HAVANA – Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theater, stood by a fluted pillar in a lofty studio at the National Ballet School here recently, keeping time with his hands as a group of male students practiced jetes in a circle.
“You are leaning in too much,” he told the dancers. “Keep your shoulders even. Dance forward in the space around the circle.”
Gian Carlos Perez, 16, one of more than a dozen young men and women in McKenzie’s two-hour master class, took the advice to heart, saying he would rethink the way he approached leaps. “That class was unforgettable,” he added. “If only he could come back and do more.”
If the jetes provided a memorable lesson for Perez, circles – artistic, personal and historical – were a dominant motif recently, when Ballet Theater returned to the homeland of Alicia Alonso, the Cuban ballerina who danced with the company during the 1940s.
The visit also had the air of a valediction: Alonso, energetic but virtually blind, turns 90 in December.
“There is a sense that this is the closing of a circle,” McKenzie said. “Alicia has closure. She is acknowledged worldwide as one of the great ballerinas of history.” Ballet Theater, which performed here twice recently as part of the 22nd International Ballet Festival, last visited Cuba as a company in 1960, shortly before the United States severed commercial and diplomatic ties with this Communist country.
The visit was part of a recent spate of cultural exchanges, including a weeklong residency in October by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. American officials say they favour more person-to-person contacts with Cuba, despite a lack of progress since President Barack Obama took office toward ending decades of political animosity.
Four Ballet Theater principals, including the Cuban-born dancer Jose Manuel Carreno, stayed on to dance in weekend gala performances after the rest of the 80-strong contingent left recently. Eight dancers from New York City Ballet, performing under the auspices of the Cuban Artists Fund, also performed during the festival, which ended recently.
Despite the embargo Alonso strove to ensure that the loop connecting Cuban and American ballet endured. McKenzie came to Cuba to dance Siegfried in “Swan Lake” in 1986 and was struck by the talent of a young Cuban dancer who, he discovered years later, was Carreno.
Carreno joined American Ballet Theater in 1995 and is credited by colleagues with helping the company reach a new level.
“He’s an incredible partner and amazingly coordinated,” McKenzie said, adding that he had helped the other dancers improve their skills at turns.
Recently Carreno was back in his hometown, on the cusp of retiring from the company, signing autographs and enchanting the Cuban audience with a sexy, Latin-infused solo in Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.”
During a frenetic five days the American and Cuban dancers got a taste of each other’s worlds. Americans took class with Cuban teachers, compared notes on technique and musicality, worked with Cuban stage crews and donated shoes and other dance material.
The Americans were impressed by the Cuban dancers’ spirit and athleticism and the judgment and diversity of their audience; the Cubans were fascinated by the range of choreography and the apparently effortless fluidity with which the Americans moved.
“We’re just not used to seeing this kind of choreography and when we do, it makes a huge impression,” said Yonah Junior Acosta, a soloist with the Cuban National Ballet and a nephew of Carlos Acosta, a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London.
“We’d love to dance other things, like MacMillan,” he added, referring to the British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan.
As the visit wore on, the question lingered of how to strengthen the bonds forged in Havana. McKenzie said he was pondering the possibility of choreographic workshops and other educational programs.
“With every closing of a circle, you begin a new one,” he said. “It’s got to pass to the next generation.”
The current generation of Cuban dancers has made its mark on the international stage, from Carreno and Xiomara Reyes, also a principal with Ballet Theater, to the sisters Lorena Feijoo of the San Francisco Ballet and Lorna Feijoo of the Boston Ballet. But the pride that comes with their international fame is bittersweet. Every dancer who goes overseas leaves behind a gap.
“We lose so many wonderful dancers,” Acosta said. “It is such a shame.”
Reyes, who left Cuba just shy of her 20th birthday in 1992, closed her own circle recently when she was reunited with a half sister and two nieces, as well as many people who had trained and worked with her as a young dancer. She said she was so nervous about seeing her city again and dancing before the expectant, and exigent, Cuban public that she had barely slept.
Reyes took the stage of the Karl Marx Theater on a recent Thursday night to a surge of applause and danced the Diana and Acteon pas de deux with the Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo.
The two drew cheers from an audience of 4,400, thrilled to see a ballerina who left at the beginning of her career and had returned to dance for them at her zenith.
As applause filled the vast theatre, Reyes curtsied to receive a white bouquet. Then she flitted to the edge of the stage, bowed her head low and laid the flowers before her, a gesture of thanks to the public from whom she had, for so long, been parted.