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Interview with Viengsay Valdés

by Catherine Pawlick

March 14, 2009 

For the first time in fifteen years, a Cuban is appearing onstage at the Mariinsky Theatre. Catherine Pawlick sat down to talk to Viengsay Valdés before her St. Petersburg debut in “Don Quixote.”

Is this your first time in Russia?

It’s the second.  In 2005, I was in Moscow for the Maya Plisetskaya Gala, 8th Anniversary in 2005, at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow. But this is the first time I’m going to dance a full-length ballet in Russia. It’s my first time in St. Petersburg.

How does it feel to be at the Mariinsky?

I am very excited. It’s an honor because this is a prestigious festival. It is the first time I’ve participated with a Russian dancer and we have only a few rehearsals so I am a little nervous.

They proposed that we dance “Don Quixote,” but it is completely different from my Cuban version. For example, I don’t do the second act variation in Cuba. Here I have to learn a completely new version in only a few rehearsals. But it is better for me; it is a new experience and a good opportunity. It is good for me.

I have to show how the Cuban dancers dance because we are a different school; we turn differently and put the arms in different positions, not close to the body like Balanchine. So we have specific steps in our school. The attitude is maybe more square than the Russian attitude.

What is it like to work with Leonid [Sarafanov]?

He is very nice; he’s funny and a good partner. I think we will enjoy the performance and have fun.

When you are on stage you only have to see the eyes of your partner and believe what he says and have a relationship on the stage. So that is important to bring the heart and passion to the audience.

Why did you start dancing?

I started artistic gymnastics in Havana, but gymnastics is a short career, at 23 years old you are a veteran. Ballet offers the chance to act on stage and not just do steps. That is why I started ballet. I was 5 or 6 years old.

Do you have a favorite role?

I like Odette/Odile. I love Kitri because it is so  familiar; and I love Carmen, our Alonso version [Alicia Alonso; former prima ballerina, founder of Ballet Nacional de Cuba]. And maybe Coppelia, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Manon.

Are there roles you haven’t danced that you’d like to try?

I would like to try Manon and the Mayerling and Romeo and Juliet – MacMillan’s versions.

You tour a lot. What are the differences in how other dancers work?

I participate in a lot of international galas so I see how the other dancers work and express themselves. I try not to imitate other dancers; I am my own personality and have my own way of expressing roles. But there are many ballets that we do not do in Cuba. So I am excited when I can see [Diana] Vishneva or [Alessandra] Ferri or other famous dancers I really admire because I can see these beautiful ballets [on tour] that we do not do in Cuba because of the rights. I try to take the best of what I see and use it in my own dancing.

Whenever the Cuban Ballet tours in other countries we are very well received. The Cuban “Giselle” and “Swan Lake” are completely different, so the audience sees something new. In 2010, we will be at the Coliseum in London with “Swan Lake,” so it’s very exciting.

Are dancers in Cuba treated well?

In Cuba, we are like heroes. [laughs] They really love us. We’re practically famous. We already have a 50-year tradition of our company so there are people who saw Alicia dance and many generations of dancers. The ballet is quite popular in Cuba; you have easy access to tickets because it is very cheap. Anyone can see it.

Alicia is blind, how does she work with you?

She is still the director of National Ballet of Cuba and yes she still rehearses. She makes the steps; she explains the way to do it. Maybe she doesn’t stand up and do it but she explains subtly each part. That’s how she works.

Do you have a problem getting pointe shoes? Do they make them in Cuba?

Yes, they make pointe shoes in Cuba. Cuban pointe shoes are very strong. They make me a special size that is customized to my feet. I used only Cuban pointe shoes all throughout school and graduation and in the beginning of my career until I became first ballerina. Then in 2004, I changed to Gaynor Minden and those are what I use now.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I try to rest or meet my friends, or maybe play dominoes with my family.

Any thoughts of your career beyond the stage?

I think it is a little early to ask this. I have to dance a lot until that happens. I have to have the opportunity to dance in this kind of festival. I danced in the Tokyo festival with Suzaki in 2006 and it was very exciting because [Vladimir] Malakhov, Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris, and Sylvie Guillem – all these stars were there. And the only Cuban dancers there were Romeo Frometta, my partner, and me. At the end there was a funny gala, where women and men switched roles. I was the Vasilio variation in pointe shoes with a wig and mustache. My partner did Esmeralda with a blonde curly wig with tambourine and green big tutu. Malakhov was Juliet and Tamara Rojo was Romeo. It was funny. They have that festival every three years and it will happen again this year.

Do you have a favorite city?

I like to dance in London. We danced in Sadler’s Wells, and I have danced with Carlos [Acosta] and Friends; I danced the “Corsaire” pas de deux with him. Tokyo is amazing; ballet is like Hollywood there. They roll out a red carpet and everyone screams when the dancers come out. And I had a good experience not long ago when our company was the first to perform in Egypt, in front of the pyramids in Cairo. In the desert, the temperatures get very cold and windy at night. During the day it is hot at midday but during the night it is really cold and windy. We started at 9:45p.m. and I was dancing Kitri. It was freezing but it was a lot of fun.

Do you dance any Balanchine?

Yes, “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” And we have “Ballo Della Regina” in our company, but we haven’t danced it in a while. The rights [to his ballets] are an issue.

Do you prefer classics?

Yes. We don’t dance too much Balanchine in Cuba, but maybe if I danced it more I’d prefer it instead.

Do you have a certain coach in Cuba?

Loipa Araujo helps me a lot when she’s in Cuba but she travels a lot too. If not, we change coaches often; it depends on the ballet you’re rehearsing.

What is your work week like?

We work Monday thru Friday and a half day Saturday. Sunday is our day off. We dance a lot in Cuba and when we’re not there, we are touring. We dance a lot, and that is good.

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