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American dancers in homage to Cuban ballet legend

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM


America's premier ballet company paid tribute in Havana to Cuban dance legend Alicia Alonso as two cultures separated by a half century of political animus came together - for an evening at least - behind a mutual appreciation for art.

The United States (US) dance troupe is in Cuba for the 22nd International Ballet Festival of Havana, convened this year in honour of Alonso, who continues to lead Cuban ballet despite being nearly blind for decades.

Alonso will turn 90 on December 21. She remains an extremely demanding teacher known for her fiery temper, but also for a preternatural understanding of dance and an unparalleled sense of talent.

The American company performed before some 5,500 people at the sprawling Karl Marx theater last Wednesday night, and was scheduled to make another appearance Thursday.

The last time the dance company was in Cuba was 1960 - for the inaugural Havana festival.

The American outfit includes two Cuban-Americans, José Manuel Carreno and Xiomara Reyes. Both appeared last Wednesday as the US troupe performed scenes from Siete Sonatas, Fancy Free and Theme and Variations, a ballet created in 1947 by George Balanchine - specifically to be danced by Alonso.

Reyes, a prima ballerina, was making her first visit to Cuba since leaving the island as an 18-year-old in 1992.

Something special

She spent part of last Wednesday visiting a dance school run by Alonso's daughter, Laura, who was one of her earliest teachers. Laura Alonso said she knew from the moment she saw Reyes as a three year old that there was something special about her.

"It was in her eyes, even then," she said. "A passion."

Asked what the weeklong tribute to her mother meant to her, Laura Alonso was less forthcoming.

"Well, my mother, as you know, is nearly 90 years old," she said. "So this homage means she is old. Very old."

As Reyes walked around Havana, even after 18 years away, she was recognised and approached enthusiastically by passers-by.

The US ballet company's visit is the latest in a surge in cultural exchanges since President Barack Obama took office in 2008. Last month, American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra came to Havana. Cuban musicians including Silvio Rodriguez, Los Van Van and Chucho Valdes have toured the US in recent months.

The cultural exchanges have not been accompanied by any meaningful sign that the Cold War enemies are ready to put their political differences behind them. The US has maintained a 48-year trade embargo on Cuba, and has demanded political and economic openings before it lifts sanctions.

Cuban leaders say America has no business telling them what kind of government they should have. They complain that Washington is quick to criticise the island's human rights record, and slow to acknowledge what they see as America's less-than-stellar rights record, particularly regarding the fight against Islamic extremism.

- AP Story