Valdés spent the first few years of her life in Laos, where her father was serving as the Cuban ambassador. (Her name, Viengsay (VEE-eng-sai) means “victory” in Laotian.) By age 6, she was back in Havana, and at 9, she entered Cuba’s state-funded system of ballet education, a pipeline that has developed outstanding dancers not just for the island but also for many of the top companies in America and Europe. At 17, she graduated into the Ballet Nacional.
At that time, the mid-1990s, there was what Ms. Valdés has called “a generational hole,” because many dancers were defecting, a problem that has persisted. Ms. Valdés stayed put and quickly rose to the highest rank.
Dancing on international tours with the company and as a guest on the gala circuit, she earned praise for her beauty and enthusiasm, and especially for her endless turns and everlasting balances. Critics joked about how she must have been hiding ball bearings in her shoes. They marveled at how she could perch on one point while “time studies its fingernails,” as the critic Ismene Brown wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
It’s a different kind of balancing, though, that Ms. Valdés must learn for her new job, the weighty legacy pulling her one way, her ideas for the future another.
On her visit to New York, she was addressing both sides of that mission, as she attended performances and met with the leaders of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater and the Joyce Theater.
Her idea, she explained, was to introduce herself, as a first step toward collaborations and exchanges. “We need to get more information to our dancers,” she said, outlining plans to invite foreign choreographers to Cuba, both to create work for the company and to teach workshops in choreography.
At the same time, she was thinking ahead to 2020 and making plans for New York commemorations of Ms. Alonso’s centennial. Since Ballet Theater is the troupe in which Ms. Alonso became a star in the 1940s, it makes sense that Ballet Theater should celebrate her, as it last did in 2010. Ms. Alonso’s work with George Balanchine and the School of American Ballet also connects her to City Ballet.
Ballet Nacional’s 2020 home performances will unavoidably be Alonso-focused, but before then, Ms. Valdés wants to get the updating started. Ballet performances are scheduled far in advance, so it won’t be until November — after Ballet Nacional has toured Ms. Alonso’s antique “Swan Lake” to Spain — that the first program chosen by Ms. Valdés will have its debut in Havana. It will feature the company premiere of “Concerto DSCH,” a celebrated work that Alexei Ratmansky made for City Ballet in 2008.
If, as Ms. Valdés put it, she wants Ballet Nacional to “be like the other companies in the world,” importing pieces by the excellent, ubiquitous Mr. Ratmansky will certainly help. She is also in negotiations with City Ballet’s talented and ultra-busy resident choreographer, Justin Peck.
Despite the Cuban troupe’s reputation for adhering to full-length classics, Ms. Valdés’s turn to contemporary dance makers isn’t entirely unprecedented. Another work on the November program is “Celeste,” which the in-demand Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa created for the company in 2014. Yet another is a 1983 piece by Alberto Méndez González, one of Ballet Nacional’s homegrown choreographers.
“We have more than 700 pieces in our repertoire,” Ms. Valdés said. “Maybe some are old-fashioned but some are good, and I’m also trying to recover them, because they are ours.”
For now, Ms. Valdés plans to continue dancing with the company. It was her experience as a dancer in Ms. Lopez Ochoa’s “Celeste,” she said, that underlined for her the importance of new choreography: “It was amazing to have something made for you and your personality. I want the dancers to have this experience.”
Finding the right choreographers to ask is among the many challenges she now faces. “Maybe we can give a small compensation,” she said, “but we need good choreographers who want to give something from their heart to Cuba, like a gift.”
Some problems are logistical. Materials for new productions or for refurbishing existing ones — things like wood and canvas — often must be imported, and in Cuba, importing anything can be complicated. The tightening of restrictions by the Trump administration won’t help.
Then there’s the perennial difficulty of keeping dancers. This, Ms. Valdés insisted, is not unique to Cuba. “A dancer’s career is short,” she said. “They want to try another company, another country. Most companies now are made up of artists from all over the world.”
Still, if Ms. Valdés is to fulfill her goals of turning Ballet Nacional into one of the world’s greatest companies and also making sure its dancers are included at every important international ballet festival, she will have to convince her dancers to do as she did: Represent Cuba, then return home.
Despite opportunities to leave, why did Ms. Valdés stay? “I love my island,” she said — her family, her friends, her house.
“I am so proud to belong to the Cuban ballet, and to travel around the world and then come back,” she added. “That’s the greatest satisfaction an artist can have — to be renowned and loved in your own country.”
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