American Ballet Theatre. Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg. Hamburg Ballet. Miami City Ballet. The Royal Ballet.

These are some of the stellar ballet companies that have visited Chicago in recent years, and the procession continues May 18-20 at the Auditorium Theatre when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (National Ballet of Cuba) returns for the first time in 15 years.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba — ‘Don Quixote’
When: 7:30 p.m. May 18 and 19; 3 p.m. May 20
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $41-$135
Info: auditoriumtheatre.org

The internationally renowned company, which is marking its 70th anniversary, will visit Chicago a little more than a week before it takes part in “Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World,” a Cuban cultural festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, when Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, the Auditorium Theatre’s chief executive officer, learned of the National Ballet’s Kennedy Center appearance, she worked to extend its American stay and bring the ensemble back to Chicago. “It was just an opportunity I felt I couldn’t pass up,” she said, “because I didn’t know when that was going to happen again.”

Viengsay Valdes and Patricio Reve in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s “Don Quixote.” | Nancy Reyes

As a Cuban native who moved to the United States when she was 6, Moskalenko acknowledges a personal interest in the company, but she believes more broadly that cultural dialogue between the two nearby countries is important.

Tania Castroverde Moskalenko. | Sun-Times

“It’s really exciting to see the art – music, dance and the visual arts – coming out of Cuba and to have that kind of exchange,” she said.

The National Ballet was co-founded by Alicia Alonso and originally named for the celebrated Cuban ballerina who is now 97 and continues to serve as general director. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the company took its current name and has received regular support of the government since.

According to Moskalenko, Alonso and the ballet troupe are highly familiar to both dance connoisseurs and everyday people in Cuba. “Everyone knows the company and dancers in the company much like here we would know sports stars,” she said. “It’s a different perspective in terms of the appreciation of the arts.”

Although the dancers are rigorously trained in classical ballet and perform classics like “Giselle,” the National Ballet has a distinctively Cuban flavor. “Our dancers,” Alonso said via e-mail, “have a very particular and distinctive way – it has been said a certain sensuality – in interpreting the music and expressing the movement.”

And, indeed, Moskalenko contemplated presenting the company’s version of “Giselle,” but decided against it because the Joffrey Ballet just performed the work in the fall. Instead, she opted for “Don Quixote,” Alonso’s 1988 adaption of the celebrated 17th-century Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Alicia Alonso | Josep Guindo

Like most traditional versions of “Don Quixote” that draw on Marius Petipa’s celebrated setting for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1869, Alonso kept many recognizable aspects of his choreography while updating it in certain ways and adding some touches of her own.

“We have taken much care that the Spanish folkloric tunes present in the music belong to the dance style in which they are interpreted,” Alonso said. “We use an updated technical language related to the current development of the academic technique.”

The ballet focuses on the beautiful Kitri, who has fallen in love with the local barber, Basilio. She refuses to accede to a marriage her father has arranged for her with Camacho, a nobleman. Mistaking Kitri for his beloved Dulcinea, Don Quixote, an errant knight, and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, intervene and help the young lovers escape to a gypsy encampment amid a field of windmills.

Because of the story’s ties to Cuba’s centuries-old Hispanic history, she also strived to be more faithful to Cervantes’ original portrayal of Don Quixote. “We did not want to betray our cultural roots,” Alonso said. “The versions we knew were not generally very respectful to the Don Quixote character, because they mistook his idealism and romantic concepts of justice for caricature and an incorrect sense of humor.”

Providing added appeal to the Auditorium Theatre’s presentation, Moskalenko said, will be live performances of Leon Minkus’ well-known score by the Chicago Philharmonic, which also serves as the pit orchestra for the Joffrey Ballet.

“It’s a big step for the Auditorium Theatre to bring live music back to our big ballet presentations,” she said.

Among the 54 dancers traveling with the National Ballet to Chicago is Viengsay Valdés, who joined the company when she was 17 and was named a prima ballerina in 2001. She has been a guest performer with other top companies and has appeared at international ballet showcases in cities such as Budapest, Paris and Tokyo.

She is particularly acclaimed for the role of Kitri, one of the young lovers in “Don Quixote,” and she has danced it many times with the National Ballet and other major troupes such as the Washington (D.C.) Ballet.

“It’s one of my favorite roles,” Valdés said. “I do enjoy it.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.