Thursday December 14, 2017

¡Viengsay!

An informal chat with the prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet--with videos

Viengsay Valdés in Don Quijote

Courtesy National Ballet of Cuba

Cubans attend ballet performances at very little cost, and everyone from every walk of life knows and opines about its stars, performances, and repertory.

Mention Viengsay (pronounced VEE-en-sai, meaning “victory” in Laotian), and faces light up. We’re talking rock-star popularity. But why?

Perhaps it's her “forever” solo balances en pointe. She has held herself on point, unsupported, for a whole minute, and in performance this superb technique translates into elegant, confident, seemingly effortless drama—as in this video of her 2011 pas de deux with Ivan Vasiliev from Don Quixote. (For her dazzling en pointe work, fast forward to the section from 1:42 to 3:47.)

Or perhaps it’s her multiple turns. In a 2009 interview with Dance magazine, Viengsay admitted to being able to do “ten pirouettes, and with fouettés, five turns and end with six.” That’s a lot of turns, and it makes audiences gasp. The video below, a montage of performance clips, attests to her amazing capacity for turns.

Add to this her deep national pride, loving ties to family and friends, a wellspring of theatrical dance and acting skills, and the ability to offer herself openly and generously to audiences everywhere, and you have a singularly fabulous prima ballerina.

It’s great to finally be able to do this interview with you, Viengsay. You have such an interesting background. What was your first stage experience?

My first time on stage was at the age of three. My father was the Cuban ambassador to Laos, and my mother took me to a cultural activity. Suddenly she looked up at the stage and I was there, dancing.

A future foretold! Where were you when you saw your first ballet?

I saw my very first ballet on TV. I was seven years old, and Alicia Alonso danced Giselle.

What an indelible impression it must have made. When was your first ballet class, and where?

An the Ballet Elementary School Alejo Carpentier in Havana. I was eight. I loved it from my very first class, and immediately knew that I wanted a career in ballet. At 12, I decided to devote my life to it, determined to become a great classical ballerina.

And your first ballet role on stage?

My first real role on a stage was at 11 years old. It was in The Black Doll, based on a tale by our national hero, José Martí.

My first pas de deux on stage was in Flames of Paris at the Escuelas nacionales de arte, the National Art Schools.

When I joined the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC), one of my first solo roles was in Majisimo. At 18, I did my first Black Swan pas de deux at BNC.

Such a thrilling role—both drama and dance. Years ago, you told me your favorite role is Kitri in Don Quixote. Still true?

Yes, still true. Kitri in Don Quixote and Odile in Black Swan.

You embody these roles. How do you keep them fresh?

It’s the roles themselves. I feel such passion for them, they inspire me with their strength and joy and virtuosity.

Your best stage moment?

I enjoy every moment on stage. But if I must choose, there are two: Carmen with the Mariinsky Theater and the Don Quixote pas de deux  with Ivan Vasiliev at City Center in New York [the first video above].

Your worst stage moment?

Moments, really… Whenever I have to dance while I’m ill, as with a fever, muscular pain, or similar circumstances. However, it is so worth the effort to pull through these performances without the audience recognizing it. My small triumph.

Is there a piece of dance choreography that sends you “over the moon?”

Kenneth McMillan’s Manon. And John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet.

Do you like modern or contemporary dance?

I grew up on classical technique. I still love that, and neoclassical ballet. I like contemporary dance because of how it frees the body. It allows dancers to experience different movement—movement that looks like there aren’t rules. But of course there are.

Viengsay Valdésin the ballet Double Bounce

Courtesy National Ballet of Cuba

Sometimes I find ballet on video, and without knowing which company is dancing, I try to guess by technique and style alone. How would I know I’m watching Cuban ballet? What are its unique qualities?

Cuban dancers are passionate and outgoing—not reserved. We are faithful musical interpreters. We do many multiple turns—we have a lot of control over the steps.

For the boys, there’s emphasis on balón, or bounce. And masculinity. We are actors, expressing joy, drama, and passion on stage.

You and I first met about 12 years ago. How has the ballet world changed in that time? The Ballet Nacional de Cuba? You yourself?

Ballet technique is constantly evolving. For dancers, more turns, more jumps, more virtuosity on stage. We must be careful with this evolution, as the new virtuosity can compromise the skills of interpretation—the acting, the role-playing.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba has an abundance of these evolved, passionate young dancers, waiting to get their stage experience. They will become the next great ballet dancers.

As for myself, of course I have changed. I have grown while representing Cuban ballet all over the world. I am grateful to have reached my highest level of achievement, so I am proud.

I enjoy every performance and even every day of training.

Let’s leave the stage for a moment. Your favorite music for dancing?

Cuban salsa.

For just listening?

R&B.

For fun?

R&B and bachata.

Congratulations on your recent marriage. Do you plan to continue your life in dance?

Yes, I would love to continue as long as my strength allows me to. After that, I would love to teach and share all that I have learned with future generations of dancers. My husband Carlos supports my efforts, and he is my best friend. And of course, we want to create a beautiful family.

Cuba is so full of excitement right now, so full of great possibilities. What are your thoughts and dreams for Ballet Nacional de Cuba?

I would love BNC to keep promoting itself and its distinctive style internationally. I hope we maintain our unique qualities—the ones that have made us world-famous.

Now, maybe BNC can exchange more performances with the United States—us to them and them to us. That would be good for us both.

For the next generation of BNC dancers, I would like them to be conscious of the time they are living in, as it is a great one. They must be unified, as a part of a company or even a team. Yes, they can be individuals, but serving a bigger cause, and that is how Ballet Nacional de Cuba will be able to serve them better.

Anything else you’d like to tell the world?

Viengsay Valdés is proud of and will maintain the future of Cuban ballet. You will have her dancing, teaching, and supporting it for a very long time.

Patricia Farber has studied, taught, and written about dance for more than 60 years. For 15 of them, she was a docent at the New York City Ballet. She is currently a co-director of the Farber Foundation, and co-publisher of Cuban Art News with her husband, Howard.