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Dance: Cuba Is A Dancing Island

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES July/ August 2012

Danza Contemporanea
Danza Contemporanea
photo credit: Manuel de la Nuez.

Yearning for years to visit Cuba, a country whose rhythmic music has always made me want to move and whose ballet dancers have consistently overwhelmed the world with their vitality, technique, femininity and masculinity, I finally went in March on a trip arranged by the Joyce Theater. What follows is a desire to share the artistry of this remarkable island, based partly on a diary, often filled with dance, thanks to the efforts of the Joyce, plus the fact that people are in a constant state of movement to music on every inch of this nation, and reflections on what was seen and heard in the context of the country’s history.

Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands, 777 miles long and up to 50 miles wide, with beaches, fertile valleys and mountains. Its history begins in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, who found indigenous Indian tribes living there. His son “settled” the island for Spain in 1511, enslaving or killing most of the Indians. Rapid settlement followed and slaves were imported starting in 1513 to fill the need for a labor force. The northwestern city of Havana is 9o miles from Florida and with its sheltered harbor, became a center for Caribbean and world trade.

When the silver and gold from Central and South America became scarce Spain forced the Cubans to cultivate tobacco, which was bought cheaply and then sold abroad. In subsequent years the British wrested control of Havana for one year (1762-63) but gave it back to Spain in exchange for land in Florida. Spain then rebuilt Havana as a new world showpiece and about 1780 began developing sugar plantations, which encouraged the illegal slave trade. The Spanish empire began to collapse, but they held onto Cuba and Puerto Rico. Then the United States, through the Monroe Doctrine, became interested and, by becoming a major trading partner and investing heavily, increased the island’s dependence on America.

Heavy taxes from Spain resulted in a War of Revolt from 1868-78 that ended with the acceptance of the Spanish peace terms, but also began the real fight for Cuban independence. In 1895 there was a new war against Spain, led by Jose Marti who organized exiles in the United States, which backed the rebels, due to the fact that it was sustaining the Cuban economy. Cuba was finally free, but Spain signed the treaty with the United States, not Cuba, and the new constitution (1902) was favorable to American business interests with the Platt Amendment giving the right to interfere in Cuban affairs. This meant that American troops were in and out, the rich made Havana a beautiful place for tourists and the poor had terrible housing, little sanitation and less education.

A revolt in 1933 installed a temporary government that began making reforms. It was overturned in a coup led by Fulgencio Batista, who was backed by the American government. There were other presidents selected, all surrounded by much corruption, with Batista carefully watching from Florida. He seized power again in 1952 in a bloodless coup that was long aligned with American mafia.

After over 450 years of different greedy rulers and American domination, Cuba was ready for still another revolution and this is where Fidel Castro came in. His first revolt in 1953 failed as did the second in 1956, which sent his guerilla forces into the mountain, but in December, 1958, Batista retreated. In early 1959 Castro’s government reinstated the constitution and was granted recognition by the United States. But the 50 odd years since have been rocky.

Castro nationalized industries and services, including American owned properties. As America became more hostile, suspending its sugar quota, Cuba turned more and more to the Soviet Union, Castro felt impelled to fulfill his promises of equality for all Cubans, many of the wealthy left for Florida, life became difficult after it got better, the government often jailed or killed those opposed to it and there was a failed American invasion, the Bay of Pigs, in 1961. Castro, depending more and more upon the Soviet Union, became what has been termed “an accidental communist.” This was followed by more embargos and by 1979, when many citizens wished to leave, Castro allowed free emigration.  

Since then American regulations under different presidents have tightened and softened, the Soviet bloc fell, sending Cuba into acute austerity, the ailing Fidel’s brother, Raoul, has taken over, tourism is growing and capitalism is slowly reappearing.

That’s the political history and here’s the parallel artistic one. Spain and Africa are the two main influences on the arts in Cuba, each so different and so varied in themselves. But what emerged on this island is a unique blending that, in turn, has influenced much of the Caribbean, South America and the world, fusing dance and music.

Fernando Saez, Director of the Performing Arts Program of the Fundacion Ludwig de Cuba, gave a lecture on the history of dance in Cuba and began by saying, “Cuba is a dancing island.” He pointed out that the slaves had only their memories stored in their bodies. They spoke different languages, but music was their common language. They also brought their African religions, where dance was essential.

Saez identified three tracks in Cuban dance: Religious, referring to Santeria, in which the orishas (gods) reveal themselves through dance and trance, and remained even after Castro banned all religion: Social, an organic and spontaneous form that an still be seen and felt in every bar and street in every neighborhood; Artistic, an event that requires an audience and dates from the 19th century, when performances from Spain and the rest of Europe came to Cuba.

Ebony Dance Company
Ebony Dance Company
(photo credit: Manuel de la Nuez)

It has been said that there is no Cuba without rumba, originally part of fiestas that developed in the early 19th century in the poor neighborhoods near the sugar mills. Drums, the clave, marimbola, maracas and the voice support the undulating movements that are propelled outward from the hips. There is a basic foot pattern, with endless variations. Sometimes it is playful, other times a competition or a mating dance – all with African antecedents.

In the 20th century the culture of Africa mixed with the country dances of Spain, to which was added a syncopation called cinqville, resulting in the son, often called danzon, a form of song, music and dance. It became a unique Cuban jazz form as well. From this emerged the mambo, cha,cha,cha and what is now called salsa. The Buena Vista Social Club exemplified son, but rumba, salsa and Cuban music, from which dance is indistinguishable, have affected and changed dance everywhere.

Even non-dance fans recognize the name of Alicia Alonso, the striking Cuban ballerina known for her impeccable technique, her absolute possession of Romantic roles, particularly Giselle, and her contribution to Cuban and world dance. Alicia Martinez Alonso was born in Havana in 1921 and received her early ballet training there at the Sociedad Pro Arte Musical from Nikolai Yavorsky, a Russian émigré. She met and married Fernando Alonso, a fellow dancer and in 1937 they came to New York where they studied with different teachers and completed their dance education. After performing with other companies they both ended up as soloists with Ballet Theatre [later American Ballet Theatre]. Here she danced many famous roles, achieving world-wide fame through her partnership with Igor Youskevitch.

In 1948 she and Fernando returned to Cuba, where, aided by his brother Alberto, a choreographer, they formed Ballet Alicia Alonso, with Fernando as the general director. They also opened the Alicia Alonso Academy to train the dancers for their company. The company became the Ballet de Cuba in 1955, but due to some resistance to the Batista government their funding was withdrawn and they left. After Castro took over the Alonsos returned, creating the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the National Ballet School, both with full government support. Alberto was chief choreographer, Alicia set many of the traditional works in the classical ballet repertoire, as well as performing and teaching, and Fernando took over the school.

Alicia once described their dance training as an open school that absorbed elements from all the ballet techniques to which they had been exposed adapted to the Cuban persona and ways of self expression. She was always conscious of preserving the Cuban identity; Cuban ballet dancers, capable of both strength and lightness, are fast, have high extensions and soaring jumps and they use their technique as a means of expressing character.

Fernando, as the teacher, once described the Cuban way of moving as a mixture of male and female elements of sexuality and charm. He felt that Spain gave a virile sense, a hint of toreador-like aggression, and Africa the readiness to display feelings with repetitive rhythms. Laura Alonso, their daughter, (they are long divorced), has a small school in Havana, Centro Pro Danza, and a small company. Although they offer ballet, modern, Afro-Cuban and Spanish dance, one of their aims is to promote the Cuban methodology in ballet technique.

Modern dance in Cuba emerged in 1959 with the revolution. A group of avant-garde artists, who had been more or less underground, felt they could be more critical in rejecting or at least finding an alternative to ballet. By 1962 more non-ballet academies had opened.

The trajectory of modern dance in Cuba is closely connected to the United States and its various techniques. Ramiro Guerra returned to Cuba in 1959 after having studied with Martha Graham. He organized the first modern dance company, whose members had a mixed background, and invited Americans trained in the Limon, Cunningham and Sokolow approaches to come and teach. According to Saez, by 1965 Guerra realized that dancers were unconsciously bringing in undulating hips and other African movements, blending American modern dance elements with those of Cuba.

History helps one understand the aura of these warm, emotional yet pragmatic people, prone to colorful exaggeration and costuming, for whom music and dance are an integral part of an often difficult life, that is nevertheless filled with the passion and gaiety of physical movement. The Joyce trip allowed us to sample a certain amount of dance in the Havana of 2012.

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is the oldest modern dance company on the island; last year they performed at the Joyce. We observed a modern class for the young company (the main one was touring Europe), which is given one modern and one ballet class a day. They were a lithe, young, strong, supple and well disciplined group, moving to the live trio that played for them in a studio in the National Theater of Cuba.

They began with a standing warmup of plies, head and torso rolls. They then proceeded to the floor, where they awakened every joint, did some slightly modified Graham exercises, others that made use of opposition in arms and legs, circling hands and wrists, lots of swings and an unbelievable use of the head and spine that rippled and moved the body over the floor in strong shifts of weight. They ended this part of class with a yoga headstand. Once standing they went through various ballet leg movements and jumps before moving across the floor in increasingly larger jumps. They ended with propulsive African hip movements combined with rotating shoulders and finished with male/female couples circling in what looked like an African courtship dance.

This combination of the different strands that identify the Cuban culture is  integral to the work of Ballet Lizt Alfonso, founded 20 years ago as a fusion company by Ms. Alfonso, who was a member of the National Ballet. With its own school that teaches what they term “fusion” as well as flamenco, ballet, Afro-Cuban and choreography, they have a professional company that has danced numerous times in the United States, including the Works and Process series at the Guggenheim Museum and Fall for Dance at City Center.

The company rehearsal we attended in a large airy studio in the old part of Havana was in preparation for a forthcoming musical show and included 19 women, 2 men and 8 musicians playing original music. The show was based on a story line of three present day singers looking back on their lives and included a barroom scene, women in long flowing skirts and an interesting  duet using fluid circular movements. Ms. Alfonso explained that, depending upon the needs of the choreography, they might emphasize one particular technique in rehearsal; this one suggested flamenco. The result was a well performed, tightly knit musical aimed at pleasing a diverse, ticket buying audience.

We saw two performances in theaters, one by Ballet Espagnol de Cuba and one by Danz Abierta. Ballet Espagnol de Cuba, originally founded by Alicia Alonso, is dedicated to the styles of flamenco and  the Spanish escuela bolero (Andalucian dances mixed with ballet). The work El Fantasma is based on the original novel Phantom of the Opera. Its two acts, accompanied by excellent live music, was performed in an expanded flamenco style, with additions to make it more specifically narrative. Playing to a full house of locals and tourists, with some crisp corps dancing, it was in line with the current tendency of many flamenco troupes to add to the traditional technique.

Lizt Alfonso Dance Company
Lizt Alfonso Dance Company
(photo credit: Manuel de la Nuez)

DanzAbierta, which presented a piece called Showroom, was founded in 1988 by Marianela Boan, a former member of Danza Contemporanea. It is well known in Europe and is the closest the Cuban dance scene gets to post modernism, using everyday gestures and traditional Cuban movements to make social and political statements. With no preparation for this theater and time for only a quick glance at the well designed three-dimensional program, it was only in retrospect that I realized the almost rebellious nature of the ideas behind this performance, that was clothed in the colorful characterizations that attract a diversified Cuban audience.

The stage was divided in two by a curtain, defined in the program as a kind of mask, dividing the actions on one side from those on the other. This, of course, could also refer to the life of the individual Cuban, who must put aside inner frustrations, dreams, anxieties and complications in order to cope with the “runway” of everyday life. The showroom side of the divider transformed the dancers into elaborately costumed showgirls with tall feather headwear or sexy athletic men, all in a kind of cabaret. Once on the other side they collapsed into a detritus of sadness, pain, fatigue and obvious misunderstandings. The program note talks about the daily runway where our lives take place and the desire/will to continue forward triumphantly to conquer the best of all possible things. This well danced piece was the most tightly constructed and idea filled that we saw on our brief visit. The choreographer is Susana Pous, a Spaniard who now lives in Cuba.

The youngest troupe welcoming us was the Ebony Dance Company, just a little over a year old and led by the Delgados, a father and son. Osnel, the son, was a leading dancer with Danza Contemporanea. He left to work under the directorship of his father and to have the opportunity to develop as a choreographer. They are autonomous pioneers, who exist without government support and were rehearsing to produce a show that would, hopefully, bring in a ticket buying audience and backers.

We observed the elder Delgado teach a company class, which was very much like the one seen previously on Danza Contemporanea. There followed a solo by a beautiful young woman to the song “Cuba Linda,” concerning nostalgia for things past and present. Then came a moving duet, danced by the two Delgados, about the shared memories (possibly their own) of two adults to music by a contemporary Swedish ensemble. Last was a group work that made use of traditional Cuban dances. Osnel choreographed all three pieces and in speaking afterward he voiced his desire to add something new to Cuban culture and to develop choreographers from within the country.

At present there are over 50 dance companies in Cuba, a few devoted to Afro-Cuban folklore and culture. There is a network of regional dance schools and dance is very much a part of the general education system. It has been a positive symbol of Cuba and can act as a sort of ambassador to the rest of the world. With the emergence of modern companies ballet is losing its position as the dominant performance technique. But the major problem in the growing contemporary dance scene, as well as in ballet, is the gap between technique and choreography – specifically the lack of choreographers, also a world-wide phenomena.

Fine artists in Cuba – painters, printmakers, sculptors –have been the one group in the last 50 years that has been allowed to leave the island, sell their works, mostly in Europe, and return more knowledgeable and richer. They are the most successful and sometimes innovative in part because they operate as individuals, but also because making a piece of art and choreographing a dance are two entirely different creative endeavors.

It is difficult to keep politics and economics out of the discussion of the arts in Cuba. Under Castro the literacy rate has soared, there is free medical care, everyone is guaranteed a home and the arts are supported. At the same time, students are dropping out of school because there are no jobs for them and those that do exist pay miserably, there are no medicines or medical equipment due to a lack of money, there is a chronic shortage of food, what were once beautiful homes in Havana and elsewhere are crumbling and many who were not killed are still in jail. 

A bit more rebellion is being allowed in the graphic arts. But dance is a medium in which this is more difficult to express without developing into dramatic propaganda. It is not necessarily subject matter that is lacking in Cuban choreography. It is the means to harness that particular Cuban voice – the one that exuberantly exaggerates, that refuses to really conform, that never loses the rhythms of sexuality and humor that maintains a survivor’s instinct. This will take time. When it happens, what movement creations will burst forth!