NEW YORK Don't just think baseball stars when you think of Cuban exports. The ballet dancers coming out of Havana are just as good.
Their talent was on full display over the weekend as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba completed a five-day run at New York's City Center, highlighted by the full-length "Don Quixote," a warhorse of classical ballet.
(The City Center run followed appearances in Florida, during which two dancers defected, a lawyer for the dancers said Tuesday.)
This is an exuberant production that allows dancers to show off, and the Cuban dancers had plenty to show especially a razor-sharp technique. There was barely a second of sloppiness in the ballet's three acts, and the final pas de deux was as good as those usually seen on the bigger stages of the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theater.
But there was something more than just good technique that made these dancers stand out. They really did seem like they were having a lot of fun all of them. From a group of matadors in bright yellow, furiously swirling their red capes, to a gathering of twirling, leaping gypsies, it was that mix of spirit and quality that made the company so appealing.
In Saturday night's performance, the stars were Laura Hormigon as Kitri, the innkeeper's daughter, and Oscar Torrado as Basil, the handsome barber she loves.
As is so often the case in such plots, the blissful romance is threatened. Basil is dirt poor, and Kitri's father has arranged a marriage with a rich and pompous French nobleman. (Of course, we know from the beginning that this marriage will never take place, but that's not much of a hindrance. The plot is always secondary.)
After a first act of buoyant and spirited flamenco-inspired dancing, featuring Hormigon's up-to-there extension, the second act opened with a lively gypsy scene (Kitri and Basil have fled to a gypsy camp to avoid the arranged marriage). Here, the corps de ballet had a chance to showcase its most athletic leaps and turns, with Adriana Almeida especially impressive.
Things then took an abrupt turn for the traditionally classical, as Don Quixote hallucinated about his love, Dulcinea, who appeared to him in a dream along with the Dryads and their queen. This interlude in classic 19th-century Russian-style tutus seemed a bit jarring, but it provided a chance for excellent classical dancing.
Everything got tied up very quickly in Act 3. If you sneezed, you would have missed the plot device in which Kitri and Basil thwart Kitri's forced marriage (it involves a faked suicide attempt, humorously executed by Torrado, especially his fumbling efforts to touch her breast as he is supposedly dying).
And then it was time for the lovers, now married, to celebrate with their grand pas de deux, justifiably loved by ballet fans for its competing virtuoso solos, which Hormigon and Torrado pulled off with panache especially Hormigon's multiple balances on one leg, which would have given a lesser dancer a tough time.
The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is directed by Alicia Alonso, now 82, one of Cuba's most famous dancers and a former star with American Ballet Theatre. Under her influence, a number of Cuban dancers have emerged as stars in the United States, such as ABT's Jose Manuel Carreno whose half brother, Joel, is in the Cuban company and starred in "Don Quixote" on Wednesday night, along with Viengsay Valdez.
Alonso has also attracted dancers from other countries to come to Cuba: Hormigon and Torrado are Spanish, but based in Havana.