As far as I know, there are no Vidauds in the Cool Gray City of Love, but there soon will be at least one. My dear cousin, Jorge Olivares, is leaving Maine in the not-so-distant future and settling in San Francisco to be with his husband, who is a professor here. What a wonderful world we live in. Viewed from the same-sex love angle, there has been unimaginable progress. In most American states, men can marry men, and women women, and that, dear readers, started right here in San Francisco when Gavin Newsom, the courageous and handsome mayor, one fine day decided to allow citizens to wed the men and women they loved even if the couple were two men or two women. Marriage, of course, is hardly a perfect institution, and, as many have argued, it is in many ways a bad way to organize the world. Moreover, much remains to be done in this country and around the world to fight discrimination. But all things considered, this is a step forward. We’re not in Cuba anymore — at least not in the Cuba where Pedro Vidaud grew up, or in the Cuba that persecuted men like Reinaldo Arenas, on whom Jorge has written a flawless book — and that, it must be said, is a very good thing for many of us. Another brilliant thing is San Francisco itself — its lively streets and squares, Victorian houses, impossibly steep hills, colorful cable cars, deep gray fog, brilliant blue skies. And its botany, rich enough to please anyone looking for family tree metaphors, or for those of us who like taking pictures of ferns by classically minded buildings, as I did this morning at the California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park.
Jim and I are fortunate enough to travel to San Francisco once or twice a year. They are usually very quick trips, with hardly any time to see much, including our friends and acquaintances in they, or at Berkeley and Stanford. We used to come mostly for the opera, but most recently it’s been for the ballet and — at least in my case — the Cuban dancers, in whom I see and emblem. Our recent affection for ballet has a Cuban connection. It all started a few years ago, when I wanted to see Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake at Covent Garden. Our man in London dazzled the audience with his vigor and precision. But we were not hooked just yet. It took a trip or two here. Los Angeles is all about film, and opera is not terrible, and the L.A. Phil is arguably the best orchestra in America, but in California, the place for ballet is right here at the War Memorial Opera House in the winter and early spring months. For Jim, a dancer is a dancer is a dancer, but, for me, the San Francisco Ballet is my own private Cuba by the bay. Of the nineteen principal dancers in the company, four hail from Havana: Joan Boada, Taras Domitro, Lorena Feijoo, and Carlos Quenedit. No other nationality, including the United States, is as well represented as tiny Cuba. When I see my Cubans dance — last night it was Quenedit in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Feijoo in Hummingbird, with music by Philip Glass — I am virtually transported to that island, so distant and, at least for me, abstract. These, beloved readers, are the transports of art. In “Noche insular, jardines invisibles,” José Lezama Lima celebrates the pleasures of being born in a splendid place such as Cuba: “La mar violeta añora el nacimiento de los dioses, / ya que nacer es aquí una fiesta innombrable, / un redoble de cortejos y tritones reinando.” Lezama’s verses are gorgeous, but I’m glad it’s all about birth and not the actually living there. Call me prejudiced, but in my mind Cuba, despite its purple sea and majestic tritons, is a better place to be from than to be in, and Lezama’s invisible gardens are all I need. I’d rather have Cuba in these intelligent and lofty dancers at the San Francisco Ballet. In them, Cuba lives charmingly, discreetly, quietly and, better yet, even absently. No Fidel, no Batista, no Platt Amendment, no José Martí — just these bodies that move with utmost elegance, embodying freedom, most obviously the freedom of not living in one’s own oppressive little republic.
It all began, of course, with Alicia Alonso, founder and prima ballerina assoluta (as in “absolute ruler”) of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It must have been in the late 1970s when she traveled with her company to San Juan, where we lived in Exile and the Blogger was a rather unhappy teenager in a Catholic high school. His parents were by then divorced. There was no question his mother would come, as she was otherwise occupied, but his father was available, except that he was unwilling to see Alicia Alonso dance. She, a traitor to her own class and upbringing, stood for the revolution he despised; she had helped destroy his world and forced him onboard a one-way flight out of Cuba with no return. But the father of this future Blogger was also a fair and gentle man who loved the arts and his children, so he agreed to drive his son to the Teatro de la Universidad. There, the son saw Alicia Alonso dance, but he has no distinct memories of what took place onstage. But he remembers quite vividly how, coming to pick him up after the performance, his father decided that they would both wait to see Alicia Alonso exit the theater. They waited and waited on that hot and humid night until the swan finally came out, half smiling, descending a staircase with the help of others.
Many years later, in the mid- or late 1990s, Alicia Alonso came to Southern California with the Ballet Nacional. My brother, who also lives in L.A., and I drove down to Costa Mesa to see them — or actually, at least in my case, to see her. She could no longer dance, of course, and she, a frail and pale body, now appeared to be completely blind. Proudly smiling, once again assisted by others, she walked down the aisle to her seat just before the performance was about to start. Seeing her not seeing me, I must have felt the presence of Cuba, an absence, really, and therefore a good thing. How lucky to be not there but in Orange County, just a few blocks from the foggy freeway that would take us through the night back home to cool Los Angeles.