Ballet West Brings American Ballet to Cuba

Last month, dancers from Ballet West joined a roster of international luminaries in Cuba at the International Ballet Festival of Havana. The World Dances spoke with Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute about the experience, his company, advice for dancers, and more.

What were some highlights from the trip?

There were so many highlights! On a personal note, my favorite was getting to have a private audience with the great Alicia Alonso.  She wanted to know more about Ballet West and our repertoire and asked about my dance history. I’d known a few of her pupils through long-term associations. She’s extremely gracious—94 years old, completely blind, and she still presides over every performance they do.

Being able to tour the National Ballet of Cuba School and see how much they do with so little was amazing. My artistic staff and I also became obsessed with some of their technique work in class. Certain aspects we were fascinated by, like the way they use their posse as they turn. It lifts higher and higher throughout the turn without adjusting the pelvis. I think it’s one of the reasons they can turn so well. Also, they work so much on the transfer of weight through the metatarsal in eleve. It develops great calf and foot strength, which I think helps with the incredibly quick action they have and their strong jumping. We’re trying to incorporate some of it. I put out a mandate (as a joke but it really is gorgeous technique): I expect every company member, second company member, and academy dancer to have Cuban posses. General announcement!

Getting to see members of my company dance alongside the National Ballet of Cuba dancers as well as dancers from companies from around the world was very exciting. [Other companies performing at the festival include the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, the Scala de Milan, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and Ballet del Teatro Colón.] It was a huge honor. The classes were all group classes with dancers from all the companies. It was a great experience watching the artistic staff of the National Ballet of Cuba giving classes to all the artists there.

What do you think your dancers were able to share with the others?

I’d like to think it was our expansiveness, the great use of the torso that my dancers incorporate into their work, and a sort of “go for broke” quality my dancers have that tends to be very exciting. I hope that was inspiring. 

How did you decide which pieces to perform there? 

They actually requested the ballets, Nicolo Fonte’s Presto and the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Rubies. The Cubans were intrigued by our presentation of neoclassical and contemporary ballet. They’re more used to classical or modern work. I think that’s why the presenters of the festival wanted us to bring the pieces we did. With Presto, somebody who knew the presenters had seen us do a performance of this and really liked it.  They also knew we do the full Rubies and requested that we bring the pas de deux from that. It had never been performed in Cuba before! 

What was it like being the first to present such a seminal piece of American ballet in Cuba?

It was a tremendous honor for all of us. Christopher Ruud and Beckanne Sisk danced the piece. They both felt the responsibility very strongly. I can say this now since they both danced so beautifully: I was nervous beforehand to be representing Balanchine’s work like that!

What’s coming up for Ballet West? 

We’re diving into Nutcracker now, which we’ll be doing throughout December. Then we’re doing my production of The Sleeping Beauty, and at the same time Night of Shining Stars, co-produced with Youth America Grand Prix. We’re the first professional company to host YAGP. It was a huge success last year so we’re repeating that. Then we have a contemporary rep program. That includes work by Balanchine, Garrett Smith, and our company premiere of Kurt Jooss’ great The Green Table. Then I’m very excited that we’re starting our first ever National Choreographic Festival. We’ll be putting on two new works over two weekends, and we’re inviting four other companies to join us: Pacific Northwest Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Sarasota Ballet. The focus is on new choreography for the ballet stage. Ballet West will be doing two premieres, one work by our former resident choreographer, Val Caniparoli, and another by our current resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte. He’s playing with music and ideas for his new piece now.

What advice would you offer dancers who aspire to join your company?

If you’d like to join Ballet West you can certainly audition. We do auditions in New York and Salt Lake City. I‘ve really enjoyed being able to bring people up. I love bringing people through the training program who then graduate into the second company, which is a paid position, and move into the main company from there. Audition of course, but I love being able to see how dancers work and grow.