When I went to Cuba for the second time in 2011, I bought this book called "Desde la Platea", and I actually never opened it until a few months ago.
The book is a collection of journalists' reviews and critiques from when Alicia Alonso and all the Cuban danced with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, progressing with a very rich and successful dance culture for Cuba.
There were several ballets mentioned in the articles, one of them was Tarde en la Siesta which is actually very famous in Venezuela. When I knew that Arts Ballet Theatre of Florida was going to dance it this past October, I got thrilled.
I actually did not remember the name of the choreographer of Tarde en La Siesta until I got to see that he was coming to coach the company at the beginning of the season. When I saw "Alberto Mendez", my mind clicked.
Was this name mentioned several times in the book I bought in Cuba?
Yes, it was!
From there I began my research Maestro Alberto Mendez's biography. What an amazing and important figure for the Cubans and Ballet History! I got to schedule a very quick interview with him before he left:
CS: Maestro, how were your beginnings in ballet?
AM: "I come from a middle-class family in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, where I completed my high school degree and then moved to La Habana to major in architecture. When I was there in college, some kind of auditions appeared, and they were from a contemporary dance company (I was 20 years old by then). I completely left my architecture career behind I got into this company! After a short period of time, I had the best luck that with a minimal experience, I was eventually accepted in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
"On my first days with the company I did not even step in La Habana, we went on a tour (which was the biggest and longest tour the company and ever had). It lasted seven months! During that time, I met a lot of countries like China, Mongolia, Russia, Hungary, Romania… This is where I really learned how to dance. I had to take many private classes on my free time from my schedule on the company to improve faster... This is how everything started.
CS: Do you have a favorite ballet? Which one did you enjoy dancing the most?
AM: "Not really. In Ballet Nacional de Cuba I went from being a corp de ballet member, passing through all the ranks until I got to be a principal dancer, so I danced a bit of everything and all the principal roles in Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia, Fille Mal Gardeé and much more. For me, it was very difficult because I started late even though I had all the physical conditions and strength. But actually, what I enjoyed the most was when I began to dance the character roles like Dr. Coppelius, Rothbart, Carabosse, Hilarion and Mama Simone. Those were the ballets and roles that I enjoyed the most." and I was more successful in."
CS: How were your beginnings into choreography?
AM: "I have always liked art: painting, manual works, drawing, dancing… When I got into the dance world, I became very interested in creating. When I first had the opportunity to choreograph, there was a competition in Varna, Bulgaria, and I encouraged myself to try creating a piece. I first presented it on a small audition (to see what was going to go to Varna), where they (dancers) did what I created so far. Everyone told me to finish it. When we got to Bulgaria, I got awarded for best choreography! It is called Plasmasis, a modern, eight-minute pas de deux."
CS: How is that process when you are creating a new choreography?
AM: "There is not an exact method, but every choreographer has a different process of getting ideas. For example, when I first started to create Tarde en la Siesta, the first thing I did was listen to a random piano music, and then I imagined something. That music inspired me. Of course, my first idea does not compare to the result. In various occasions, you don’t have the idea but you are actually assigned to create a piece with specific music or specific dancers. That happened with my second choreography, where I worked with Alicia Alonso in Dame of the Camellias."
CS: How has been your experience not only dancing but working with very big stars of the ballet world like Alicia Alonso or Carla Fracci?
AM: "At the beginning is always difficult, but you get used to it. Apart from being a choreographer, you become a psychologist, because when they are big personalities the work is harder. I had the opportunity to work with not only female but famous male dancers. Although, I can admit I have a very calm and pacific person, so I never have confrontations with them. At the end, you always learn from the dancers as they learn from you; and when they are stars like that, you have to try to absorb everything you can."
CS: Last question, what do you like the most on a dancer? How can you choose them when making new pieces?
AM: "Actually I have so many years working in this field and with so many different dancers that the majority of times you cannot decide for just one to make an specific choreography. I always try to adapt to the dancers and their physical capabilities, because you cannot always have the ideal dancer for your ideal choreography. My experience always helped me in these situations."