Dancing with Cubans | Backstory

Cuba’s Ballet Santiago debuted a daring production that pushed its dancers and audiences beyond anything they’d done or seen before — with more to come, learns Donna Yawching

  • Photo by Sandy Jusino, courtesy Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba
  • Photo by Sandy Jusino, courtesy Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba
  • Photo by Sandy Jusino, courtesy Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba
  • Photo by Sandy Jusino, courtesy Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba
  • Photo by Sandy Jusino, courtesy Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba
  • Photo by Donna Yawching
  • Some Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba members including company director Zuria Salmon Alvarez (centre, with flowers) and teacher, choreographer and assembly assistant Surinay Barrientos Moreno (left, in flowered dress). Photo by Sandy Jusino, courtesy C

It’s seven flights of steps up to where the Compañía Ballet Santiago de Cuba is rehearsing its latest work. Which may not be a hardship for a lithe young dancer, but for an out-of-shape journalist d’un certain âge — well, enough said. Still, I make it all the way up to the cavernous studio where, for this company at least, history is being made.

For the first time since its founding in 1990, the socialist nation’s third-string ballet company (ranking after the internationally renowned Ballet Nacional de Cuba founded by the great Alicia Alonso, and the equally lauded Ballet de Camagüey) is stepping into deeply unfamiliar territory.

It is shaking off its strictly classical roots to venture into the wilds of contemporary neo-classicism — a style that retains key classical technique while stripping away the narrative detail and theatricality of earlier periods, creating greater freedom and simplicity of movement, and placing more focus on the emotional expression of the dancer.

And in another first, they are working with a Viennese choreographer, Mike Loewenrosen, who has created a piece called Nostalgia on, and for, the company.

An award-winning choreographer, Loewenrosen, 45, is the founder of Sunrise Studios, a state-approved dance and acting conservatory in Vienna, Austria. From his early years as a street break-dancer, he moved on to more conventional forms, eventually studying classical and contemporary dance in New York and Amsterdam.

Within the last decade, he has gravitated towards itinerant workshops and choreography, working with dance companies, theatres, film and TV in Europe, the United States, and South America. “I like choreography more than dancing,” Loewenrosen confesses. “It’s creative.”

He had wanted to do Nostalgia in New York (where he had been teaching and choreographing), then Covid hit. “And I had to leave,” he says. Coming out of the pandemic, he chanced upon an online video of the Ballet Santiago, and on impulse, reached out to them. “They were so nice,” he recalls. “It was cool.”

Zuria Salmon Alvarez, the company’s artistic director, picks up the story: “Mike contacted one of our professors after seeing one of our choreographies on the internet,” she tells me.

They communicated about the company’s style and training, the number of dancers, the (very brief) timeframe, and the choreographer’s vision. Three months later, Loewenrosen was unpacking his bags in Santiago and buckling down to work — in a language he barely knew.

A translator was provided. But there was another barrier that proved a little harder to overcome: the language of the dance itself

A translator was provided. But there was another barrier that proved a little harder to overcome: the language of the dance itself. Until now, Ballet Santiago’s training and repertory had been almost exclusively classical, with minor incursions into moderately contemporary dance. What Loewenrosen brought to the table was a whole different style of movement, completely unfamiliar to most of the dancers.

“Mike is more fluid with the torso,” explains Salmon Alvarez. “At first it was physically difficult on the dancers’ bodies, their knees; classical ballet has a more rigid format. But they are enjoying the experience.”

The dancers themselves — rehearsing in shoes so tattered they are barely there — concur. “It’s very interesting, this new style of moving,” says Lien-Yenen Soto Hung, who has been 22 years with Ballet Santiago. “It’s a different dance language; it widens the view. At the beginning, it left us in pain, but now it’s all fine; the body accustoms itself.”

“A mixture of different styles,” agrees Lisandra Garcia Revilla. “It’s nice to be learning something new, something fresh.”

“Each day we learn more,” adds Silene Cedeño Rodriguez, another veteran with the company. “There are many movements, like undulations, that we don’t use in ballet. Mike is very patient; if we don’t understand something, he demonstrates. We get along well with him.”

Loewenrosen recalls it slightly differently: “At the beginning, it was hard to conquer their hearts; they were very reserved. But they opened up every day, more and more, and now it’s wonderful to work with them. They try so hard, and they learn very fast, they have very good pick-up. They get better every day.”

(His contract with Ballet Santiago pays him exactly zero: they’ve provided room and board only. Cuba is not a place with a lot of money to spare. “It’s the first time I’m doing this for free,” Loewenrosen emphasises.)

Initially, some of the dancers had doubts about the choreography. It was, one told me: “so linear, muy bajo”.

They worried that their audiences, accustomed to the pyrotechnics of classical ballet — the grands jetés, the pirouettes — might be underwhelmed by the low-key lyricism of Nostalgia, with its emphasis on emotion rather than virtuosity.

“At first I didn’t like the work, I didn’t understand the movements,” Silene admits. “We’re not accustomed to moving this slowly.”

Lisandra concurs: “It’s very difficult for the dancer because you need more control, more tension in the body. You have to control everything, even your mind.”

But soon, they were hooked. “We are doing art,” Silene says simply. “Each scene is a story.”

Nostalgia debuted in Santiago, at the prestigious Teatro Heredia on 5 March, 2023. The audience gave it a standing ovation. And, for the diehard pyrotechnics fans, the curtain calls did include a grand jeté or two.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.