writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Aspects of Cuba

Dance Cuba: Dreams of Flight
American Film Institute's Silver Theatre & Cultural Center
Silver Spring, Maryland
Friday, April 23, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright 2004 by George Jackson
published 26 April 2004

The two hours plus of Cynthia Newport's documentary film felt like a double whammy. The first blow sent you reeling with its cast of 1001 characters, script of as many incidents and the relentless hop-scotch among them. The second blow woke you up as you realized that just about everything had substance.

Three related stories emerged. Most poignant was that of a political defector from Fidel Castro's Cuba, a dancer trained by the dictatorship's ballet school but not allowed to return when her present company from America is invited to perform in Cuba. The second story is that of an American family of partly Cuban heritage that, by way of dance, tries to find its Cuban roots. The third tale is that of a poor kid provided the opportunity by the Castro regime to become a star, not only in Cuba but globally.

Laura Urgelles is the political defector. Her American company is the Washington Ballet, directed by Septime Webre. It is Webre and his siblings who long to know about their family's Cuban past. Their search leads them to the remains of a burned house, but along the way they stumble across people who recall their forbearers—remembrances that are dim and fragmentary but not unrewarding. Carlos Acosta is the international star who is allowed to come and go freely across Cuba's island borders, earning renown and money abroad, but finding that lonely.

There are subplots aplenty. One deals with a Washington Ballet dancer of Hispanic heritage and very aware of Hispanic culture's macho expectations for men. He has to dance a male love pas de deux in Cuba and for him it constitutes a coming out. That takes courage, but at least he's not left lonely. The life and times of Cuba's grand lady of the ballet and all the arts, Alicia Alonso, can be gleaned from the film. Fernando Alonso, Alicia's first partner and first husband, ruminates wisely about their careers and Cuban dance. He recalls Fokine's instructions for Les Sylphides, that the danseur partners the ballerina not to lift her but to prevent her from flying away. One of the many dance sequences is archival footage (shot by Chicago critic Ann Barzel) of Alicia Alonso's remarkable hops on pointe in Act 1 of Giselle.

The film's bookends are the planning for and successful conclusion of Washington Ballet's October 2000 visit to Cuba. It touches on protests and hate mail the company received for accepting Alicia Alonso's invitation to participate in Cuba's dance festival and Septime Webre's reason for that acceptance. There are impressions of life in Washington, DC and in Havana, Cuba—the power and affluence of the former and the poverty and crumbling beauty of the latter. Among the many people seen and/or heard are Fidel Castro, Mary Day, Elvi Moore, Frank Andersen, John Goding, Donald Saddler, Trey McIntyre, Amanda McKerrow and critic Jean Battey Lewis. Quite a few Cubans are not identified in the film's English version (there is also a Spanish edition). Dancing includes that of Lorna Feijoo, Jose Manuel Carreno, Alessandra Ferri, Washington Ballet and in particular J. Cortney Palomo, Jared Nelson, Jason Hartley, Brianne Bland, Runquiao Du and Chip Coleman, Cuba's contemporary dance company, the Cuban National Ballet and the wonderful children of its school. Effective excerpts are shown from such choreographic works as Webre's ballet about his Cuban family, McIntyre's Blue Until June, Kenneth MacMillan's Manon and the classics Swan Lake and Don Quixote.

Perhaps Dreams of Flight should have been several films, but then could Newport have woven in the stories' interrelations?

Photos (all from the film's website at Emerging Pictures.

Front page:  Carlos Acosta
This page, first: dancers in the company's studio.
Second: Laura Urgelles.
Third :  Septime Webre

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 15
April 26, 2004

© 2004 George Jackson




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last updated on April 19, 2004