By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer — Feb. 20, 2020, Cleveland.Com
CLEVELAND, Ohio — U.S.-Cuba relations may be a little bumpy, but the bond between the island nation and Cleveland’s Verb Ballets is getting stronger by the minute.
Even as much travel to Cuba has been curtailed, the Shaker Heights-based dance troupe is gearing up this week to jet off to Havana for a collaborative presentation of “Romeo and Juliet,” the latest step in an ongoing cultural exchange.
After weeks of rehearsing in Cleveland with renowned Cuban-American choreographer Laura Alonso, Verb will reunite in Cuba with Havana’s ProDanza and a smaller third troupe from the Dominican Republic to mount a new production of the famed story ballet. Upon its return, the company will perform a reduced version of the ballet for viewers in Northeast Ohio.
“It’ll be nice to revisit a place where we know the dancers and feel connected to the company,” said Lieneke Matte, the Verb ballerina currently slated to dance the role of Juliet. “Laura [Alonso] is such a celebrity in Cuba. It’s very special.”
As Matte suggests, Verb doesn’t find itself heading off to Cuba by accident. Verb and Alonso, daughter of legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso, have been working together regularly since 2016, when the Cleveland Foundation granted support for a whole series of projects promoting work with Cuban artists. The company last visited and performed in Cuba in 2018.
It’s been a rewarding experience, said Verb producing artistic director Margaret Carlson. Through their work with Alonso, Verb’s dancers have picked up much of the technical precision, dramatic acting and expressive pantomime that make Cuban ballet unique in the world. For “Romeo and Juliet,” they’re even getting lessons in theatrical sword-fighting from the Cuban national fencing team.
“We’re learning a lot from each other,” Carlson said. “We’ve already come so far. The company has grown so much.”
Just being in Cuba is a treat, too, said Verb associate artistic director Richard Dickinson, who himself trained in the Cuban style. Unlike in the U.S., where ballet is one of many cultural options, ballet in Cuba is almost a national pastime. Ticket prices are low and patrons are avid consumers. They know the stories and recognize good (or flawed) dancing when they see it.
“For them, it’s like going to a baseball game,” Dickinson explained.
“They have certain expectations, but they’re very enthusiastic,” added Matte. “It’s nice to be in a place where there’s such an appreciation for ballet.”
There have been challenges and surprises along the way, of course. What was conceived as a two-way exchange has ended up functioning primarily in one direction, as Cuban dancers have encountered difficulties procuring U.S. visas. This time around, Alonso herself didn’t make it to Cleveland as early as Verb would have liked, and the Cuban dancers were obliged to obtain permits to appear with American dancers, Carlson said.
“Romeo and Juliet” also has taken shape in an unusual manner. With the three companies in far-flung places and often out of communication, each troupe has had to master its part using a video as the baseline.
At a recent rehearsal here, dancing to the music of Prokofiev, Verb ran through the ballet with many roles left to the imagination and some dancers playing multiple parts. Once on-site, they’ll have only three days to put it all together at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba.
“It’s a vacation-like setting [in Cuba], but we’re all going to be working really hard,” Matte predicted. “At least this time we know what it’s going to be like there.”
Verb also has conviction on its side. As they head off to Cuba, company directors said they’re certain both that they’re doing important work and that with dance as their medium, all will turn out well.
International touring and collaboration are always beneficial, Carlson said. In Cuba, especially, she said, this effort is “paving the way for peace. When you put people together, they realize we’re all the same.”
The production, meanwhile, is almost certain to work itself out.
No matter that the companies have been working separately, in three countries, or that they must mount the show in Cuba under the tightest of deadlines. They’re dancers. Once they’re together, in person, it won’t be long until they’ll be sharing the stage like the closest of acquaintances.
“By the end, within a week, we’re all like family,” Dickinson recalled of the company’s last visit. “Dance is a universal language, and I think that’s why it works.”
CLEVELAND HAVANA BALLET RETURN PERFORMANCES
What: Verb Ballets performs a suite from “Romeo and Juliet.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday, March 13, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 15.
Where: Verb Ballets Center for Dance, 3558 Lee Road, Shaker Heights (Friday); Akron-Summit County Library Auditorium, 60 S. High St., Akron (Sunday).
Tickets: $10 (Sunday)-$50 (Friday, includes reception). Go to verbballets.org or call 216-397-3757.