Cuban dancer José Manuel Carreño, artistic director of the Silicon Valley Ballet, has spoken of his dream of taking the company to Cuba. For now, he is bringing Cuba to San José.
On Oct. 16-18, the Silicon Valley Ballet will be performing the classic “Giselle” as choreographed by iconic Cuban dancer and choreographer Alicia Alonso. It is the first time that what is widely considered Alonso’s masterpiece will be performed in the United States.
That the Knight-funded performances, and the community events surrounding them, are taking place at a time Cuba-United States relations have been restored after more than 54 years, only adds a larger, and more vividly shaded social and political context to what was already a significant artistic exchange.
As it happens, given the advance time required for planning a season, the timing is fortuitous.
“I have been working on this project about a year, maybe longer,” said Carreño in phone conversation held in both, English and Spanish. “So I got the rights to do this [choreography] — and then we had all these changes about the relationship between the United States and Cuba. For some it might be hard to believe, but it was meant to be. It’s time for changes.”
After graduating from the Cuban National Ballet School in 1986, Carreño went on to win top prizes at the New York International Ballet Competition (1987) and the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi (1990) and a career as a principal dancer with the English National Ballet, The Royal Ballet and, from 1995 to his retirement in 2011, with the American Ballet Theater.
He joined the Silicon Valley Ballet, then called Ballet San Jose, in 2013.
“For me, these performances have a great importance,” says Carreño. “ Since I’ve been in the United States and through my work with [the American Ballet Theater], I’ve always felt like an ambassador, someone fighting to bring these cultures together. I’ve put in my grain of sand. In 2010, I went to Cuba with the American Ballet Theater and I believe a bridge started to be built — and this is the continuation of that work.”
“Giselle” premiered at the Paris Opera in June 1841 and at the Teatro Tacón, now Gran Teatro de La Habana, in February, 1849. Alonso danced the title role in her first staging of “Giselle” in June, 1945.
“I am often asked to justify our version of ‘Giselle,’ ” Alonso is quoted in a story that appeared on the SFGate in 1999.”It remains above all a romantic ballet […] but also the result of our Latin American culture and the encounter of our national idiosyncrasies with a European work created a century and a half ago.”
“Real tradition […] must be open. It must be received from all around,” she said. “One has to search out tradition, study it, acquire it and then feel free to live it freely.”
For Millicent Powers, executive director and co-chair of the board of Silicon Valley Ballet, says “This is Jose’s dream.” Also, the company in recent years has gone through changes in leadership and substantial financial challenges, so “there was a lot of discussion, while preparing this season, about what would make sense with a new name and a new brand.”
“I thought it was interesting that Alicia Alonso, as a strong Latina arts leader herself, asked ‘What does ‘Giselle’ have to do with me?” notes Powers. It’s a question that also hints at the larger issue of finding an audience for ballet in today’s life. “So we started a project called ‘I am Giselle’ and thanks to the support of Knight Foundation we’ve created what we call Contextual Events so instead of just saying ‘Come to the theater and experience the ballet and then go home’ we say, this is an opportunity for conversation about exactly that: What does this has to do with me?”
The Giselle Project included master classes events with food, music and dancing and open rehearsals.
Meanwhile for Carreño, these performances have an added, personal import.
He has danced the role of prince Albrecht “many times” before officially retiring from performance in 2011, but this weekend Carreño will dance the role of Hilarion, the prince’s rival for Giselle’s love. Moreover, Carreño´s younger brother, Yoel, principal dancer with the Norwegian National Ballet, will dance the role of Albrecht. It is the first time the brothers share the stage.
“I love the idea of an American company doing this version — with a Cuban prince,” he said. Alonso, who is 93, “of course knows about the production and the casting. We talked about it when we got the rights, but also, next year there’s another edition of the Festival Internacional de Ballet de La Habana and she invited me, personally, to dance with the [Silicon Valley Ballet] company in Cuba. Now, that would be incredible. To bring the company there would be a dream come true.”