HAVANA (Reuters) - The American Ballet Theater, making its first appearance in Cuba in 50 years, will pay tribute this week to ballet legend Alicia Alonso in the latest attempt at cultural diplomacy to bridge the political divide between the United States and the communist-led island.
Alonso, who turns 90 on December 21, danced with the New York-based troupe in the 1940s and 1950s and performed some of its most famous works.
American Ballet Theater dancers and executives said on Tuesday they were pleased to be in Cuba because of Alonso’s historic role in their company and the symbolic importance of their return to the country 90 miles from Florida after so many years.
“It’s very difficult to say what political impact our presence could have here because we are not politicians,” artistic director Kevin McKenzie said in a news conference.
But, he said, the U.S. ballet company has “a cultural depth to reach across all differences, to a culture of like mind.”
“It is not our purpose to do anything but to speak of our cultural sameness,” he said. “I think that dialogue is what will expand to brighter and more positive horizons in the future.”
Alonso returned to Cuba after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power and took charge of the Cuban National Ballet, where she has groomed dancers who now perform around the world.
Two of American Ballet Theatre’s top dancers, Jose Manuel Carreno and Xiomara Reyes, are Cuba natives who were Alonso proteges.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Carreno. “It will be an honor, a thrill, for me to be here dancing with the ABT and also for Alicia’s 90th birthday.”
Reyes said: ”This is a very emotional roller coaster for me. I feel completely overwhelmed.
“The story of Cuba is so connected to the company, for me it’s very, very emotional, very special.”
The American Ballet Theater made several previous appearances in Cuba, the first in 1947 and the last in 1960 as relations between the United States and Cuba were deteriorating into an impasse that continues today.
Under U.S. President Barack Obama, official relations have warmed only slightly, but cultural exchanges have become almost commonplace.
Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis led a Cuba trip last month by the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra, pop group Kool and The Gang played in Havana last year, and Cuban musicians including Silvio Rodriguez, Chucho Valdes and Omara Portuondo have performed recently in the United States.
Alonso was honored by the American Ballet Theater in New York in June.
The U.S.-based company’s Cuban performances are part of Havana’s International Ballet Festival. Members of the New York Ballet are also dancing in the festival.
The American Ballet Theater will perform some of its signature works, including “Fancy Free” and “Theme and Variations,” the latter written in 1947 for Alonso by ballet legend George Balanchine.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham