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
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
''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
Jordan Levin is The Herald's dance critic.