Loipa Araujo is an exacting ballet coach. She has to be: the great Cuban National Ballet star has less than a month to teach the members of Silicon Valley Ballet how to dance Giselle -- the Cuban way.
"Some of them have done another version of Giselle," Araujo says of the beloved classical ballet during a break in their downtown San Jose rehearsal space. "They have to completely forget that and be open to this new Giselle."
Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have improved of late. And now Silicon Valley Ballet is doing its part to help move the reconciliation along. The company is unveiling a legendary Cuban version of Giselle. The ballet tells the tragic tale of a peasant girl who goes mad and dies of a broken heart after being betrayed by her lover -- an audience favorite since it was first performed in the 1840s.
The Cuban National Ballet is particularly associated with Giselle because of the unique drama and flawless technique of the company’s co-founder, Alicia Alonso, who danced the title role to great acclaim with the Ballet Theatre in New York (known these days as American Ballet Theatre) back in the 1940s. The young Cuban prodigy caused a sensation when she stepped in at the last minute for an injured Alicia Markova during the 1941-42 season.
"One thing that was extraordinary about her version was the mad scene," says Toba Singer, a Berkeley based dance scholar who frequently writes about Cuban ballet. "Alicia Alonso really gave her own interpretation to it and it was marvelous."
The ballet star returned home to Cuba in 1948 to found the institution that would eventually become the Cuban National Ballet. At 93, Alonso still tours with her company, and her version of Giselle is a hallmark of the company's repertoire.
"I’ve seen many, many other versions of Giselle, and I do think our Cuban version, the version of Alicia, has this very clear dramatic line," Araujo says. "All the characters are very well defined."
The dancers of Silicon Valley Ballet are also working intensively with Araujo and her team of dance coaches from Havana on technical specifics particular to the Cuban version. They pay close attention to seemingly tiny details, like keeping their arms rounded rather than straight in one key scene in the second act.
"In this version, every single thing you do, even how you bow or how you look at somebody, has a meaning," says principal dancer Ommi Pipit-Suksun, who is one of the dancers charged with bringing the challenging principal character to life on stage in Silicon Valley Ballet's production. "It’s not just an empty gesture. It has a lot of nuances; many layers and not just steps."
Despite paying close attention to the nuances of this Cuban Giselle, Pipit-Suksun isn’t interested in slavishly imitating Alonso. This ballerina intends to make the role of Giselle her own.
"Copying somebody is never a good thing," Pipit-Suksun says. "That emotion has to be real. It has to come from you. They can guide you -- you should do this and that -- but ultimately it’s up to you."
This landmark collaboration represents a big comeback for Silicon Valley Ballet, which came close to shutting down this past spring. The company was already in a deep financial hole when its present artistic director, international-acclaimed ballet star and Cuban native Jose Manuel Carreno came on board in 2013. "We’ve been through rough patches," Carreno says.
Carreno and his community leapt into action earlier this year. The company rebranded itself from Ballet San Jose to Silicon Valley Ballet and set about fundraising. The company scored $640,000 during the first 10 days of its fundraising campaign, and has so far raised nearly $3 million of its $3.5 million goal. This includes a $50,000 grant to stage Giselle from the Knight Foundation.
"We’re stepping up, the company is moving, is getting better, we’re working on it," Carreno says. "It’s exciting."
But Giselle isn’t only a turning point for the dance company. As one of the first major cultural collaborations between the U.S. and Cuba in more than half a century, the production is politically significant. For many years, the U.S. government would not grant visas to Cuban dancers.
"It’s a historic moment for American audiences," says Singer. "This means we can have access. This is their finest work and we’re going to have a chance to see it."
It’s been very risky for most Cuban artists, like Silicon Valley Ballet principal dancer Maykel Solas, to pursue careers in the U.S. Solas has been with the company for 10 years. In his early days in this country, he was worried about how the Cuban authorities would treat his family.
"I stopped talking with my mum for months," Solas says. "I was afraid they would say something to my mum or to my family."
With Cuba and the U.S. on friendlier terms -- the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet both performed at the International Ballet Festival in Havana in 2010 -- the possibility of heightened cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba in the coming years is a tantalizing prospect for ballet professionals and fans of the art form from both nations. Silicon Valley Ballet plans to participate in the aforementioned festival next fall.
"If we have good relationships, everybody can go back and forwards," Solas says. "Everybody can learn from everybody."
Yet visas remain hard to come by. It's been a long and arduous process for Silicon Valley Ballet to procure the necessary paperwork to enable the Cuban coaches to join the company in San Jose for this production of Giselle. Although diplomatic relations are currently in the process of being restored between the U.S. and Cuba, it will be quite some time before artists can move freely between the two countries.
Silicon Valley Ballet’s production of Giselle runs Oct. 16-18, 2015 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, visit siliconvalleyballet.org.
Jose Manuel Carreno appeared as a guest on KQED Forum on Oct. 8, together with Silicon Valley Ballet board chair Millicent Powers. Listen to their interview with host Michael Krasny here.