If the Ballet Nacional de Cuba had come to the city Center from Des Moines, would it have seemed so charming? This troupe, shaped by the Havana-born ballerina Alicia Alonso, who reigned at American Ballet Theatre in the forties and fifties, might well be dismissed as “regional” – an old dance-world put-down for efforts lacking New York-style prowess and sophistication. But for all its deficiencies, the Cuban company still managed to ingratiate itself with the City Center audience. It offered a vacation from the big time, where technical virtuosity has usurped the place not only of poetry but also of a quietly demonstrated desire to please.
The Cubans appeared in an evening-length version of Cinderella, choreographed by Pedro Consuegra to a score by Johann Strauss II that comes across as an interminable medley of the Waltz King’s tunes. It’s the sort of music that is most moving when heard from afar, late at night, in an outdoor amusement park. As a springboard for choreography – and this score was composed as a ballet – it leads to frenetic results. A program note claims that Consuegra is furthering the Petipa tradition of high classicism. Actually, the choreography uses a small fraction of the academic vocabulary and seems more indebted to the shallower, flashier Soviet school. Some of Consuegra’s effects are both brazen and obvious, as cheaply garish as Armin Heinemann’s costumes. Others – such as the small female corps in white tunics, both bearing and representing doves – have the gauche sweetness of a high-school pageant. And it is this tone of touching, seemingly unintentional naïveté that prevails. By the time the ballet reaches the national dances staged for the betrothal ball – cf. Swan Lake, Act Three – the fact that they are a nightmare of scrambled ethnicity seems perfectly in keeping with a mood of gaily innocent celebration.
Heinemann’s enchanting set, colorfully and buoyantly executed in a style somewhere between children’s picture book and comic book, furthers the magic inherent in the production. The dancers do the rest. Most of them appear to have been trained with beautiful correctness, though it seems as if either their bodies aren’t built right for the technique or they haven’t been practicing it long or hard enough. Nevertheless, a poised and pleasant demeanor has been bred into every figure on the stage, creating an oasis of civility. The principal dancers I saw were either proficient or promising – or both. Lorna Feijóo, as Cinderella, was extraordinary – in truth of feeling, in feats like unsupported swirling balances, and in near-invisible details such as an arabesque in which the supporting foot descends from a perch on pointe to full floor contact with the softness and evenness of a sleeping infant’s breath.