Ballet West’s dance training program strengthens fledgling Cuban connection

Ballet West » Reciprocating the Utah company’s visit to Havana, Cuban dancers shared their gifts during classes in Salt Lake City.

In the current fractured political environment featuring a federal budget slashing arts funding and seemingly more intent on building walls than opening doors, Ballet West remains committed and confident about the benefits of cultural exchange.

This month, Ballet West’s 2017 Summer Intensive dance training program welcomed students from 41 states and three foreign countries, including six dancers and two instructors from Cuba.

The exchange began when relations were restored between the U.S. and Cuba during the administration of President Barack Obama, and included an invitation extended last year by Ballet Nacional de Cuba to Ballet West for the International Ballet Festival of Havana. The performance was a hit, and despite new restrictions under the current administration of President Donald Trump, the two ballet companies seem determined to continue their conversation through the universal language of dance.

“Art is for everyone, it doesn’t make a distinction regarding political or religious belief systems,” BW artistic director Adam Sklute said. “We already have plans for our students and teachers to go to Cuba. The benefit of this cultural exchange is the ability to learn from what they do so brilliantly and expose them to what we do.”

It’s a first visit for the Cuban students and staff who say they’ve enjoyed the classes at the Quinney Ballet Center in downtown Salt Lake and are in awe of the surroundings.

“Being in Utah, and seeing those mountains is one of the best experiences of my entire life,” 17-year-old ballet student Marcos Ramirez-Castellano said.

Likewise, watching Ramirez-Castellano’s strength and precision in partnering class last week was awe-inspiring. Sklute said “there is no better training for male dancers in the world” than in the Cuban system.

The Cuban system was founded by 97-year-old Alicia Alonso, who still directs the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and her then-husband Fernando Alonso (1914-2013) in 1948. The company and school would eventually become Cuba’s flagship ballet for over 60 years. Though both were born in Cuba, each had international ballet careers, including dancing with American Ballet Theatre, where Alicia gained a reputation as an intensely dramatic dancer performing the works of Balanchine, Tudor and deMille.

The couple returned to their home country to encourage the growth of ballet in Cuba. After the revolution, the school and troupe became state-protected and -funded institutions, producing generations of dancers, including the renowned Carlos Acosta and José Manuel Carreño.

Ismael Albelo, a teacher and chaperone for the Cuban students while in Salt Lake, is quick to remind that “Alicia was the dancer, but Fernando, her husband developed the Cuban technique.”

Albelo, who has worked in the Ministry of Culture for 20 years, said the salary and respect for a doctor and a prima ballerina are the same in Cuba, and that theater is always sold out.

He added that it’s hard to compare salaries to those in the U.S. because in Cuba, “education is free, health care is free, transportation is cheap and tickets to the ballet are only $1.50.”

Peter LeBreton Merz, director of BW Academy, said he hopes that Trump’s tightening of travel restrictions with Cuba doesn’t damage cultural exchanges like this one.

“It is vital to expanding our artistic world,” Merz said. “Adam always says,’We are in the business of respecting everyone,’ and we all want to build collaborations through ideas, talents and mutual respect.”

Kathy Adams, The Salt Lake Tribune

July 21, 2017

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