September 30, 2002

Revisiting a timeless Cuban classic

By Jordan Levin. [email protected] Posted on Mon, Sep. 30, 2002 in The Miami Herald.

Cecilia Valdés was not a real person. But her story -- told in a novel, an operetta, a film and a ballet -- is so central to Cuban culture that she has become a symbol of Cuban identity and rebellion that transcends time, race and national borders.

When Rosario ''Charin'' Suarez was dancing with the National Ballet of Cuba, she loved the tragic, apocryphal tale of Valdés, a 19th century mulatta who challenged society for the love of a rich white Spaniard. Between 1975 and 1981 she danced several roles in the National Ballet's version of Cecilia Valdés, including the title role.

Marlene Urbay, director of the Florida Chamber Orchestra, is also familiar with Valdés' story. Her father, Jose Ramon Urbay, arranged and composed music for the National Ballet's original 1975 production of the work. His daughter succeeded him as musical director of the National Ballet before leaving Cuba in 1991, taking just one thing with her: her father's score.

''I took it with me from Cuba with the idea that one day I could do it here,'' she says. "I've been feeding this idea for 11 years.''

So when the University of Miami proposed that Urbay stage a version of the Valdés operetta, Urbay suggested teaming with Suarez to produce a ballet instead. This weekend the fruit of that partnership -- Cecilia Valdés, A Cuban Ballet, choreographed and danced by Suarez with Urbay conducting the Florida Chamber Orchestra playing her father's score -- premieres at Dade County Auditorium as part of the University of Miami's Festival Miami.

''Cecilia Valdés was important to all Cubans,'' says Suarez, sitting in the parking lot outside her tiny Little Havana ballet studio as her dancers arrive for rehearsal. "She was a symbol of liberty, of rebellion, a tremendously valiant woman. What I love about her life and her persona is that she believed she had the right to the beauty and love and life she wanted, that everybody had that right, no matter who they were.''

Cecilia Valdés was written by Cirilo Villaverde, a 19th century lawyer and writer whose involvement in the first movement for Cuban independence from Spain led to his exile in New York, where the complete Cecilia Valdés o La Loma del Angel (Cecilia Valdés or The Hill of the Angel) was first published in 1882. Set in the 1830s, Villaverde's novel tells of the love between Cecilia Valdés, a Cuban girl of mixed race, and Leonardo, son of Cándido de Gamboa, a rich white Spanish slave-trader who is, unbeknown to Cecilia, her father.

When Gamboa learns of his son's affair, he arranges the boy's engagement to a white girl of his own class. Cecilia persuades a friend to stop the wedding, with tragic results.

The story is the basis of Cuba's most popular zarzuela, or operetta, composed by Gonzalo Roig in 1932 (the basis for Urbay's score), and a 1982 film by Humberto Solas. Minus the incest component, it has been the basic plot -- poor girl falls in love with the scion of an upper-class family -- for most Spanish-language radio and later TV novelas.

The interracial love story was shocking at the time, but it was also the first realistic portrayal of a racially mixed society and the first to define the notion of a separate Cuban identity, which was a mix of Spanish and African.

''Cecilia Valdés is one of those key works from which the country's identity is constructed,'' says Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban novelist and historian who lives in Spain. "It has become something fundamental to our culture. It's very interesting that these artists who were formed in Cuba are continuing to do this piece in exile. To me this means that it transcends politics.''

Inside the studio Suarez, who left Cuba in 1994, is trying to get her dancers to transcend the small, bare studio and imagine themselves in a 19th century Cuban ballroom.

''You have to think about what's happening -- but you have to feel it,'' she says. Urbay follows intently, flipping the pages of her father's score, while Noel, a prominent local painter who was also a dancer in Cuba, waits to consult with Suarez on the costumes and sets he's designing.

Most of the dancers are Cuban-trained, including Adriana and Alina Viera, 19-year old twins who arrived in Miami several months ago. Several of the leading dancers are former members of the National Ballet.

Mayte Dix has the part of Dolores Santa Cruz, a sort of seer figure. Suarez has put Dix on one pointe shoe, and her crooked gait refers to Obatala, the Santeria deity who looks over the ill and crippled. It is one of various ways Suarez has tried to show Cecilia Valdés' theme of mixed cultures in movement. Since the mostly light-skinned corps de ballet dances both white and mixed-race parts, the cultural differences have to be shown in movement and costume.

''We tried to approximate the attitude and style of each social class,'' she says. The Spaniards dance a formal minuet while a street party of mixed-race Cubans dance a contradanza, the distant ancestor to the danzón and the son. A scene showing slaves in the fields features rhythmic, earthbound movements of hips and torso. In a prologue, Gamboa's wife walks down the center of a bow-shaped huddle of slaves covered in a red fabric, as if she were walking on their blood-stained backs.

''Cecilia Valdés comes from the era when the idea of a native Cuban nationality was emerging,'' Suarez says. "One that was a mix of everyone born there.''

Jordan Levin is The Herald's dance critic.


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