Highlights from the International Ballet Gala Part 1, and what they didn’t tell you about Alicia Alonso

| July 2, 2013 | 1 Comment

Just like professional athletes, where each new generation will always break the records held by the previous generations; so too, no dancer can ever claim to have absolute mastery of ballet while there is a possibility of a longer balance, a higher jump, or a few more turns.

Viengsay Valdés and José Losada performing Don Quixote at the International Ballet Gala.

Viengsay Valdés and José Losada performing Don Quixote at the International Ballet Gala. Photo by Sarah Weyman

And while the pursuit of perfection can naturally not exist without imperfection, we’ll ignore the few stumbles and fumbles for now and rather highlight those dancers – as seen this past weekend at the International Ballet Gala in honour of Alicia Alonso – who are challenging, if not already breaking those ‘records’, just as the inspired Madame Alonso did repeatedly across her unusually long career. (I’ll come back to her remarkable tale later.)

Those who were in the Johannesburg audience will know what I mean when I mention Viengsay Valdés, the primera bailarina of Madame Alonso’s National Ballet of Cuba.

Valdés scares me. Or at least, her bewitching black swan does. She performed her role so convincingly that the stage and backdrop melted away, while the audience was inexorably drawn and captured by the black swan sorceress she had become. She’s the type of mesmerising artist that makes you believe again in spells and magic.

Talking of magic…

Being a superb actress is, however, not the first thing audiences will remember about Valdés, and remember her they will. The buzz in the ballet classes this week will most certainly be about her Superwoman ability to balance and balance and balaaaaaance. Whether in arabesque or retiré, or effortlessly moving between the two, she can balance on pointe for what seems to mere mortals as an impossible eternity.

Wen Ting Guan and Aaron Smyth in Grand Pas Classique pas de deux.

Wen Ting Guan and Aaron Smyth in Grand Pas Classique pas de deux. Photo by Sarah Weyman.

And with perfect balance, naturally comes astonishing pirouettes. While most dancers spring-start their fouettés with a single turn, Valdés started the famous black swan fouettés with FIVE turns. I must admit, I was so busy re-locating my jaw that I completely lost count of the rest of her multiple revolutions.

With a chorus of gasps from the audience, she was quite literally breath-taking, which is an interesting reversal of roles for someone who as a youngster was told by teachers and doctors not to pursue professional ballet due to her asthmatic breathing difficulties.

Talking about breath-taking…

Another excited post-gala point of discussion was Aaron Smyth’s opening night pirouettes. This dancer from the English National Ballet seemed to turn as if he were a skater on ice, tightening inwards to reach blurring levels before slowing to a perfectly controlled finish.

Talking of perfect control…

Giselle is a ballet known for slow and steady adage variations, and Sadaise Arencibia will henceforth be known to South Africans as the Cuban queen of control. With never a moment of wavering, this ballerina from the National Ballet of Cuba seemed to send down roots through the stage floor and her rock-solid strength combined with her haunting emotional portrayal caused an explosion of applause.

Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in Diana and Actaeon.

Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in Diana and Actaeon. Photo by Sarah Weyman.

And talking of applause…

While Aaron Smyth has charm and precision, Brooklyn Mack from The Washington Ballet has cheek and power. An audible “geez!” echoed through the audience on one of his grand entrances, thanks to his athletic, trampoline-high jumps. And as if his enormous elevation wasn’t enough to rouse the crowds, his macho technique, (not to mention his near-naked muscled body in Diana and Actaeon), along with his cheeky grin in Stars and Stripes certainly made him an audience favourite.

As for the other favourites and memorable moments, take a look at part 2 with a full photo gallery here.

Back to Alicia Alonso and her unusual story…

The lovely Madame Alonso with the dancers of the International Ballet Gala at their final performance.

The lovely Madame Alonso with the dancers of the International Ballet Gala at their final performance. Photo courtesy of SAMB

In her own dance career, she was one of those remarkable ‘record breakers’ (if you’ll excuse the shallow analogy), not just in technical ability – with critics claiming she had ability beyond her time – but also with longevity. She danced her final performance at the age of 75.

But what makes this all the more remarkable is that she danced partially blind, having been diagnosed with a detached retina at the age of 19. See the full story of how she learnt Giselle with her eyes closed and more here: Lessons from a ballerina legend.

It is her passion for the pursuit of perfection and her intense performance artistry, despite disability, that makes her story that much more inspiring.

As Madame Alonso graciously accepted her applause this weekend, some audience members might only have seen a frail 91-year old lady. But those who know her story see a very different dynamic, tireless woman, whose life work has influenced and added immeasurably to ballet around the world, creating a legacy of future generations of inspired dancers.

Click through to see part 2 with the photo gallery here.

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Category: Performance

About the Author ()

Hi, I'm Robynn, and I'm a student of the potential of the body, the marvels of the mind, and the beauty of it all combined in ballet. As the editor, BodyMindBallet is where I get to learn, to share and to enjoy this wide world of dance - and with every day I gain an ever richer respect for the athleticism of dance and the skill of performance artistry.

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