Liz Sobol of SPAC on the National Ballet of Cuba

Liz Sobol of SPAC on the National Ballet of Cuba

Legend has it that as a young dancer Alicia Alonso, founder of the National Ballet of Cuba, was ordered by doctors to stay in her bed for a year holding as still as possible after a procedure on her eyes or else lose her sight altogether. She was forbidden from playing with her daughter Laura, or even chewing food. “I danced in my mind. Blinded, motionless, flat on my back, I taught myself to dance Giselle,” Alonso said of that period.

Cleared by doctors to return to work, she began preparing to ease in, but the prima ballerina at Ballet Theatre was injured and Alonso was asked to take over the lead in Giselle. Her performance won her universal acclaim and propelled her to stardom.

All the while she and her dance partners had to work with absolute precision as Alonso’s eyesight continued to fail her. She eventually left New York, returning to Cuba to start her own company. That company will perform Alonso’s production of Giselle at SPAC on June 6, 7 and 8. Alonso, now 97, is expected to be there with the company.

Elizabeth Sobol, president, and CEO of SPAC, says that she jumped at the chance to bring the National Ballet of Cuba to SPAC. “They have never been up here to the Capital Region and I knew they were going to be at the Kennedy Center for a big Cuban festival this year. So I reached out to woman organizing the tour–this is one of the best dance companies in the world for many years. I said, ‘I really want to be part of this tour.’ So after many months of routing the tour, they had a very small area of availability and now we are one of five venues where they will appear. They won’t be playing anywhere else in New York, not New York City, only SPAC.”

For Sobol, the National Ballet of Cuba represents the power of art and performance to transcend politics, economics, and social strife. “I started going to Cuba in 1999. I went on a semi-official trip with arts people to see performers and managers. An NGO hosted and our itinerary included all these incredible contemporary dance groups. We also heard a lot of music in out of the way places. We drove crazy places outside of Havana and the thing always killed me was the amount of deprivation. It was not to be believed then and it got a lot worse. We’d go to a building that was falling apart, trudge up five flights of rickety stairs to an attic room with no windows, no ventilation in the middle of summer. It was 100 degrees in there and the dancers in there were dancing their hearts out. You can’t just go to a store to buy dancewear, you can’t just go buy some new tights. These dancers were sweating profusely, there was no soap to be had, no aspirin, no Ibuprofen. You could see the passion, how committed they were, how they lived for it and against all odds how much they sacrificed to make dance.”

Sobol recalls talking to artists about life after the fall of the Soviet Union when Russia had pulled out. “There was nothing left for Cuba. But that is when Timba started to thrive. One dancer told me, ‘When there was no food to eat we played music to fill ourselves.’ This is a place where music means something so essential and fundamental in their lives and presenting Cuban artists is about that.”

Sobol said that when she thinks about the United States’ long history with Cuba, “so much of our policy has been informed by a complete lack of understanding. If you strip away those artificial layers of “the other” and greet each other person to person rather than the stereotype you achieve real understanding.”

After the Cuban Revolution, Alonso was shunned by many in the American dance community. Fidel Castro didn’t allow Alonso to perform in America for years. When she finally did take an American stage again in 1975 she was 54 and a grandmother. Critics were still entranced.

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