CUBAN BALLET – An Interview with Octavio Roca

Ballet critic and author Octavio Roca explores an astonishing cultural phenomenon

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

On the international scene, in the world of Ballet, eyes are turning to the Cuban-trained dancer. Octavio Roca’s CUBAN BALLET unfolds this phenomenon through an intimate and historical perspective. The story is iconic in measure and packed with the stuff of classical Legend – zealous determination, courage and hope, sacrifice and survival. The book is an almost action/adventure – like none other – composed within the context of inevitable and fast-approaching change in Cuba’s leadership. It is likewise the story of Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. For fifty years the company has dealt with defections and seen the departure of its most highly praised performers. “What would have happened,” Roca asks, “had these dancers not had to leave their country? What an even greater company the Ballet Nacional de Cuba might have been without Cuba’s long nightmare?”

In his role as a critic, Mr. Roca has seen the glory performances of an amazing roster of internationally renowned Cuban ballet stars. He understands the depths and complexities of their noble commitment to Dance and rejoices in their personal, artistic, and cultural triumphs. His text is lyrical and linear; the arguments are rich and provoking. Fifty years of on-going defections by Alonso’s pupils adds up to an amazing legacy, a unique historical quest for personal and artistic freedom. The dramatic elements include the loss of family, friends, and country, along with the cloak and dagger energies of escape, political asylum, institutional shunning and nationalistic memory-wipes by the Cuban regime. Roca focuses the spotlight toward the internationally adored ballerinas, Lorena and Lorna Feijóo. For him and their legions of fans throughout the world, the Cuban-born sisters are the ultimate embodiment of Classical Ballet and the perfect expression of Cuban Style. As defectors from their communist controlled homeland and with their respective Star-status and positions as principal dancers – Lorena with San Francisco Ballet and Lorna with Boston Ballet – the Feijóo sisters are the heart and soul and, most certainly, the radiant beauty of 21st Century Cuban Ballet.

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Octavio Roca has devoted his life to the arts. For three decades he has been an eminent music and dance critic for such major newspapers as the Washington Post, The Washington Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald and the Miami New Times as well as contributor to Opera News and Dance Magazine. Octavio was born and raised in Havana, later in exile attending Miami High and becoming the first Cuban student council president. He received his B.A. at Emory, his M.A. in Georgetown, and his Ph.D. in Costa Rica, and he also was awarded a diploma from Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. A widely respected authority on the arts, he was chosen for Who’s Who Among Hispanic Americans, has taught philosophy at the University of Miami and Barry University, lectured on the arts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, and the Catalan Theater Institute in Barcelona. He is now chairperson of Arts and Philosophy at Miami Dade College, the nation’s largest college. He met his partner Luis Palomares in 1971, while they were in school. They have been a couple for the last 38 years. Octavio and I made a phone date to talk about his beautiful book, Cuban Ballet.

SEÁN: You know I have this passionate admiration for Lorena Feijóo. When I first saw the cover of your book – with this fabulous portrait of her and Lorna – I thought, “This is it! So appropriate, so beautiful.” What a great project this must have been for you. The book is layered with so many interconnecting stories. It is packed with fascinating musical and historical references, and takes on the disturbing nature of Cuba’s communist regime. There are so many audiences for this publication. Why does the world need to consider this topic now?

OCTAVIO: Now? Because it’s the 21st Century and Ballet is at a crossroads. Cubans are very much where the Soviets were right before the end of the Soviet empire. They are everywhere. What’s curious about this – as with the Soviet Union – the art in Cuba is still flourishing. But because there are so many exiles in the diaspora, it seems to be flourishing abroad as well. So, it’s a two-pronged offensive. The front lines of Ballet today seem to be dancing with a Cuban accent. I’m thrilled about that because I’m Cuban, but also because I’m a critic. And, honestly, I have seen very few things on this level. Take an example, like San Francisco Ballet. They are lucky to have Jorge Esquivel for a senior character dancer. He defines what Cuban dancing is like. Then you have Lorena Feijóo.

See Alberto Alonso’s Carmen with Lorena Feijóo

OCTAVIO: Joan Boada is – in terms of style – the most exquisite male dancer to come out of Cuba in the last 20 years. And Taras Domitro, who is the youngest. That’s just in San Francisco! This is repeated in Boston, London, New York, here at the Miami City Ballet. I am so thrilled by all these beautiful dancers from my country. The funny thing is, the entire population of Cuba – all of it – could fit in New York. It could fit in L.A., in London – it’s a miracle. A miracle and an action of History. It’s very touching. So, this is a good time for that. It’s also a good time for me because I’ve been covering Ballet for thirty years and, frankly, I needed to get it out of my system. It’s a very personal book for me. My mom danced in the original company that is now the Cuban National Ballet. The first ballet I ever saw was Giselle with Alicia and Igor Youskevitch. My mom was one of the Wilis. I grew up with them. It’s funny, I know that Giselle is not exactly a Cuban ballet. It’s a German poem, of the French Romantic era, codified in Russia, but – I hear the beginning of the score of Giselle and for me it’s like black beans in the kitchen. Ballet is very close to Cubans. I can’t help that.

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ALICIA ALONSO

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LORENA FEIJÓO and JOAN BOADA

SEÁN: I think there is a true sense of dream and magic in Giselle which sits well with most people. And if it’s a good production, the experience will lodge in the heart. You’re right. I know Giselle and love it. I’m waiting for the chance to see Lorena dance it. But what is it about Giselle that so endears it to the Cuban people?

OCTAVIO: It’s central to the repertory and the history of Cuban dance. It was there from the beginning of the company. It was there at the height of the career of the creator of the company, Alicia Alonso. That’s very important, because her lessons have really given Lorena her career right now. All these dances are learned. Giselle is about a love that outlasts everything, including death. It’s a ballet about hope, about the kind of freedom you can search even when everything is against you and the brute facts of life are against you. There it is. It’s just plain beautiful. It’s that kind of beauty emerging out of the most unlikely places. It has never been away from the repertory of a Cuban company. For the male dancers, the role of “Albrecht” is also very important. It’s the one they measure themselves against. It’s like “Hamlet” for actors. It’s just the kind of thing they know they have to do – and they have to do well.

SEÁN: The score of Giselle is filled with expressions of longing. Is it this association and understanding of longing that so inspires the Cuban dancer?

OCTAVIO:Think about it – we live in an age where exile has become a natural state for a lot of people. But that doesn’t make it any easier to take. And a lot of us are not where we expected to be. We still have a culture, we still have a background. We still have longings. In a sense, it’s a longing for a country that in many ways may exist in the future, but isn’t there right now. The kind of freedom that Cuba has not enjoyed in a long time. So, yes, Giselle is very much a way in which longing can be expressed. It can be expressed and sublimated in art. That is gorgeous and convenient. Let’s face it – you say the wrong thing in Cuba you could end up in jail or worse. In dance, the artists can express themselves. The company is thriving – in Cuba as well as in exile. The dance keeps going. It’s amazing. Their Company is as big as the Bolshoi, with a hundred dancers. If you saw them the last time they were around, they’re quite amazing. So, it’s not just the people who leave, it’s the people who are still there. It’s just a breathtaking achievement, I think, of Cuban culture.

SEÁN: I was in the 8th grade when Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union. I already had a strong background in Classical music, particularly Tchaikovsky, and was fluent in the musical films that came out of the M.G.M. studios. When Nureyev defected in 1961, it created a media blitz. The country was already surrounded in fear – the fear of imminent war, the uncertainties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the fear of total annihilation. Then comes this completely dramatic defection by this uncommonly beautiful and totally unusual man – not only Russian, but a ballet dancer as well! Nureyev is the face of freedom. And with his story on news stations everywhere and his gorgeous face on the front page of every morning paper – even my parents had to deal with it. And with me! “Ballet dancer defies Soviet Union!” Not long after that Nureyev is dancing on the Bell Telephone Hour – tights and all – and I’m swooning on the family couch. No turning back now!

OCTAVIO: I was a Freshman then. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

SEÁN: That entire episode sparked in me a whole new perception of classical ballet, international politics, the world of fashion, the Jet Set, etc. In reading your book and considering the number of dancers who have defected from Cuba – such actions don’t seem as politically charged or media-driven today, at least not on the level of the Nureyev story. Not that publicity goes with the exchange – but, these days, when a ballet dancer successfully defects from a totalitarian regime – it’s never a hot topic on the 6:00 News. Why is that?

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OCTAVIO ROCA

OCTAVIO: I think it’s very easy for the US to just ignore Cuba right now. We shouldn’t, they’re right there. We can afford to do so because they’re not that important politically. We could not afford to ignore the Soviet Union. When it fell, there was a cataclysmic change in world politics. What I’m curious about is what will happen when Cuba changes – and it has to. As with the Soviet Union – the Bolshoi, especially, went through a period of transition and now seems to be back on track, partly by embracing its own heritage and re-embracing the Grigoriev repertory for example. I hope the Cuban Ballet can do that. When change comes – and it will – I hope it’s the one thing they know to keep. Because it’s worth it. It’s the jewel of Cuban culture. The ballet was there before Fidel Castro, it will be there after Fidel Castro. It has managed to survive through everything. I think it stands for the best in Cuban culture. What’s interesting, because so many people have left – and this happens to all exiles, but in particular with dancers as they try to maintain their Cuban style, Cuban schooling, and their Cuban culture working in the United States – what they are doing is also transforming American Dance. It’s a country of immigrants. And immigrants have always done that. American culture is a work in progress.

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ROLANDO SARABIA. Photo, David Garten

OCTAVIO: Look at all the major companies – San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Miami. Just by having so many – and highly-placed – Cuban dancers, they are changing the way American dance looks. They’re changing the actions of American dance. That I find fascinating. Some more than others. When Carlos Acosta arrived at the Royal Ballet there was an explosion. The Royal Ballet had a very definite style and a very definite look. In the United States, when companies don’t necessarily have a company style but are more welcoming of international influences – it’s lovely, because they fit right in. They fit in because of their speed. And in that sense, they are very American. But they really are influencing – considerably – the way young dancers dance in those companies. Think of San Francisco Ballet. There’s no way that those young dancers can be in class and watch Lorena, watch Joan, watch Taras – and not be influenced, just being alongside them.

SEÁN: I’m the fan who loves full-length story ballets. I’m also very celebrity oriented. I grew up reading the Hollywood Diva columnists who telegraphed news that a certain celebrity was getting their name above the title. It’s a kind-of ultimate tribute. You are celebrated officially as A Star and it’s the Producers who want everyone to applaud that. I believe that the Principal Dancer’s name – when they are the likes of an international star such as Lorena Feijóo – should appear above the title.

OCTAVIO: I believe so, too. I think it’s silly not to. I think a company should know what it has. Every company should. Ballets such as Giselle and Don Quixote are perfect for Lorena Feijóo – and for Joan Boada and Taras Domitro. These are the things that show off our dancers at their best. You need the big stuff. You can’t just live on short stories, you need a novel. You can’t just live on string quartets, you need symphonies. In the case of ballet, it’s the big full-length ballets that give roles – not just dancing parts – but complete roles for the dancers to get into. Lorena Feijóo is exquisite and a complete Classical ballerina. She deserves to dance those classical roles. I think it’s a crime when she doesn’t. I saw her in Don Quixote this season, here in Miami, with Rolando Sarabia – another exile. To see the spark of those two – it was amazing. They knew what they were doing. I saw Lorena dance Don Q with Joan Boada in San Francisco – a gorgeous production. I think the public there deserves to see her again in that. She should be seen in Giselle. The easiest way to understand the greatness of Ballet is to watch Lorena Feijóo dance “Giselle”. It’s that simple.

SEÁN: At SF Ballet’s 2007 Gala Opening, Lorena and Tiit Helimets performed the Act 2 pas de deux from Giselle, the scene at the grave. The artistry was astounding, the emotional currents deep and profound. Those fleeting moments have proven to be an unforgettable experience for me. I long to see her dance the complete role.

OCTAVIO: Lorena is a very careful artist. She will give it to you. She’ll give you everything the role calls for. I respect her a lot for that. I enjoy her a lot for that.

SEÁN: So! You get to see her in all these productions in Miami.

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JOSE MANUEL CARREÑO. Photo, Fabrizio Ferri

OCTAVIO: I do get to travel a lot. I’m a civilian now, no longer a critic. I teach philosophy. I’m chair of Arts and Philosophy at Miami Dade College. In June I went to ABT to see their tribute to Alicia Alonso for her (alleged) 90th birthday. It was very touching. I saw all the principles dance Don Q – they had a different cast for each act. That’s a true Gala. And they have their share of Cubans. But the last act in particular had Jose Manuel Carreño as the lead. He was one of Alicia’s pupils. It was very touching. It was fun to see how that company is and what shape they’re in. I miss seeing San Francisco Ballet. I think they have a lot of gorgeous dancers. It’s a really beautiful company.

SEÁN: It is astonishing to me that five or six different casts can be assembled for one ballet. I know that most everyone going to any performance at San Francisco Ballet is going to walk away feeling entertained. But when they witness genius on the stage, there is an absolute difference in the level of response.

OCTAVIO: I think it’s a crime if they don’t help that. Dancers’ lives are so short and they’re fragile. And when you have someone who can do so much – so much, but not forever – you really should help them. For the sake of all of us. It’s just so sublime to see these people do what they do best. In big companies like San Francisco, New York, Miami, and Boston – they can do that. They should be allowed to do that. It’s what they’re born to do.

SEÁN: The photographs you have included in the book are outstanding.

OCTAVIO: I took a lot of those in Cuba and some Alicia Alonso gave me. Half of the materials are very much historical. I was very lucky that a lot of really good photographers contributed their photos. So, there are photos going way back to the beginning of dance in Cuba and Alicia’s career. There are also some really gorgeous photos of Lorena Feijóo and Joan Boada. It’s great that you and I have been able to share our enthusiams. I love Cuban ballet so much. I want to share something I love. This is very much a personal book for me. I was very lucky that Alicia and Mikhail Baryshnikov made the Introductions. One thing that was very sweet of Misha to say is that he knows this book is from my heart.

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LORENA and LORNA FEIJÓO

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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