US ballet troupe returns to Cuba after 50 years

But last night, thousands of Cubans spilled out of the Karl Marx theatre, voicing their enthusiasm after the company's first performance in the Cuban capital for 50 years.

Joanna Diaz, a 20-year-old journalism student, said: "It was fabulous. The Americans performed as brilliantly as the Cuban people had hoped. Fantastic."

The return of the New York based company to the island is the latest attempt at cultural diplomacy between the old cold war enemies.

Argentinian-born Paloma Herrera, one of the ABT's lead dancers, said: "I don't know much about politics, but I just think this trip should be an example that there shouldn't be any barriers. We should try to be as open as possible and try to communicate."

The Americans gave a technically brilliant performance, including an athletic rendition of the Corsaire pas de deux, which saw Herrera, in a delicate purple tutu, dancing with the Cuban-born José Manuel Carreño, who drew loud cheers from the audience every time he took the stage.

Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of the ABT, said: "Travel is not easy between America and Cuba, but we got our licences relatively quickly so there was clearly a willingness to make it happen on our government's part."

Individual ABT dancers have performed in Cuba before, but it is only the second time the entire company has been allowed to since the revolution.

McKenzie added: "In years past, it was folly to try."

Cultural exchanges have become much easier under the Barack Obama administration. Earlier this year, the legendary US jazz musician Wynton Marsalis brought his orchestra to Cuba, while the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés was in New York last week.

But official relations have warmed only slightly. Although Washington lifted restrictions on remittances and travel for Cuban Americans, US citizens still cannot visit the Caribbean island and the trade blockade is still in place.

It remains to be seen whether the cultural thaw will be followed by concrete policy decisions.

The two performances by the ABT were the highlight of Havana's 22nd international ballet festival, and tickets for both nights in the 5,500-seat theatre were sold out.

While tourists paid 25 convertible pesos (£17), Cubans were charged just 20 Cuban pesos (60p), making the performances widely accessible to the local population.

The US troupe came to Cuba at the invitation of 89-year-old Alicia Alonso, who danced with the ABT in the 1940s and 50s before returning to her homeland to found Cuba's National Ballet.

Dancer Xiomara Reyes, who has not returned to the island since she left 18 years ago, said: "This is a very emotional rollercoaster for me. I feel completely overwhelmed."

But the standing ovation was saved for Alonso, who was led on stage by McKenzie for the final curtain.

The Americans put on a varied show, contrasting highly technical, classical ballet with a modern piece of work and finishing with a comic, theatrical number that was first performed in 1944.

Link to original article on The Guardian website